Why Libraries Never Stop Being People

This article is part of our latest Design Special Report, on new creative avenues shaped by the pandemic.


As the first winter of the pandemic drew to a close, someone in my Twitter feed raved about an app called Libby that made it particularly easy to borrow and read library books. I downloaded it, entered my New York Public Library card number and continued to binge. I devoured everything by and about Isaac Babel, who wrote stories based on his life in early 20th-century Odessa, and all of Mick Herron’s Slough House books, about a group of sad, incompetent British spies.

Libby was created by OverDrive, a Cleveland-based company that digitizes and distributes books and other publications to 90 percent of North American libraries. The app debuted in 2017, but unsurprisingly, the biggest growth occurred in 2020, a 33 percent increase in circulation compared to 2019. What sets Libby apart from other library apps, such as the New York Public Library’s SimplyE, is that you can use this to read on a Kindle (instead of, for example, your phone). And it has a clear style, minimalist and sweet.

Libby is suggesting, intentionally or not, that public libraries, the very buildings, are no longer needed, that libraries – like everything and everyone – have become placeless providers of content. But if you’ve replaced personal library visits with an app in recent years, you may be missing out. What many public libraries have done, despite Covid and because one of these is consciously increasing their physical presence on the street and in the neighbourhood.

My own heightened appreciation for the non-virtual library began on a chilly evening last October. I attended a performance of excerpts from a new opera called ‘A Marvelous Order’, about the critic Jane Jacobs and her urbanist nemesis, Robert Moses, essentially, an opera about the value of public space. Fittingly, it was staged on the broad stairways and fan-shaped plaza in front of the Art Deco Central Library in Brooklyn, with the composer, Judd Greenstein, conducting a small ensemble of musicians and singers and featuring animated graphics by Joshua Frankel projected onto both sides. from the ornate front entrance of the library.

The plaza in front of the Central Library is probably the best outdoor space in Brooklyn’s library system (which is separate from New York’s public library system). Most of Brooklyn’s 61 libraries, including the Carnegie Buildings, date from the early 1900s. there is no form of usable, accessible outdoor space. Or so it seemed.

But in January 2020, David Giles, the library’s Chief Strategy Officer, in collaboration with a team including Annie Barrett of Aalso Architects, embarked on a meticulous study called “Activating Exteriors” to, in Ms. Barrett’s words, “establish a connection forging between a social institution and its neighborhood.” The idea was initially to find ways to remove fences and other obstacles that made the libraries grounds inaccessible to the public.

A few months after Covid hit, the long-term project was transformed into what Ms. Barrett called a “deployable strategy.” Mr Giles said: “We have been pushed into tactical mode.”

The library decided it needed to move at least some of its shifts outside. Even though the libraries were closed, the Wi-Fi stayed on, and over time, the Brooklyn Public Library installed signal-boosting antennas at most of its branches so New Yorkers who didn’t have an Internet connection at home could access the Internet from outside. Then, at about 30 branches, they placed groups of cafe tables and chairs, plus the occasional book cart, wherever they pleased, on sidewalks or on narrow strips of grass.

But the most daring move was the invention of the Roadway Reading Room, designed by Mrs. Barrett and her company, and based on the city’s Department of Transportation standards for restaurant “streeteries.” These small structures were meant to embody the gravitas associated with public libraries and also a touch of grandeur. “We weren’t going to do things like party lights on the sidewalk,” Mrs. Barrett recalled.

The elementary sheds, with distinctive vaulted roofs, were manufactured by Bednark Studio, a firm at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, painted a distinctive electric blue, and trimmed for the Kensington, Crown Heights and Walt Whitman (Fort Greene) branches. According to Mr Giles, the outside seating attracted both regular library visitors and random people looking for a place to rest. Occasionally, police officers would use the tables for lunch, and, he said, “in Brighton Beach people were playing chess.”

