Learning and the Arts: Library as Creative Partner

Laurie Alexander, Beau David Case, Annette Haines, Linda Knox, Linda Knox, and Carrie Luke
University of Michigan

Students, scientists, dancers, performers, professors, renowned authors and poets, researchers, administrators, activists, and librarians—what do they have in common? They bring perspectives and vision to the conversation about how the arts inform, enable, and advance who we are today and where we directionally aspire to be. This past March, the University of Michigan (U-M) invited these voices to come together for the inaugural UpstArt festival (http://arts.umich.edu/upstartfest/) to celebrate the arts in scholarship. The results were both expected and unexpected, showcasing the predominant and pervasive role of the arts, illuminating various responses to recent challenges in higher education, emphasizing the specific aspirations of our university, demonstrating the importance of the creative process in learning, and, most interestingly, illustrating how library partnerships enable discovery, collaboration, and learning.

The evolving digital ecosystem and increasing call for accountability and affordability in higher education bring to the forefront discussions about how universities teach and how students learn. It is a moment calling for reflection. How are the practices of scholarship changing? Where is established and high-quality teaching expanding? What is enabling the development of new learning practices? How is the value-add of residential learning being conveyed to the broader public? As campuses engage in these types of questions, it is not surprising that themes begin to emerge.

Caption: Campus themes calling our collective attention to the need to create and promote learning environments focused on student learning.

These trends call attention to our common aspirations to create learning environments that promote critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving, and community engagement to create positive change, intercultural competence, self-reflection, lifelong learning, and global citizenship—all the outcomes that set the residential learning experience in a digital era apart.

At U-M, we strive to continually differentiate our residential learning experience by embodying a culture of engagement. As a campus, we share an aspiration for developing leaders who are eager to engage locally or globally to create positive change. As we reimagine our curricula to enable our students to develop into these leaders—creative, innovative thinkers, and doers who are prepared to address the problems of the 21st century and beyond—we increasingly turn our attention toward engaged learning opportunities like research, service, and the arts.

The recent UpstArt Festival held up the arts as “both a prism and touchstone” to remind the campus of its connection with and impact on learning across all disciplines. The events showcased creating as a learning process that enables many of the outcomes we want our students to achieve. The festival reminded us that art is how we express our lives and who we are. It is, both literally and metaphorically, everywhere. It is a way to search for identify in the presence of others, a way to see our own possibilities, and a way to open—rather than close—conversations about difference.

Library as Partner, Library as Learning Experience

Libraries are historically places for research and are thus intimately acquainted with the iteration—and even the frustration and failure—that can come with searching on the sometimes-bumpy road to finding. Libraries are supportive, evolving learning places, in both the digital and physical senses, with rich resources that serve as inspiration and building blocks, and locations for creation, reflection, and display. Relevance of the academic activity is strengthened through partnership with the library, where the connectedness of ideas is maintained, through time and across disciplines, traditionally in books and archives, now in our partnerships and experiences. Libraries are places where work in progress is made public, expertise comes from multiple places, and the notion of learning is made possible. The library as an experience emerges as we offer scalable and dynamic learning spaces that support students discovering, problem solving, reflecting, collaborating, and contributing to the broader scholarly discourse.

Libraries are able to leverage creativity because they have embraced creating as a way of learning, and supported infrastructures to foster creativity. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identifies the creative state of mind as “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi 1990). Flow occurs when a person is challenged at the high of their own skill set. This suggests that an infrastructure that can offer challenges as well as skill-building resources would set an ideal stage for creative potential.

Caption: From, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life (New York: Basic Books, 1998). Image used with permission by the publisher. [Note: This image is not licensed CC-BY.]

Working off of Csikszentmihalyi’s flow model, Shernoff created a model specifically addressing student engagement. His model “suggests that activities that are both academically intense and foster positive emotions are more likely to engage students both in the short term and in the long term. Therefore, optimal learning environments include activities that are challenging and relevant, and yet also allow students to feel confident and in control; exact concentration but also provide enjoyment; are intrinsically satisfying in the short-term, as well as build a foundation of skills and interest for the future; and involve both intellect and feelings (Shernoff 2001).” Libraries offer academically challenging and interesting opportunities for students to embark on original research and independent creative work outside of the classroom. The assistance and expertise of librarians help foster confidence and lay the groundwork for creative flow.

Engagement in Practice

Our campuses are in an extraordinary moment, as focus is brought to expanding established and high-quality teaching and learning practices, as well as developing new and innovative ones. It is no surprise that the arts provide one focal point for our teaching and learning practices. Art is how we express our lives and who we are. It is everywhere. It is a way to search for identify in the presence of others, a way to see our own possibilities, and a way to open, rather than close conversations about difference.

We offer the following examples as mini-case studies to explore how libraries provide platforms: (a) for students to expand their own learning and expression of that learning, and (b) for faculty in leveraging creativity and the arts in their teaching. We will use the following examples to demonstrate engagement and frame new approaches we are taking to enabling learning and teaching experiences: discovery, observation, creation—from idea to reality, reflection, problem solving, collaboration, community participation, self-reflection, and celebration.

