Text by Marion Vredeling

How does an exhibition, as a means of sharing information, help TU Delft Library to achieve its objectives? And what is the added value for our library of co-creating with a target group – such as with the realisation of Impact!, the most recent exhibition? I discussed these questions with Wilma van Wezenbeek, director of TU Delft Library.

I started by asking Wilma about the context in which we need to position an activity such as an exhibition. Wilma: “As a library, we’ve identified four areas that we want to develop. One of these is the ‘Library Environment.’ Our ambition for this area is that in 2020 – as is already the case today – we still want the library to be an inspiring place; a place where it’s pleasant to be, a great place in which to learn and study, but also a place where you can do other things. In the past, the inspiration came from the content of the books themselves. Today things are different, partly as a result of digitisation. So as a library, we’re now thinking about how we can use other means, other content and other forms to bring that same old sense of inspiration, but in a modern way. This is the basis of what we want to show: that we can also provide people with information in other ways.”

On the right artist Emilie Buist. On the left Marco den Os, employee of the Library.

My next question is related to the library building itself. What is it that makes it different to be together here; different from, say, a coffee corner or Starbucks? After all, in those places you also find people reading a book over a cup of coffee. “Here in the library, you can be sure that you’ll always find other people with the same objective. Anyone who comes in here is looking for knowledge, and may also bring knowledge. This is something you share with each other. The additional inspiration that we bring to the building must therefore be related, as far as possible, to what motivates our visiting target groups,” Wilma explains.
“By the way,” I observe, “objectives like these are not limited to a library building. You could reflect on how this ambition could be realised in other places on campus and in collaboration with other parts of TU Delft.”

So what does this particular Impact! exhibition, subtitled ‘Ethical reflection through art,’ have to do with these objectives? Wilma: “Responsible Engineering is an important theme for TU Delft. Both the EB and the students are looking for better, more effective and more suitable ways to develop and embed ethical education in the university; so that the subject of ethics affects students more, makes more of an impression on them, has more of an impact on how they think about their discipline and how they will act responsibly in their future professional career. In the Impact! project, staff from the philosophy research group at TPM, along with their students and a few PhD candidates, searched for a new form of ethical education like this. After the project, they looked for a place where they could display the results of the search process – and the library quickly proved to be just the place.”
I add: “So the Impact! project was also an attempt to raise the issue of the form that ethical education might take – and by exhibiting the results in the library, the library is also putting this issue on the educational agenda. In this case, then, the question of what we do at TU Delft Library is also linked to the rest of the university context in which these kinds of themes are being formulated.”

When organising activities, could – or should – the library play this internal signalling and agenda-setting role more often? Wilma: “The library can indeed play an important role in this regard. This role is not autonomous, however, but in harmony with what is going on in the organisation. One great advantage of the library’s ‘show cases’ is that we have the space and expertise that faculties do not always have. What’s more, in the library you’re on neutral ground and we have an audience from all the faculties. We have a lot of people coming here, certainly during the examination period. In my opinion, whether these people are actually here to visit an exhibition or to browse through the books on display from the collection is not the most important criterion for the success of an activity. The very process of putting together an exhibition such as this one already serves an important educational objective. The programme accompanying such exhibitions can also be very interesting and engrossing, as was the case for the Pi exhibition and the exhibition on 3D printing; and when putting together programmes, we keep searching for ways to combine the physical with the digital, because we all carry electronic devices on us. Assuming that it’s possible from an organisational and financial perspective, it is great if these two fields can complement each other in such an activity. The Impact! exhibition, for example, provides links via QR codes to the content of the accompanying catalogue, so that all of the information about the artworks on display can be consulted electronically at any time.”

Impact! offers a nice example of what Wilma is referring to here. Take the ‘Apple Watch’ fruit bowl by Emilie Buist; a work by a student who also frequently participates in other activities at TU Delft, for instance in the context of the Cultural Professor programme. Certain students take full advantage of these extra creative opportunities, and work by these students has now been included in an exhibition. In this way, the library is also providing a platform for the university’s creative spirits. These are people who are eager to develop themselves and who will undoubtedly go on to do fantastic things after graduation. The process that they have gone through is thus in fact the most interesting thing, but the results also get us thinking. In the case of Impact!, it is partly a reflection of the quality of the supervisors, Zoe Robaey and Shannon Spruit, and visual coach Annick Spoelstra, that they have managed to get so much out of the participating students.

The Impact! exhibition also covers various issues that are of intrinsic interest to the library itself. One of the student works is about data and metadata. This is a relevant ethical issue for a university library: how do we manage the information that we have acquired as a library – for example, because we know what people borrow? Or take the data from the 3TU Data Centre: what should we do with them if they are stored in the cloud? Will they be secure enough? The exhibition thus links to challenges the library is facing, even though the students might not have initially made the connection. As staff members, we can see it in their work and share our observations with them; that, too, is a connecting experience.

I asked Wilma what she thought of co-creation with and for target groups. “What a project such as Impact! highlights so nicely is that we give our users the space to organise something. We learned from earlier projects that a space is more successful for its users if they are able to add something of themselves to it. This has worked once again with the Impact! exhibition, because the students – who often have strong opinions on important issues – have taken part in realising well-considered visualisations of their ideas, opinions and questions. Holding such an exhibition in the library building means that these can be passed on and shared, so that they also become interesting for other students. And in turn, they notice that other students’ reflections are linked to the questions that they are asking themselves. If you’re concerned about ‘connecting people,’ something that we as a library have identified as a key core value, then we’ve clearly achieved a positive outcome with an exhibition such as this one.”
“And we could do even more,” I venture. “An exhibition such as this one is something we put on largely for our primary target groups: students, lecturers and scientists from TU Delft. However, if we do something that reflects on the university in a broader sense – such as a 3D printing week and expo – then it would be good to bring it to the attention of a larger audience in a much broader, more stimulating way. That, too, would help to achieve our goal of being a connecting hub.”

One should add that internally, for the library staff, objectives are also met by such an exhibition. It’s always amazing, for example, to see what can be found in the collection to help explore a thematic issue in more depth, such as the Cultural Professor programme. It’s also inspiring to work on this with other library staff, who enjoy searching for extra material, thinking of pieces from the heritage collection, and so forth. An exhibition like this one thus provides an internal opportunity to co-create with the staff and involve them. And it’s also an opportunity to enthuse them, for example by giving them a tour of the exhibition – something that I frequently do as a programme manager.

Wilma concludes with satisfaction: “In fact, all of the values that the library has formulated in its road map come together in the Impact! exhibition. People are evidently curious about the things and issues that surround them and that get them thinking. We are enabling the results of this process to be exhibited and shared with others. It means being open and receptive to an educational experiment, which is innovative. We’ve already talked about the ‘connecting’ aspect. And it’s also clear that it’s assertive: we stand for something. The library is such a suitable platform for these sorts of projects, because we do not promote a particular opinion; we are a neutral space. This is also making it increasingly interesting for the faculties to collaborate with the library on these sorts of exhibitions. So there will be all kinds of opportunities for the library in future!”

The Impact! exhibition has been organised by the library in collaboration with the philosophy research group of the TPM faculty. Impact! will be on display in the hall of TU Delft Library until 16 December 2015.