Why Libraries Can Never Stop Being Places to Live

This article is part of our latest special Design file, on the new creative paths shaped by the pandemic.


As the first winter of the pandemic drew to a close, someone on my Twitter feed got excited 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 started gorging. I devoured everything from Isaac Babel, who wrote stories based on his life in Odessa at the start of the 20th century, and all of Mick Herron’s Slough House books, about a group of sad and incompetent British spies.

Libby was created by OverDrive, a Cleveland-based company that digitizes books and other publications and distributes them to 90% of North American libraries. The app debuted in 2017 but, unsurprisingly, saw its biggest growth in 2020, a 33% increase in circulation compared to 2019. What sets Libby apart from other library apps, like the library’s SimplyE New York public is that it lets you read on a Kindle (instead of, say, your phone). And it has a defined, minimalist and soft style.

Libby suggests, intentionally or not, that public libraries, actual buildings, are no longer necessary, that libraries have become – like everything and everyone – placeless providers of content. But if in the last couple of years you’ve replaced in-person visits to the library with an app, you might be missing out. What many public libraries have done, despite Covid and because of it, is consciously to reinforce their physical presence in the street and in the neighborhood.

My own heightened appreciation for the non-virtual library began on a cold evening last October. I saw a performance of excerpts from a new opera called ‘A Marvelous Order’, about critic Jane Jacobs and her urban planning nemesis, Robert Moses, essentially an opera about the value of public space . Appropriately, it was staged on the wide steps and fan-shaped plaza in front of Brooklyn’s Art Deco-style Central Library, with the composer, Judd Greenstein, leading a small ensemble of musicians and singers and with animated graphics by Joshua Frankel projected onto either side of the ornate main entrance to the library.

The plaza in front of the Central Library is probably the best outdoor space in the Brooklyn library system (which is separate from the New York Public Library system). Most of Brooklyn’s 61 libraries, including its early 20th-century Carnegie buildings, lack useful and accessible outdoor spaces. Or so it seemed.

But in January 2020, the library’s director of strategy, David Giles, together with a team that included Annie Barrett of Aalso Architects, embarked on a meticulous study called “Activating Exteriors”, to forge, according to the in Ms. Barrett’s words, a “connection between a civic institution and its neighborhood. The idea, initially, was to find ways to remove fences and other obstacles that made library grounds inaccessible to the public.

A few months after Covid hit, the long-term project morphed into what Ms Barrett called a ‘roll-out strategy’. Mr Giles said: “We have gone into tactical mode.

The library decided it needed to move at least some of its services outside. Even though the libraries were closed, Wi-Fi remained on, and over time the Brooklyn Public Library installed signal-boosting antennas atop most branches so New Yorkers who don’t do not have an Internet connection at home can access the Web from outside. Then, in about 30 branches, they placed clusters of cafe tables and chairs, along with the occasional book cart, wherever they were, on sidewalks or narrow strips of grass.

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

The elementary hangars, with distinctive barrel-vaulted roofs, were made by Bednark Studio, a Brooklyn Navy Yard firm, painted an eye-catching electric blue and dropped to the curb in front of Kensington, Crown Heights and Walt Whitman (Fort Greene ) branches. According to Giles, the outdoor seating attracted both regular library patrons and random people looking for a place to rest. From time to time, the police used the tables for lunch and, he told me, “in Brighton Beach people played chess.”

The outdoor reading rooms were a bit neglected when I visited Walt Whitman in February; chairs and tables had been removed and the structure was surrounded by illegally parked cars. But the idea they represent – ​​the reinvention of the public library as a free-form community center – continues to evolve. And, in this case, this evolution is what has allowed 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 settlement grant for the massive ExxonMobil oil spill at Newtown Creek, was designed as a disseminator of awareness and environmental knowledge. When it opened in September 2020, it could only offer books on a “to-go” basis. But its environmental mission design, by architecture firm Marble Fairbanks and landscape architecture firm SCAPE, provided an unusual amount of outdoor space, including a rooftop “reading garden” (complete with bleachers for readers and shrubs for birds) and a second roof lined with planters where community members could learn to grow vegetables and flowers.

“From the beginning, we considered all the different ways the outdoor space would be used by the community,” said architect Karen Fairbanks. Rooftop spaces have been well used over the past year and a half for events such as evening stargazing and workshops on topics such as teen tech and sewing.

That the roof terrace became a public library status symbol at a time when we could only congregate safely outdoors is a happy accident. In Washington, D.C., for example, Dutch architecture firm Mecanoo included a spacious rooftop garden in its renovation plans for the central branch of the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, a Ludwig Mies van der Rohe dating from 1972. These plans were completed in 2016. The roof terrace, however, with its verdant landscape of wild grasses and flowers, made its public debut in September 2020. “It is by far the best-used part of the building,” said Richard Reyes-Gavilan. , director general of the city’s libraries.

The King Rooftop is both a place to temporarily escape the restraints of the virus and evidence of an underlying trend, Mr Reyes-Gavilan said. “Libraries have tried to find ways to make their buildings less transactional. We want people to come and stay for a long time to see the library as their coworking space or their third place.

Mecanoo (in collaboration with New York’s Beyer Blinder Belle Architects and Planners) also included a rooftop terrace in its revamp of the long-neglected Mid-Manhattan Library, now renamed (for the project’s largest donor) the Library of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. During my first visit, on a warm autumn afternoon, I was amazed by the generosity of the concept: It’s a public rooftop in the middle of Manhattan where you can sit quietly and read, or drink coffee (there’s a branch of Amy’s Bread), as long as you like.

“I would like to say that we were brilliant and planned for Covid,” Iris Weinshall, chief operating officer of the New York Public Library, told me. Instead, the rooftop terrace emerged from community gatherings where attendees advocated for bigger and better meeting and event space.

Mecanoo founding partner and creative director Francine Houben was offended by the American habit of wasting valuable rooftop space on noisy HVAC systems. The architect worked with his team to design an oddly shaped container in copper-weathered green, known as the “wizard’s hat”, to hide and muffle all the machinery, freeing up the roof “for the people”.

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

Perhaps the most spectacular (and, arguably, the most divisive) example is the Beijing Subcenter Library Reading Room designed by Norwegian firm Snohetta. Currently under construction, this interior space encompasses more than four acres of undulating, glazed grounds supported by columns that the architects liken to ginkgo trees. Imagine Zion National Park, but with bleachers rather than rock formations. “It’s really designed to be a piece of nature,” observed Snohetta’s partner Robert Greenwood. “It’s so big that you feel like you’re in a valley; you are on the side of a hill.

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

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


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