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Outdoor library of 50,000 free books is coming back to Berkeley. (And you can take part.)

Books appear to fly at the Lacuna installation in front of Old City Hall at the first Bay Area Book Festival in Berkeley. Photo: Nancy Rubin
Books appear to fly at the Lacuna installation in front of Old City Hall at the first Bay Area Book Festival in Berkeley in 2015. Photo: Nancy Rubin

2016 BABF logoThis article is brought to you by the Bay Area Book Festival.

What the heck is a lacuna? Its Latin root means “lake” or “pool.” Today it’s defined as an unfilled space or gap, with a secondary definition as “a missing portion in a book or manuscript.”

Which brings us to Lacuna, the participatory art installation constructed out of 50,000 books that the public can take for free. Lacuna was built in MLK Civic Center Park for the inaugural Bay Area Book Festival last June. The installation, which appeared as a giant circlet of alcoves made of shelves and was topped with flying books, stole the hearts of Berkeley residents (and was talked about as far away as Korea, Singapore, and France).

It’s coming back. And the book festival, which runs June 4-5, is inviting the public on some interesting literary adventures via Lacuna — whether that’s helping to actually sort the books in preparation for the installation, or participating in a sort of “literary note in a bottle” program for small donors.

The “Wind Beneath Our Wings” program allows donors (starting at $50) to send a note, which will be anonymous, that the festival staff will print out and tuck into one of the books (randomly) to be discovered by the person who takes the book. Donors will help support Lacuna while deepening the community connection that the installation creates. The festival encourages the note-writers to express why they love reading, to share a special quote, or to impart some bookish wisdom. The festival’s Contribute page has details on how to participate.


Hands-on book sorting is another way to get involved, and it is surely one of the more unusual volunteer opportunities out there. The FLUX Foundation, a nonprofit arts association whose mission is to engage people in creating large-scale public art, designed and built Lacuna last year, and FLUX will rebuild the structure of Lacuna on site this year starting May 31. But the books have to be sorted into categories before that.

Melinda Nouack, Dan Brewster, and Mary Renolds with Weird Gems.JPG
Melinda Noack, Dan Brewster and Mary Renolds with Weird Gems at the Internet Archive’s Richmond warehouse where volunteers are being sought to help build Lacuna. Photo: BABF

As with last year, the books have been donated by the Internet Archive, a nonprofit whose mission is to create a free internet library by scanning and archiving the world’s cultural artifacts — including books, movies, music, images, and websites. Right now, 50,000 physical books for Lacuna are sitting in the Archive’s Richmond warehouse. They’re in enormous boxes called “gaylords.” And they aren’t yet sorted into the categories that are assigned to Lacuna’s 12 alcoves.

As Melinda Noack, Lacuna Project Manager, notes, “Lacuna must function like a library so that people can go to an alcove and find a history section, for example, or children’s books.” But in the gaylords, all kinds of books are mixed together.

Noack is running a few sorting sessions at the warehouse every week until the festival in June. Both young and older can take part; last year, volunteers ranged in age from 13 to the mid-70s.

All aptitudes are welcome. On a recent Saturday, one volunteer, Mary Renolds of Berkeley, demonstrated a tactic called “book-diving,” which entails climbing into the bottom of a gaylord to pull out the books. People who are less acrobatic can then ferry them to the category-specific containers.

Literary intelligence also comes to bear because some books fit in multiple categories. Where to put a book on the history of science? In history, or in science? Volunteers help make the decisions about how to create order, but also foster the serendipity that people find on Lacuna’s shelves.

People enjoy Lacuna at the first Bay Area Book Festival in 2015. Photo: Ned Fielden
People enjoy Lacuna at the first Bay Area Book Festival in 2015. Photo: Ned Fielden

Every gaylord seems to contain a few bizarre finds. Dan Brewster, a software engineer from San Francisco, is volunteering as a sorter for the second year. “A lot of the fun of it is that you don’t know what you’re going to get.” He pointed to a pile of books titled “Weird Gems.” The strangest book he’s found so far is an old government manual that looked like a “post-Manhattan Project nuclear handbook.”


Snacks and music at the warehouse keep the energy high. For the next sorting day, on Saturday, April 30, Noack has organized a celebration in honor of National Independent Bookstore Day. The warehouse will be home to a potluck and readings by local writers, who will read pieces inspired by books found in Lacuna’s “Weird Gems” section.

Want to help out, meet some local book-lovers, and experience the excitement of uncovering dusty titles that can’t be found in any bookstore? Contact Melinda Noack at projectlacuna@gmail.com.

After June, Lacuna’s alcoves will need indoor storage before the next festival in 2017. If you can offer such a spot, please email projectlacuna@gmail.com. You’ll receive recognition as a Lacuna sponsor.

Follow Lacuna on Facebook.

2016 BABF logoThis post was written by, and is sponsored by, the Bay Area Book Festival. For more information about the festival, which takes place on June 4-5, 2016, visit the festival website. Berkeleyside is a media sponsor of the Bay Area Book Festival.