Oakland Interpreter Project

Stronger Civic Connections Despite Technology.

From the Spring 2018 MA Interdisciplinary Design Strategies project for Institute of Art, Design and Technology (IADT), Dun Laoghaire, and Institute without Boundaries (IWB), Toronto.

Binding Civic Access & Community Empowerment


Exhibition poster

Public information – alerts, events, minutes, master plans, development applications, ballot measures – is routinely demoted in a resident’s regular media consumption. This neglect is caused less by an inherent perception of unimportance as by the negative reinforcement of poor, unappealing, or inaccessible presentation and design. 

As public libraries continue their evolution in the digital age – embracing broader forms of learning, more platforms for information, and an active role as social, cultural, and civic destinations – a critical component of their desired services falls through the cracks of established library operations. A special, interdisciplinary effort is needed to develop a public forum that recontextualizes and presents civic information that is accessible, immediate, and rewarding for all.

Civic literacy is a critical interdisciplinary challenge of the 21st century

As the complexity and mystery of public processes grates against narrowing public bandwidth for participation, the level of discourse has suffered, with evident and dire repercussions. It is the responsibility of no single civic organization to cultivate an active, compassionate society…or even to pursue access to the tools of democracy for all citizens. The idiom “it takes a village to raise a child” still has currency today – but what does it take to  raise and sustain participatory citizenry, especially now that our villages are virtual?

Public libraries lack the means of extending services to meet emerging community needs and reach all residents

Library service is undergoing redefinition. But while the newest trends in library programming address digital divides, no program bridges the gap between the library’s ambitions / potential and its very limited resources. Oakland, California, is no exception – here, the public library recently codified its values in equity, diversity, community, and empowerment. OPL also launched a Race and Equity Task Force to identify ways for more Oaklanders to “level up.” The City, meanwhile, now embraces a tech-driven pursuit of #Tequity. Elsewhere, civic architecture is employing the best ideas of commercial design to invite activity in non-intimidating and comfortable environments. “Third places” are becoming scarce in the region’s dynamic economy that has exacerbated disparities. 

In Oakland, a strong civic identity may catalyze solidarity and engagement

Over 100 Oakland respondents to this project’s online survey voiced concerns and values corresponding with six general themes: culture/diversity; solidarity (neighborliness); resilience (stability); accessibility; opportunity (equity); and leadership. However, the survey responses also reflect fragmented perspectives between community groups – notably between wealthy new arrivees and vulnerable established residents. While libraries cannot solve housing crises, they can cultivate interest in and momentum towards building sufficient social space for everyone – a grassroots development of social equity. The right interface could inspire participation and draw diverse people toward a revitalized and recontextualized sense of neighborhood, building empathy and solidarity. 

An Oakland Interpreter can grow from the library’s current values of celebrating, informing, and connecting – while disposing of outdated methods broken over time 

A successful civic space: uses a coherent voice and brand that reflects the city and its citizens; organizes its offerings as indispensable civic resources; builds partnerships with organizations to amplify services, extend reach, and emphasize value; utilizes new approaches to engagement that increase participation in civic events and programs; and aligns with city efforts of lowering barriers to services through #Tequity and through clarified, equitable services.

Project images & captions follow


Project schedule


San Diego-based Architects Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman draw direct connections between public spaces and political empowerment (Metropolis Magazine)


At the April, 2018, CityCamp Oakland unconference session Equity and Inclusion In Digital Services, the City’s digital engagement officer presented the outdated, inaccessible former City website as a cake.


Can libraries…connect families to security? Make our work efficient? Realize our aspirations? A three-day charrette [LINK] with IADT undergrads in February 2018 uncovered three priorities for 21st century library service: Strengthen Access through all-demographic, personal appeal; Constellate a robust set of offerings while preserving serendipity; and Build Living Collections by increasing fidelity of user-generated information. Image of Dun Laoghaire Lexicon Library.


Oakland Public Library branch facility service coverage: overlay of updated 2006 OPL Master Facilities Plan findings with 2010 Census Racial Dot Map (expressing residents by race and density). Gaps include the Hoover-Foster community in West Oakland, which has been actively campaigning for Library service expansion.


Oakland’s identity could arguably best be captured by its rich tradition of murals. Left: Joshua May’s BEACON: Frequency Reader (2017); right: mural at Oakland’s Main Library (artist and date unknown).


Exploration of OPL rebrand


An online community survey was promoted to Oakland residents via social media channels in March 2018. Over 100 responses were collected….



…Survey responses to the prompt “What do you need from your city?” fell generally into six categories: Culture/Diversity; Leadership; Opportunity; Access/Availability; Resilience; and Solidarity…. (A subsequent project repackaged survey findings in a zine format.)


…In their 2017 strategic planning, OPL arrived at core values resembling the community needs identified by the online survey.

Another session at 2018 CityLab, Equitable Libraries, conducted by a member of OPL’s Racial Equity Team, discussed with attendees barriers to effective library use and opportunities to improve services.

Following problem identification and community engagement (establishing a public mandate), architectural programming examined how OPL branches can physically meet needs for civic spaces, drawn from built leading practices: 




To put services “in front of” more Oaklanders, interactive kiosks and a mobile app could work with other local organizations to channel relevant information including local news and events, cultural opportunities, city issues, and public resources.



A simple interactive navigation explores how to broadly appeal to device users and organize an augmented set of organizationally-interdependent public services.

The project was defended in June, 2018, in Toronto. A presentation has yet to be made to stakeholders at Oakland Public Library.



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