Creative Cartography in Public Libraries: PLIX Spatial Poetry

Jacqui Viale

The Public Library Innovation Exchange (PLIX) is a project of the Digital Learning + Collaboration Studio, that teams up the MIT Media Lab with public libraries across the world. As part of PLIX, library professionals bring creative learning programming –co-developed by MIT researchers–to their patrons in ways that promote open-ended experimentation and playful learning. Activities cover diverse topics including urban ecology, soft robotics, space food, data visualization, and more. We recently completed the design and implementation of our latest activity, Spatial Poetry!

Spatial Poetry was developed in collaboration with artist and poet Hua Xi, a Media Lab graduate student who worked with the Data + Feminism Lab. Hua’s work explores the use of creative writing to investigate and interrogate public space. A critical work and inspiration was We Never Wanted Him Here, a digital zine that Hua contributed to, which recounts the intertwining of colonization, racism, and place-names in America. We developed PLIX Spatial Poetry to offer public library patrons a chance to partake in creative learning that bridges poetry, local geography, and social justice. 

The activity invites patrons to take a closer look around them, and at their communities: how do streets or landmarks get their names? What themes emerge when looking at the words on a map? How can we use poetry to reflect on or tell stories about our communities? The activity prompts offer various routes to investigate these questions; through tracing street shapes, erasing text on maps, documenting commutes, and re-naming familiar places.

As part of the co-design process, we worked with a broader cohort of 12 librarians to beta-test the creative learning prompts we originally developed. The beta-testers employed a range of media to create poetry about topics relevant to their own communities: environmental justice; indigenous place-names and colonization; transportation; physical geography; and more. 

Even more recently, we were able to explore Spatial Poetry with a subset of librarians with whom we are co-designing a toolkit intended to assist rural and tribal community libraries implement creative learning programming in their settings. As part of this process, the co-designers worked to put a spin (or remix) on Spatial Poetry to tailor it for their community or context. Joe Misterovich (Sparta Community Branch, Christian County Library, MO) created an activity remix to address the limited attendance he had been experiencing at his library due to the pandemic. He translated Spatial Poetry into a take and make kit, focused on “using poetry to reimagine maps and the spaces in your life,” so that his patrons could pick up all of the materials at the library and complete the activity in their own homes. Joe even created a remixed zine to include in the kits to inspire and inform patrons about the possibilities of creating spatial poems!

You can find more about this activity (including all learning materials, facilitator resources, and materials lists) on our activity repository: In addition, you can learn more about Hua’s work in Spatial Poetry here.  

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