Making Room for Learning Participation
Caption: From the exhibition “In Between Worlds,” Shapiro Science Library, April 18–May 5, 2013. Photo courtesy of Elaine Czech. [Note: This image is not licensed CC-BY.]

Last spring the Library hosted the exhibit In Between Worlds, created by Elaine Czech (http://www.coroflot.com/elaineczech), a senior in the Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design (http://stamps.umich.edu/about/stamps). She approached the Library in 2013 with a project featuring hand-carved masks inspired by a traditional Japanese art form. Elaine already had done a lot of work by the time she met with us, even requesting research materials for her project via interlibrary loan. She had a vision in her head of her masks on display, and was searching for an exhibit space on campus.

Elaine’s vision involved displaying the masks on forms resembling human mannequins, and lighting them dramatically from above. We were able to carve out a diorama-like space behind an interior window on the third floor of the Shapiro Undergraduate Library for her exhibit.

Throughout the semester, we met with Elaine, Library Facilities, and the U-M Fire Chief to create a plan that would create a professional, temporary display space within a formerly plain, industrial space. Elaine had to change her plans multiple times, choosing alternative wall coverings and lights to meet fire code standards.

When she began meeting with us, her artwork was nearly completed, and, from a traditional pedagogical perspective, the work was almost finished. The art was complete, but bringing that art to the exhibit presented new challenges requiring problem solving and learning.

Integrating Expertise to Innovate
Caption: Carlos Garcia in the U-M Library Digital Media Commons. Photo courtesy of Michigan Engineering. [Note: This image is not licensed CC-BY.]

Carlos Garcia (http://L05.is) was a senior in the School of Music’s Performing Arts Technology department (http://www.music.umich.edu/departments/pat/) during the 2011–2012 academic year, when he became fascinated with the emerging art of projection mapping and the dramatic new possibilities it offered for live performance systems. Determined to infuse his senior thesis work with this new art form, which enables the shaping of projected video images to the contours of unconventional surfaces, Carlos quickly immersed himself in the world of interactive, real-time visual systems.

At the beginning of the fall semester, he tested several commercially available applications, only to discover that no pre-existing software would enable him to fully realize his thesis goals. With the guidance of Library staff and Performing Arts Technology faculty members, Carlos spent the year developing his own custom projection mapping software, building physical set pieces, and writing and producing original music, finally presenting his performance in the Library’s Video Studio (http://www.lib.umich.edu/video-studio) in the spring of 2012.

Today, Carlos is not only a nationally recognized artist, but also a Library staff member, where he presents interactive media workshops in projection mapping and performance system design and helps plan ongoing activities to support students who are exploring the intersection of interactive technologies and creative expression.

Re-imagining the curation process
Caption: From the exhibition, “The Many Hats of Robert Altman: A Life in Cinema,” Hatcher Graduate Library Gallery, April 22–June 30, 2013. Photo courtesy of Melissa Gomis, U-M Library. [Note: This image is not licensed CC-BY.]

Through our Mavericks of Film Collection (http://www.lib.umich.edu/special-collections-library/mavericks-film-collection), students have had the opportunity to explore original artifacts from renowned American directors. Undergraduates enrolled in a year-long course in the Department of Screen Arts & Cultures (http://www.lsa.umich.edu/sac) learn about a filmmaker in the first semester, then, in the second semester, they work alongside librarians and archivists to curate their own public exhibit.

In the 2013 winter semester, students uncovered narratives while in the Robert Altman archive and created a large-scale exhibit in the of Hatcher Graduate Library. By the end of the semester, the students were calling the famous director, “Bob,” because they felt so close to him. The class and exhibition was replicated in 2014 with the director John Sayles, who visited the exhibit and met with the students! In 2015, the course will feature Orson Welles.

In addition to the course and exhibit, other events during the year focus on the director, including an academic symposium, visits by the filmmaker’s families, the public reading of scripts, and a film festival—all enriching the students’ learning and life. The Library was able to realize this experience by offering its collections, staff expertise, campus partnerships, and space.

Learning as performance
Caption: Professor Deloria (seated, center) and students in concert. Photo courtesy of Jamie Vander Broek.

In the Fall of 2013, Library staff members worked with U-M faculty member Phil Deloria (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_J._Deloria) to bring his Acoustic Songwriting mini course students to the Library Gallery for a final rehearsal and performance.

Throughout the course, the students, none of whom were majoring in music, wrote and rewrote their own original songs for acoustic instruments. Rather than have the semester end with a classroom performance for each other, Phil wanted his students to cap things off with a professional musical concert. He approached the Library about hosting a performance, and together we supported his students needs, plugging in external monitors and amplification so that they could play in a real concert environment for their fellow students.

The evening included, back-to-back, a rehearsal and performance (http://leccap.engin.umich.edu/leccap/viewer/r/F3d9qr). While waiting for the final performance time to begin, they entertained themselves by writing and playing a song about the Library.

