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“Play Time” by Asif Khan

“Play Time” by Asif Khan

Nostalgia x Libraries is an essay series developed as a prelude to Jalada 09: Nostalgia. It is in recognition of the important role libraries play as custodians of historical and contemporary texts and preservers of arts and culture. Each participating library is invited to select a book/artifact/other available in their space that speaks to some aspect of nostalgia or a unique heritage they’d like to showcase.

When I am building in the block room,
Please don’t say I’m “Just Playing.”
For, you see, I’m learning as I play,
About balance and shapes.
Who knows, I may be an architect someday.

“Just Playing” By Antita Wadley

As we begin the process of a phased reopening of the Scottish Poetry Library from Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, my attention is increasingly drawn to one of the book sculptures on display near the entrance to the library.  The artwork depicts a little girl reading a book,. She has a crown on her head and Mary Jane shoes and is seated on Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses open at the poem, To My Mother. The tree that shades her includes words and lines from Stevenson’s poem, To Willie and Henrietta.

The work was gifted to the library in 2012, and is one of a series of works presented to Scotland’s literary organisations produced by an anonymous artist. The artist has since written that the works were to be “chanced upon, in the way one comes across a book on a shelf, and its altered nature would give it a story.”

It seems that we are all adapting and altering our nature in the way in which we engage with culture and the creative practitioners and institutions that make and present art. Our ability to play or interact with literature, film, visual art and the performing arts is defined, and being redefined, by the physicality of spaces, accessibility to and the inventive potential of digital platforms and the limits of our social bubbles. However, the presence of masks and orientation signs need not necessarily equate to the absence of fun.

In the poem ‘just playing’ which introduces this essay, Anita Wardley writes, “I’m learning as I play.” On a personal level, I have learnt much about my own resilience and limitations during this lockdown. More often than not I find myself returning to my comfort zone of favourite books, music and films rather than seeking out the new. I recognise that I’ll have to work on this. Libraries encourage us to browse, safe in the knowledge that our curiosity in learning about different cultures, ideas and stories can be as much for pleasure as for study.

Stevenson’s poem, which inspired the paper sculpture that I have chosen as my muse, includes the lines, “And from the window-bay / We watch the children, our successors, play.” In Scotland, the next generation of library users play less outside and more online. For many, their understanding of physical, cultural spaces and their entitlement to access and navigate them is diminishing. To my mind, play literacy should be regarded as essential as health literacy.

Asif Khan is the director of the Scottish Poetry Library, which houses the nation’s collection of modern Scottish poetry. As well as a career in public library engagement, he has worked across the arts, including roles as a business development manager at a major gallery and as the senior policy advisor at the Museums Libraries and Archives Council for the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade cultural programme. Asif has strong international connections from his time as an associate with Arts Council England’s Cultural Leadership Programme, for which he wrote the visual art strategy for Barbados. Asif has also worked in partnership with the Jamaican Government in support of their poet laureate initiative. Asif is a Board member of Perth & Kinross Culture Trust.

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