The reading rooms outside were a bit neglected by the time I visited Walt Whitman in February; the chairs and tables had been removed and the structure was hemmed in by illegally parked cars. But the idea they represent — reinvention of the public library as a free form community center — continues to evolve. And, coincidentally, this evolution has positioned some libraries to function particularly well during the pandemic.

The new Greenpoint Library and Environmental Education Center, for example, funded in part by a $5 million grant from ExxonMobil’s settlement for the massive Newtown Creek oil spill, was designed as a disseminator of environmental awareness and knowledge. When it first opened in September 2020, it could only offer booking on a “grab and go” basis. But the design for its environmental mission, by architecture firm Marble Fairbanks and landscape architecture firm SCAPE, allowed for an unusual amount of outdoor space, including a rooftop “reading garden” (with stands for the readers and shrubs for the birds) and a second rooftop planters. where community members could learn to grow vegetables and flowers.

“From the outset, we explored all the different ways the outdoor space would be used by the community,” says architect Karen Fairbanks. The rooftop spaces have been put to good use for events over the past year and a half, including evening stargazing and workshops on topics such as teen technology and sewing.

The fact that the roof terrace became a status symbol for the public library during a period when we could only collect safely outside is a happy coincidence. In Washington, DC, for example, the Dutch architectural firm Mecanoo included a spacious roof garden in its renovation plans for the central branch of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, a hard-edge edge 1972 Ludwig Mies van der Rohe building. Those plans were completed in 2016. However, the roof terrace, with its verdant landscape of wild grasses and flowers, made its public debut in September 2020. “It was by far the most used part of the building,” says Richard Reyes-Gavilan. , director of the city libraries.

The King roof terrace is immediately a place to temporarily escape the restrictions of the virus and evidence of an underlying trend, said Mr Reyes-Gavilan. “Libraries have been trying to find ways to make their buildings less transaction-oriented. We want people to come and stay for longer to see the library as their co-working space or their third place.”

Mecanoo (in collaboration with New York-based Beyer Blinder Belle Architects and Planners) also included a rooftop terrace in the redesign of the long-neglected library in Mid-Manhattan, now renamed (for the project’s largest donor) the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library . On my first visit, on a warm fall afternoon, I was amazed at the generosity of the concept: it’s a public rooftop in the middle of Manhattan where you can sit and read quietly or have a coffee (there’s a branch of Amy’s Bread), for so long if you want.

“I would like to say that we were brilliant and anticipated Covid,” said Iris Weinshall, chief operating officer of the New York Public Library. Instead, the rooftop terrace grew out of community gatherings where attendees argued for more and better meeting and event space.

Mecanoo’s founding partner and creative director, Francine Houben, was offended by the American custom of wasting precious roof space on noisy HVAC systems. The architect worked with her team to design an oddly shaped container in copper patina green known as the “wizard’s hat” to hide and mute all the machinery, freeing the roof “for the people.”

Of course, all these efforts to increase the reach of the public library have been relatively modest. Elsewhere in the world, the idea that libraries are synonymous with openness has led to bolder gestures.

Perhaps the most spectacular (and arguably most contradictory) example is the reading room of the Beijing Sub-Center Library, designed by the Norwegian firm Snohetta. Currently under construction, this interior space encompasses over four acres of undulating, glass-enclosed terrain supported by columns that the architects liken to ginkgo trees. Picture Zion National Park, but with bleachers instead of rock formations. “It’s really designed as a piece of nature,” noted Snohetta’s partner, Robert Greenwood. “It’s just so big it feels like you’re in a valley; you are on a hill.”

As Mr. Reyes-Gavilan said of the King Memorial Library’s rooftop deck, “When I’m there on a hot day like today, people are so grateful that such a space exists.” Or, as Ms Houben, who argues that every library needs a garden, suggested, “A library has to be so pretty that you bring your own book, right?”

Karrie Jacobs is a New York-based writer specializing in architecture, design, and urban planning.

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