Being creative about translation
Caption: Plato’s Republic as adapted by undergraduate students. Photo courtesy of Jamie Vander Broek.

For an assignment in a course on Plato’s Republic, students were to translate passages from ancient Greek into English. However, rather than simply creating text documents, the students put them into a mini-comic or “zine” format. The class took multiple field trips to the Library. On one visit they saw the comics collections (http://guides.lib.umich.edu/comics), which allowed them to reflect on their work and think creatively about how they wanted to express their translations in words and images on a page. During another visit, they worked with staff in Library multimedia centers to learn design basics and were given an overview of page layout software. Finally, a conservation librarian showed the class how to transform their zines into books using a historical book binding technique.

We interviewed the student who created the pages photographed above after the completion of the course. She told us that the process of creating a zine layout cemented the process of translation much more thoroughly in her mind. Thinking about layout, design, images and text together forced her to critically consider each page of her zine from several angles, deepening her learning.

Reflecting through portfolios
Caption: Undergraduate student Jake Cinti talks about his portfolio. Photo courtesy of Chase Masters, U-M Library. [Note: This image is not licensed CC-BY.]

The Library supports students’ creative and reflective processes in a variety of ways, including through MPortfolio (http://www.mportfolio.umich.edu/), a campus-wide initiative that promotes integrative learning, reflective practice, and assessment. Each year, the Library hosts an MPortfolio Celebration featuring students whose portfolios capture a strong process and polished product. This capstone experience provides students with an opportunity to articulate their learning and portfolio development process to members of the U-M community and beyond. The student above, Jake Cinti, presented the portfolio he developed as an Intergroup Dialogue facilitator in the 2013 MPortfolio Celebration. Jake’s portfolio is especially interesting because he chose to include a meta-reflective audio piece that he wrote to illustrate his portfolio development process, showcasing a more artistic and multimodal approach to reflective practice.

Sharing our learning journey
Caption: The reflective portfolio of Rachel Bissonnette. Used with permission. [Note: This image is not licensed CC-BY.]

Reflection is also an integral part of effective engaged learning experiences, including arts engagement and creative expression, and many programs and courses on our campus use electronic portfolios to facilitate this reflection. The image above is an electronic portfolio belonging to Rachel Bissonnette (https://www.flickr.com/photos/rachelbissonnette_artportfolio/sets/72157647682541325/) from Arts at Michigan’s (http://arts.umich.edu/) Arts Ambassadors Program (http://arts.umich.edu/programs/ambassadors/). At the time Rachel created this portfolio, she was a first-year student, and her talent as an artist really shows here. Library staff helped Rachel and her fellow Arts Ambassadors stretch their natural talent and engage in structured reflective activities, integrate their learning from different contexts, gain technical knowledge, and learn about effective writing and design.

Connecting our expertise

Living Arts (http://www.livingarts.umich.edu/) is a living/learning community at U-M that brings together students in engineering, the arts, architecture, and other fields to explore innovation and creativity across disciplines. This year, Library content experts will be strategically integrated into the Living Arts program activities, teaching selected technical skills to 15 second-year mentors. As the mentors learn, they will share their new skills with 62 freshmen mentees through a simple group project assignment. This hands-on introduction will expose all 75 students to resources they may choose to explore in greater depth as they approach progressively more significant project assignments throughout the semester.

For the Library, this partnership with an exceptionally diverse and engaged academic community provides an opportunity to bring existing workshops and instructional material together with a greater coherence across fields than we have previously explored. Our pilot program began with an overview of research practices for creative projects, followed by skills training offered in three tracks selected by the mentors: media, visualization, and electronics. Although the tracks do not directly overlap, each is designed to be compatible with the others (e.g., the electronics workshops may include information about ways visualization resources might be connected). Over a period of a few weeks, mentors and mentees in each track will produce a small project that will demonstrate something about the Living Arts program from the students’ perspectives. Our observation of the outcomes this year will be focused on understanding how well our pilot program affords an easy entry to resources for this cadre of students, and in what ways increased access to the resources makes a difference in the students’ project work.

Invitation of Creative Partnerships

We offer these examples as ways to explore how libraries have opportunities to partner with their campuses to both further existing approaches to learning and discovery, as well as to incubate new ones. Our commitment includes: connecting with students in their scholarly practices; helping them to engage more deeply with library resources and services that are aligned with their academic and co-curricular goals; engaging faculty in the exploration of pedagogical and educational technology innovation; and offering partnerships, services, and facilities specifically focused on the integration of library services and resources with campus learning and teaching initiatives. By experimenting with different paradigms for learning, we are able to offer more creative partnerships, extending and connecting our expertise to more campus activities focused on transforming our learning ecosystems.


Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. 1990. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.

Shernoff, David J. 2001. The Experience of Student Engagement in High School Classrooms: A Phenomenological Perspective. PhD diss, University of Chicago.