Madison’s Central Library allows users to choose their own adventures

Madison Central Library goes beyond books by offering community programs like The Bubbler.
woman with a little girl sitting in the Library
Photo by Sharon Vanorny

Madison Public Library Director Greg Mickells recalls a conversation with the Central Library’s first artist-in-residence after the facility reopened nearly 10 years ago. The artist asked what the library would like him to do. Mickells turned the question back on the artist — what do you want to do?

Turning the tables is a tactic Mickells often uses at Madison’s Central Library. This model of learning and engagement, which puts the user in the driver’s seat, was kickstarted by the 2013 renovation of the Mifflin Street location, originally built in 1965. Prior to the renovation, many libraries typically made internal decisions on collections and programs, followed by public outreach.

“What we really began with the renovation of Central Library, and what we continue to build on and improve on, is that dialogue with the community,” says Mickells. “What types of programs we provide [are] being inspired by the community.”

The physical transformation paired well with the shift in library philosophy. Vibrant art around every corner and natural light streaming through, even down into the basement, create an inviting atmosphere where community members are encouraged to use the library to elevate their ideas, concerns and questions.

Greg Mickells standing between shelves

“What we continue to build on and improve on is that dialogue with the community,” says Madison Public Library Director Greg Mickells. (Photo by Sharon Vanorny)

From a giant, glowing question mark in the window to the variety of reservable spaces, everything about Madison’s Central Library raises the question — how do you want to experience your library, and what will you learn inside?

Thousands of volumes and niche magazines are available to help you explore every topic you can imagine. Find free help on your taxes or get a hand in updating your resume. Check out a portable record player and listen to Dr. Dre on vinyl, or opt to have your library experience guided by one of its many community programs, like The Bubbler.

The Bubbler room, located on the ground floor, is a hub for the arts and maker program directed by Trent Miller, the library gallery coordinator who’s also known as the “Head Bubblerarian.” The list of programs and workshops offered through The Bubbler range for people of all ages. While the main hub for The Bubbler is at Central Library, other branches also host Bubbler programming.

two people looking at books

Photo by Sharon Vanorny

Many of these programs returned to the library after COVID-19-related cancellations and adjustments. Some have been reimagined and others are brand-new, like The Bubbler’s Artist Cohort Program. The project brings together six local artists, through the end of the year, to collaborate with and be inspired by Madison youth.

The cohort includes artists like Amadou Kromah, a photographer who has captured an array of moments, from Boyz II Men performances to Kids in the Rotunda; Gabrielle Javier-Cerulli, a mixed-media artist who creates interactive street art installations; and Anwar Floyd-Pruitt, an interdisciplinary artist who occasionally performs family-friendly singalongs called the Hip Hop Puppet Party.

“We have always seen so much magic when we put artists together,” says Miller. He is excited for the inevitable surprises that arise when you gather artists to connect with their community and allow the artists and kids to drive the direction of the project.

Art and creation have been at the heart of Madison’s Central Library since the remodel, which is why nearly everywhere you look, the five-story building holds surprises.

person walking down the stairs at Madison Central Library

Photo by Sharon Vanorny

A recent addition to the permanent collection is a large mural spanning four walls on the library’s first floor. Titled “She Herself,” the piece was created by Madison artist Ashley Lusietto and depicts Lusietto’s self-portraits entwined in an Argentine tango, exploring moments of connection, both harmonious and dissonant, within a self-relationship.

Venture a floor down and you’ll find the lively children’s room covered in brightly colored designs by Madison artist Derrick Buisch and filled with cavernous nooks for comfortable reading. Climb the steps to the third floor and you are greeted with beautiful views of downtown Madison along with a gallery space featuring works from area artists.

Part of the mission for the Madison Public Library is to create “free and equitable access to cultural and educational experiences.” This also includes providing internet and computer access for all community members. In 2019, Madison Public Library facilitated 227,370 in-person computer uses and 2.6 million Wi-Fi uses. The Central Library in particular has been a place for those experiencing homelessness to access resources and computers. While COVID-19 has impacted services, the library is still working to serve those communities by connecting individuals to programs within city agencies and providing a meeting place.

To continue fostering a community atmosphere, there are plenty of open spaces flexible enough to host just about anything, be it a performance, neighborhood meeting or even a wedding. The space is also home to the Wisconsin Book Festival taking place this October with both virtual and in-person events.

person working on a laptop at Madison Central Library

Photo by Sharon Vanorny

A big part of what makes the Central Library (and all of Madison’s libraries) run is the help of the librarians and staff members. Beyond providing book recommendations, the staff members can answer nearly any question or try to guide patrons to find the answers to their queries. If you’re not sure where to start, the librarians will always be there and ready to help. But be prepared to answer the question “what do you want to do?”

Marissa DeGroot is a contributor to Madison Magazine.Footer that says Subscribe with covers of Madison Magazine