Fired Up About Learning Through Play | Editorial

Burners Without Borders, an activist group focused on civic engagement and emergency aid led by Christopher Breedlove, provides inspiration and motivation.

Christopher Breedlove of Burners Without Borders with Marie Østergård, director of Aarhus Public Libraries and one of the Next Library conference organizers.

The Next Library conference held every other year in Aarhus, Denmark, always holds surprises. This year’s convening in June was no different, with the keynote by Christopher Breedlove from Burners Without Borders, encapsulating the essence of the pleasures of learning through experience and play.

Burners Without Borders, which Breedlove described as a community focused on citizen-led civic engagement, was born out of the Burning Man Project and is an official program of that organization. Many know of Burning Man as a massive, yearly convening in the Nevada desert that ­culminates in the burning of a huge statue. It is so much more.

The gathering constitutes a temporary city, called Black Rock City, and the organizers intentionally walk the line, providing enough structure for the community to thrive without making too many rules. Among the terms Breedlove used to describe Burning Man was “innovation laboratory.” With some 70,000 people living together for eight days in more than 1,000 themed camps, you would think there would be a lot of rules and programming in place. Nope.

The organization provides the city layout and street signs, a “ranger” program for security, a post office staffed by volunteers, media relations, emergency care, and toilets (approximately 16,000 portable ones). For sale: only ice and coffee. There are no trash cans provided to ensure awareness of waste. The people who come do the rest.

In short, “Burning Man would be really boring if no one else showed up,” said Breedlove. Boring it is not. “We are proud that we are co-created,” he said. “People make the content.”

The culture spins around 10 principles: radical inclusion; gifting; decommodification; radical self-expression; radical self-reliance; communal effort; civic responsibility; leave no trace; participation; and immediacy. These, Breedlove noted, can be in conflict with each other. They are similar to the principles embraced by libraries.

There is also an intentional focus on having a good time. “If it’s not fun, it’s not sustainable,” Breedlove said. “Play is paramount.”

This powerful sense of community has evolved over the years and inspired the formation of Burners Without Borders in 2005, when a group of volunteers from Burning Man banded together to help in the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.

“Disaster reveals gaps in social services,” ­Breedlove said. One gap this group stepped in to help ­address was demolition, literally knocking down houses that had been damaged to speed the ­recovery effort. Art, too, has a place in recovery, he said, ­noting the burners also built things from the debris, and “then, because then, because we are burners,” burnt them—a process that he said gathered layers of people working on the recovery together in a unique way.

Since that first instinct, Burners Without Borders has become an international community, ­galvanized to step in where needed, building partnerships, co-creating solutions. I attended Next Library to ­present a workshop with Rebekkah Smith ­Aldrich on co-creating a global approach to library-led sustainable thinking, and left even more inspired by the possibilities ahead, taking the model of the Burning Man community to heart.


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Rebecca Miller

Rebecca T. Miller ( is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.

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