The library operating at Frankenart Mart, San Francisco, 2008Frankenart/TIPL

The Itinerant Poetry Library (known to friends as TIPL), “started in a large rucksack packed in 2006.” An auspicious beginning, it seems, for the service has since travelled to eleven countries, twenty-one cities, and one hundred and fifty-plus locations. “Part of our philosophy is that we have to be able to carry the library with us as we go,” explains founder Sara Wingate Gray. Is the library heavy? “Hell yeah – these days it involves dragging several roller-bags. However, we’ve now identified a useful facet of the librarian, who can carry more than her own body weight in paper-based items.”

The library grows to this day, but found its 1000th member on Friday 19th June 2009: “a Dutch woman signed up, confused as to why she was receiving a certificate alongside her library membership card.” Services are remarkably undiscriminating, open to “humans, vegetables, minerals, and any other organic forms which successfully undergo joining procedures.” “You just need to be in the same place at the same time as the library,” Sara concedes.

Librarian's base circa 2007 @5lowershop, San Francisco.Spangler/TIPL

Official operating hours are as follows: “We’re open when we’re conveniently open, and we’re closed when we’re inconveniently closed.” The library can, in certain circumstances, open inconveniently too: “a memorable occasion,” Sara recalls, “was a bleary-eyed librarian, after an 8 hour library day, opening up again at 3am for an insistent Dutch dude in a Rotterdam bar.” Serendipity plays a large part in guiding TIPL’s meanderings: Sara recognises that more than 50% of Valued Patrons [affectionately termed VPLs] “do not intend to join a library the day they meet us” . Past locations include “the Gandhi Statue at the Ferry Building in San Francisco, a retirement home, a cocktail bar, a pizza takeaway, a secret typewriter café, a former hunting lodge, a ranger’s hut next to Achmelvich beach, and City Hall in San Francisco.” Sara’s own personal favourites were “two meta-library-within-library installations pursued ON mobile libraries, occurring in San Francisco and the Scottish Highlands.”

The library’s official Acquisition Policy is to collect and make accessible “lost and forgotten poetry,” so that “policies of selection, retention, disposal, misplacement and deterioration constantly change to reflect the current state of the world.” Content spans 150 years, consisting of several thousand items in digital, vinyl, paper, book, pamphlet, magazine and 100% cotton formats. “Every time the library opens there is a new selection, a new pattern arranged, adapting to new facilities.” When possible the library returns to its repository (“like the British Library’s Boston Spa, but in a mother’s attic”), where well-loved items are swapped so that others can see the light of day.

The stoop of a Portland house, where the library operated in Portland, Oregon, 2007Ariana Marinelli/TIPL

Receiving no official financial aid, TIPL gets by on what Sara terms “the Zen of the Library.” This often includes “Random Acts of Kindness”: ever-welcome offerings of “potential library venues, couches to surf...jam and cheese sandwiches.” Sara readily admits that “eating less helps – consuming fewer material things, more immaterial ones.” Where next for this most itinerant of collections? Well our fingers are crossed for Cambridge, obviously. Indeed, while Cologne and Dublin are currently on the radar, the possibilities are endless: TIPL’s maxim is “reaching the parts other libraries have yet to reach.” “We go where we end up, but also where we’re invited,” muses Sara.

“What’s new today is that it’s easier than ever to find each other, but also to get lost.” Mobile libraries work a lot like people, it seems. Indeed the library moves, above all, with this analogy in mind: “the concepts of being/sharing, production/waste, knowledge/poetry are all tangled up in us, and most likely, we in them. This guides us in where we go, as if unpicking a thread.”

Selection of tweets by and to librarian via twitter (how she provides the realtime library location).

 Find out more about the Itinerant Poetry Library at