Founded by in 2019, The Nature Library is a roving reference library and reading space connecting people to land, sky, and sea. Popping up in a range of locations around Scotland, from galleries to community centers to ferry terminals, each iteration responds directly to its site, the host venue’s concurrent programming, and the area’s unique ecosystems. The emphasis on public spaces—often unexpected—invite visitors of all ages and interests to browse pamphlets, artist books, periodicals, and interactive installations to experience a connection to place through literature and art. Dovetail explores more about this interdisciplinary project in the interview below with founder and artist Christina Riley.
The next Nature Library event is scheduled to coincide with the Argyll Hope Spot exhibition from April 18 to May 6, at Rockfield Center, part of the Earth Month program in Oban on Scotland’s west coast. Throughout 2023, the library will also pop up in Dumfries & Galloway and Ayrshire. Learn more about The Nature Library on its website, and follow updates about current and upcoming locations on Instagram or by subscribing to the newsletter.
Dovetail: Is there a particular focus for the exhibition opening April 18 in Oban?
Christina Riley: There is! The collection in Oban has an underwater focus and is part of the Rockfield Centre’s Argyll Hope Spot exhibition. Hope Spots are a global initiative led by Sylvia Earle’s Mission Blue, designating ecologically unique marine areas, and Argyll is home to the first one in Scotland (others include the Great Barrier Reef and Galápagos Islands!). When I’m not being a librarian (not a qualified one, full disclosure), I’m a visual artist and writer, and was fortunate to be a snorkelling artist-in-residence at the Argyll Hope Spot last summer. This exhibition is a chance for all the artists to respond to that experience, and The Nature Library forms part of that response with a collection of wholly underwater texts.
What inspired The Nature Library?
The simple answer is that I just love books. They were having a huge impact on my practice and everyday life, especially when it came to nature and environmental writing, and more specifically older books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), which were highlighting this endless loop of inaction despite repeated calls for it. I felt more than ever like enough was enough, and thought that if these books were having such an effect on me, they must be doing—or could do—the same to others. And they would do so much more easily if I put them all in one public place where they could be read for free.
Who runs the project?
I run the Nature Library by myself, but the staff at each location it travels to are always incredible, and I couldn’t pull these events together without them. They literally give these books a home. So while it’s a self-initiated project, it’s definitely not something I’m doing on my own.
How do you collect or source books?
With vigour. I’m always browsing charity shops for books or scrolling through eBay, and if I’m really excited about a new release, I’ll buy it from a local bookshop (Portobello Bookshop, Category Is Books, Mount Florida Books, and Lighthouse Bookshop are some favourites!). Writers, publishers, and visitors have also been really generous in sending books to the library—I’ve discovered some of my favourite books through people who have brought them in as donations. Now when I see a book that was given as a gift, I can remember who gave it, when, and where, and it makes the library feel so much more… expansive? Like it’s not just me and my own books; more and more, it belongs to and is made by the people who interact with it.
Do you involve artists within the communities where the library pops up?
Yes, although I always feel there’s more I could do! In the past the library has hosted storytellers and panel discussions with local artists, and last year held its first open call inviting writers in Scotland to submit work for display at the Ullapool pop-up as part of the Climate Fringe. I was completely overwhelmed—the joy of having these poems drop into my inbox one by one! I could have—and in hindsight should have—narrowed down the call to the Ullapool area only because there was just so much talent to choose from, so the next open call (in summer) will be much more localised.
Is there anything interesting or surprising that you’ve learned along the way with this project?
Personally, I’ve been shocked by how much I enjoy talking to people. Not to sound completely anti-social, but I think by nature a lot of readers, myself included, lean towards introversion. And yet whenever I’ve been able to spend entire days at the library people will come along and talk about books they love or ask about any of the ones on the shelves, and I can’t contain myself. It’s probably the foremost thing that’s made made me realise this really is what I want to be doing. I love it. I love it so much. Please talk to me about books.
More broadly, I’m just learning how much work goes into building a library. They offer so much to communities, and as a pop-up reference library, The Nature Library can only do a fraction of what public and school libraries provide. Meeting more people in the library network, I’ve been learning even more about what makes a good library, how skilled and dedicated our librarians are, and how much they hold our society together. It feels like library funding is being cut all over the place, and it’s yet another case of short term savings leading to greater long term losses, completely misjudging where value lies and how it’s cultivated. So I suppose what I’m learning, though I wouldn’t say it’s surprising, is that we can’t afford to lose any more libraries. We need more of them and they need to be funded properly, so as small as it is, I intend to keep The Nature Library moving for as long as I can.
“Meeting more people in the library network, I’ve been learning even more about what makes a good library, how skilled and dedicated our librarians are, and how much they hold our society together.”
All images © Christine Riley and The Nature Library, shared with permission.
Header: Knockvologan Studies, Isle of Mull
Top side-by-side: (left) Birnam Arts, Dunkeld; (right) COAST workshop at Discovery Centre, Lamlash
Bottom side-by-side: (left) COAST at Discovery Centre, Lamlash; (right) visitors at Civic House, Glasgow