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Imagining the Design of the Library That Does Everything

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The Architect's City, a monthly series on Curbed National, invites an emerging architect to reimagine an existing structure in his or her city. This month's column considers New York's public libraries.

The traditional image of the library as a quiet repository for the written word is less true today than it has ever been. Arguably, libraries have never been merely homes for books, but carry with them an aura of intellectualism that reflexively expands. Today, libraries fulfill myriad roles: community hubs, co-working spaces, depositories for local resources, information, and creativity. They offer children's storytimes, de facto babysitting for older kids, job training, ESL classes, discussion groups, safe space for tutoring, elder care, and more.

"What we found," says Brad Samuels, partner of Brooklyn-based SITU Studio, "is that libraries literally do everything."

This month's proposal for The Architect's City hitches a piggyback ride on last week's symposium, organized by New York's Center for an Urban Future in collaboration with The Architectural League of New York, sharing architects' and designers' takes on the future of the branch library in New York City. Attendance at New York's three library systems—Brooklyn, Queens, and New York, which includes the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island—is rising. Citywide, circulation spiked 59 percent in the last decade; in the same period, 48 of the city's 207 branches more than doubled attendance at programming that includes workshops on entrepreneurship and computer literacy classes.

SITU proposes a system of branch library "outposts" that they're calling L+, which utilizes often-overlooked yet eminently useful spaces in New York: empty storefronts and mall shops, ferry stations and unused apartment complex community rooms.

"The role of the library has changed, but the space of the library has yet to catch up," Samuels says, citing the necessary balance between traditional and non-traditional library spaces. Branch libraries should not lose books or space in which to read them. But they need to gain flexible meeting areas, increased technological infrastructure—in some cases as simple as sufficient electric plugs—and deployment in creative, non-traditional ways.

To respond to this need, SITU convoked a team of designers, librarians, and academics to create a flexible, replicable, and easily installed "kit of parts," and then find spaces in which to implement it. Their proposal focuses on library branches in which the needs of the surrounding community have shifted out of sync with the built environment, and also vacant storefronts, transportation hubs, or underutilized spaces in areas where branch libraries are overloaded.

The team's three case studies deploy their kit of parts in varied ways, accompanied by varied levels of physical installation. First, at the Astoria branch of the Queens Library, in an area that's changed drastically since its construction, SITU's proposed intervention is minimal, involving assessing the location's needs, swishing up the signage and streamlining pedestrian flow, and adding items of flexible-use furniture to an existing meeting room: a foldable table and chairs, stools, storage space, and a projector.

Second, the team examined vacant storefronts in neighborhoods like Williamsburg, Corona, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Grand Concourse, settling eventually on an empty storefront near the Macon branch of the Brooklyn Public Library in Bedford-Stuyvesant. The Macon branch, Samuels says, essentially functions as a teen center. To site an outpost nearby would absorb some programming and allow the library to expand offerings to further engage teens.

The outpost would need furniture and storage space. But it would also include a pre-made wood-frame skeleton that provides infrastructural necessities like electrical outlets, lighting, and storage, erasing the need to drastically modify the existing space and enabling an array of new activities. Samuels suggests maker classes, job training, and even—especially if the outpost were to be located in what might have once been a restaurant—cooking classes.

Samuels stresses that these are not 'pop-up libraries'—they will require more time to fulfill their mission in any given community—but rather something between a pop-up and a static branch library. By targeting persistently vacant storefronts, the city both improves a neighborhood and potentially obtains a discount on space in return for a few years of steady rent. Rachel Meltzer, professor of urban policy at The New School for Public Engagement, pounded the pavement to identify and assess possible sites and partners. Available spaces come and go, she says, but across the board, she found that area brokers were optimistic.

"Every broker or business improvement district said that having [the] city as tenant is appealing," she says. "You know the city's not going out of business, you know they're going to pay on time. The biggest hump is lease initiation and how long it might take."

In the case of structures already owned by city entities, that particular challenge disappears. For the St. George outpost, SITU proposes installing a kit of parts large enough within the Staten Island Ferry Terminal to essentially create a library where now only a transit hub exists. The wood-frame infrastructural skeleton—now freestanding—becomes a small library, adaptable for use as meeting room, performance space, classroom, lending library, or gallery. Sheltered public space now offers services and activities: the frame exhibits artwork, provides stadium seating to watch a dance performance in front of it, and closes up with metal grating at night. Samuels envisions a floating collection of books able to be picked up and dropped off by commuters, but also a curated permanent collection that librarians tailor to the community of passengers transiting through.

As Meltzer points out, leveraging city-owned property or discounted retail space provides "a feasible, achievable way to expand services that are clearly in demand." Yet at a time when New York's Public Libraries are already short on funds, even this—fabrication, staffing, and rental costs—might seem out of reach. Were the L+ proposal to be undertaken, partnering with area non-profits or neighborhood businesses seems a logical way to defray potential costs.

"There is certainly a place for grand, central libraries," says Samuels, "but we can amplify the effects of the branch library by adding in these magnetic outposts. The pressures on library budgets in New York are very real. There's a need for innovative design solutions that can create ways to distribute services." By taking advantage of spaces that already exist, SITU's proposal pulls the neutral, dignified, and democratic library out of the building and even further into the world.

L+ was proposed by SITU Studio in conjunction with Jessica Blaustein, Lauren Comito, Glen Cummings, Jesse Keenan, Rachel Meltzer, and Christian Zabriskie.
· The Architect's City archive [Curbed]
· New York Public Library coverage [Curbed NY]