If you ever find yourself at Skidmore Fountain on a Wednesday afternoon, keep an eye out for Laura Moulton: She's the lady with the trike full of books.
Portland's self-appointed "Street Librarian" recently received a Regional Arts and Culture Council grant to fund a project called Street Books, a mobile library that provides books for the homeless. The bike-powered library has a small trailer full of 40-odd books—a diverse collection skewing slightly toward regional authors (Jim Lynch, Benjamin Parzybok, Kevin Sampsell). Moulton sets up twice a week, at the Skidmore Fountain on Wednesdays and in the Park Blocks on Saturdays; patrons receive a library card printed with hours and location. The project also includes an online documentary component (streetbooks.org), where any patron who wants to can have their photo and book selection spotlighted—the site features upward of 35 so far.
While we spoke, Moulton shuffled through a stack of neatly labeled index cards, filing a book that had just been returned—yes, in the finest library tradition, she uses a card catalog.
MERCURY: Can you explain the impetus for this project?
LAURA MOULTON: Street Books is partly about messing with time: Books have always contained the power to transport a person from their reality. But Street Books [also] aims to take a space and time in which a person previously had no particular place to go, nowhere to be, and offers new parameters in the form of a kind of assignment (i.e., be at Skidmore Fountain between 10 am and 1 pm if you want to get a new book). I hope that the project will also create new conversations about books.
Generally, how has the response been?
Early on I had the occasional naysayer who would say, "Well, you're not going to see any of those books again." But I have always operated on the assumption that I wouldn't see them again, that people living outside might have bigger things to worry about than returning their books to the street library, which is why it's so exciting that I've already had about five or six returned, with patrons seeking me out on my shift and checking out a new book.
What do you offer that the library doesn't?
Multnomah County Library is a really kick-ass library system, and a great resource. They have volunteers who deliver books to social service centers, where some homeless or formerly homeless might be. They also provide space for people to sit and read, or use computers. But to get a library card, and be able to check out books and carry them off, people have to show proof of an address, and that's something my patrons don't have. So I give them an official Street Books library card, with my hours of operation and contact information. We agree to look for each other the following week, or weeks, during my shift, and that's how it works.
Why does the project have a documentary component?
The documentary component is intended to help me track the people I've served and the books that have come and gone, but of course it's more than that. Each portrait of the patron with their book of choice is a compelling look at a person who is living outside this summer in Portland, Oregon, 2011. That's what I want to document. They have first names like Mark and Danny and Pamela, and they like to read philosophy, or detective novels, or feel-good stories. They each have their histories, and it shows on their faces. They go to sleep and wake up just like all the rest of us, but they do it outside.