Minnesota has a long tradition both in literature, producing writers such as Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Garrison Keillor, and in celebrating quirky characters, once electing a professional wrestler known as “The Body” to governor and embracing author Neil Gaiman, who masterfully mixes fantasy and reality. Another master of mixing is Sarah Peters, 38, an artist who connects literature and paddling. She built a boat and lends books to paddlers-by in a couple Twin Cities’ lakes. However, her Floating Library Project doesn’t lend ordinary books.
Peters said, “Rather than a normal library, I use artist-made publications. The materials are different than what a land-based library offers.”
So, what artist would permit their hand-made publications to be launched on a lake for two to three weekends in July?
“The biggest surprise came the first year when more than 50 artists from all over the country were willing to send me their handmade books, which could have been dropped overboard and lost. Every year since, I get all these submissions, some of which are hand-sewn and extremely labor intensive. People are so generous in wanting their work to be included, and I get to meet all these artists too.”
Peters’ fears about overboard books came to pass.
“We did have a major incident this past year. On Sunday evening at the end of the first weekend, the canoe that was transporting the entire collection capsized. It was really windy and the weight distribution was imperfect. They were in plastic tubs, but they filled with water and the collection was drenched. We captured all the books and did a major triage effort to save as much as we could. We laid them out to dry them, using paper towels and wax paper. If they dry too slowly, they mildew. If they dry too quickly, they warp. We had to put them under weights to keep them flat and we saved all but one or two books. Everything just looked a weather worn and kind of beautiful. It was traumatic at the time, but it turned out okay. Some artists had also sent us multiple copies, so we had some backups to use.”
The Floating Library comes from a tradition of Minnesotan quirkiness.
“A uniquely Minnesotan arts event is the arts shanty project. We have a great tradition of ice fishing here. Well, artists construct ice fishing shanties that aren’t about fishing. There might be a theatre, a post office, a one room schoolhouse, and sauna shanties. Many years ago, I was on a team that built a shanty. It was a month-long project that took place on a frozen lake. A friend and I liked building together, so we wanted to build a boat to spend on a lake, but at a more temperate time.”
So, Peters and her friend built their boat.
“We built a little boat out of plywood and would just drift and read.”
However, Peters wanted that boat to serve others too: literally.
“The summer after that, I created a floating ice cream store for the month of July. I made the ice cream and froze it and sold it in the middle of a lake. It wasn’t an artist’s project. It was just something fun, but I learned how people use the lake. People rent their canoe and kayak on one lake and move from lake to lake. It was really, really hot that summer and the Minnesota state legislature failed to pass the state budget, so all state parks were shut down. I had really interesting conversations with people about regulation and marketplaces. They asked if I had a permit and I joked that there was no government. It wasn’t about business. It was a terrible business as I totally lost money, but the ice cream boat let us connect.”
And the books of the Floating Library let more folks connect.
“People are really curious about the materials. The books are not normal. One is a viewfinder full of 3-D slides of little boats floating in different places. Another book is in a little, metal box with glass slides that hold dry flowers; It’s a book about the language of flowers, what flowers mean when you give them or use them. One of the most beloved books is duck decoys that float alongside the raft. From a distance, they look like real ducks floating beside the raft. So, people are very curious and surprised by them and amazed at how varied the contents are. They are grateful too with lots of comments about how Minneapolis and Minnesota are awesome. A lot of people have come to the library never having been in canoes. They board canoes for the first time to reach the library, so that’s exciting for them too. I’ve also been surprised by the excitement of the boaters. People already paddle in these lakes, but more than half didn’t know about the library, so they were delighted and surprised.”
Like unexpected but delightful pairings, such as caramel and salt or bacon atop maple donuts, Peters’ pairing of books and little boats delights her patrons, putting the capital C in Minnesota Cool!
–Read more about the Floating Library at www.thefloatinglibrary.org