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Tag Archives: public space

This is a long posting, but its the most important thing you are going to read on my blog. So read it, OK?

Earlier this week, The New York Daily News ran a story describing how budget cuts are preventing Brooklyn Public Library from opening an innovative new service point in DUMBO, Brooklyn. I developed this new service model with BPL over the past two years; it began as a project while I was student at Pratt Institute and became my job to pursue and develop it at the library. While the project remained an active pursuit for Brooklyn Public Library, it made sense not to discuss the details of the service model, the potential locations, and the incredible impact it could have by bringing library service to communities that have been largely neglected. Now, in light of the alarming lack of funding support from the city, and in recognition of the fact that building a 21st century public library is neither a closed nor a proprietary act, I feel compelled to share the details with the greater library community in hopes that this work can be used anywhere, by anybody. With any luck, a stand-up community figure in Brooklyn will recognize the importance of this venture, and perhaps they can find it in themselves to donate the necessary funds to support these efforts and build social capital in their neighborhood. New York Public Library received a 100 million dollar donation last week. WHAT ABOUT BROOKLYN PUBLIC LIBRARY???  We are NOT the same system!!!  10 million dollars, or even 3 million dollars given to Brooklyn Public Library could open up and staff quite a few library Outposts. Each of these Outposts would have a tremendous positive impact on their immediate community; each of these Outposts would serve to strengthen Brooklyn as a whole.

So what is this Library Outpost model I speak of all about, anyways? Here it is in bullets:

• Strategic location. The Outpost is a small space in a commercial area, a business improvement district, or a transportation hub. Rather than bring the patrons to the library, the Outpost brings the library to the patrons.

• Extended service hours. The Outpost will be open from 8AM until 10PM, giving the community access to library materials, exhibitions, and programs during the times most convenient to them.

• Collection available via online holds system. Rather than providing a localized browsing collection, the Outpost will connect users to all library materials via the catalog.

• Reference service. Outpost staff will provide exceptional reference services using online databases and internet searching strategies. All reference sources will be electronic.

• Wireless access and digital library content. The Outpost will be a comfortable WiFi zone to work in from a table or play in from a lounge chair. Through patrons’ portable devices they can access digital content via the library website.

• Programming and Exhibition space. The Outpost will feature exhibitions that pair the library’s collection and services with art related to community interests. The space will also be flexible enough to accommodate performances, lectures, concerts, discussions, even meals during evening hours.

Now the longer explanation:

Library Outposts are storefront library service points, no more than 1500 sq. ft. in size, centrally located in busy commercial districts or near transportation hubs. The storefront presence makes the Outpost agile and adaptable to the particular features of each community, providing fundamental library service and serving as a gateway to the full range of programs, classes, and events offered throughout the larger service ecology. The space is easily transformable; one moment a silent reading room, another moment a performance art space, another moment a forum for a community group meeting. Storefront library facilities have been attempted in the past with limited success, but the Outpost model takes advantage of emerging technologies to reconsider the distribution of library content and materials (you know, like books, DVDs, etc.) and invent itself as something entirely different. Presently a few libraries offer similar services: Houston Public Library has a few small, tech-heavy locations, Contra Costa Public Library offers material vending machines in the BART stations, and with the generous help of the Gates Foundation, New Orleans Public Library has opened some storefront facilities that have been received enthusiastically by the community. The Outpost model combines these practices and takes them to the next level.

With the rise of the Internet as the primary public information transfer medium, library patrons have a new set of expectations. Just as clothing shoppers size up their potential new outfits in an online environment, just as antiques enthusiasts scour eBay for the bargains they once found at flea markets, library patrons now browse online catalogs for the materials they once hunted for on miles of shelves. For many library patrons the browsing experience has already become a virtual phenomenon rather than a physical reality. While this shift emerged slowly at first, library catalogs are quickly becoming more and more user friendly. Online reserve statistics collected across the county support the popularity of this virtual browsing trend. Between open source products like LibraryThing for Libraries, OpenLibrary.org, and the Google Books API, virtual browsing is becoming simpler, access to catalog records is getting easier, and physical collections are being exposed and utilized in more ways than ever. Libraries need to embrace and welcome this change as an opportunity to provide new, unique service delivery, and we need to adjust our physical spaces accordingly.

So I’ll explain the biggest mental leap associated with the Outpost concept first, the piece that really makes it unique: the Outpost has NO LOCAL COLLECTION. Every single piece of print material (with the exception of magazines and newspapers, and those can be eliminated digitally in a different manner) is an item that was requested online for pickup at the Outpost location. This in turn frees up 1500 sq. ft. of library space for programs, exhibitions, classes, movies, concerts, community meetings, serving coffee, and virtually any community-building, social capital-creating activity. The library of the 21st Century has to maintain a physical presence, but that presence cannot always be in the form of a well-organized, publicly accessible book warehouse.

Now, before any librarians freak out and scream, “NO! People still want to browse through stacks of books!” I want to make it abundantly clear that the goal is NOT to replace all traditional libraries with library Outposts. An Outpost is just one node in a network of different physical service points. Just as the car-culture era bookmobiles didn’t replace library branches, neither will Outposts. The important thing is getting these little service nodes into the community in the right places, and giving people as much as we possibly can out of them. Location is everything in the urban environment. When I began developing this idea I was using Brooklyn as a case study, I’ll continue to do so here, and I am confident my readers will see how this can be implemented in any urban public library system.

It is also important to understand that urban communities are in a constant state of flux. Demographics in Brooklyn change rapidly and it is difficult to provide needed services with a limited budget and aging facilities in fixed locations. This presents a challenge for the library. Many of BPL’s branches were built in the first two decades of the 20th century; since then entire communities have moved, disappeared, shifted, and grown. Library facilities have not been able to follow the people as community centers and business districts migrated to new areas. Many large, beautiful public libraries are located in desolate and remote corners of their neighborhoods. Regrettably, the working adults who live and labor in the rapidly developing communities have moved out of reach of the Brooklyn Public Library. They have become potential patrons rather than active patrons. This is unacceptable; the public library’s mission as a democratic institution supporting universal self-initiated education demands a highly visible central location.

At the same time that our neighborhoods have changed physically, Brooklynites’ expectations of service hours have rapidly altered in recent years (I believe this is a safe assertion nation-wide, particularly in urban areas, as well). When banker’s hours still meant something, citizens were accustomed to waiting in line to receive necessary services. Today, we expect stamps, cash, train tickets, Metrocards, even groceries to be available whenever we want them and with minimal human interaction.

I’m going to show you a few maps of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods to use as examples of urban shift, but I’ll use DUMBO as the primary example. These communities are unique but they have each experienced dramatic demographic and physical changes in the last ten years. All lack accessible library services in their revitalized areas. It is crucial that the public library tracks these changes and serves these people, and it is crucial that the library is provided with adequate funding so that we can do so properly.

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DUMBO, for those not familiar with Brooklyn, is the area Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. It is a fascinating neighborhood known for its arts community, particularly architecture and design, but everything else as well. Just 10 years ago DUMBO was a drastically different place, filled with empty warehouses, industry, and many, many rats. The rats are probably still there, but there isn’t much empty space in DUMBO now after the enormous urban renewal effort that has occurred. DUMBO is literally a different place, and you know what their community lacks? A library. There is no library in DUMBO, and to hike to another library requires navigating through highway and bridge ramps and a solid 25 minutes of your time. An Outpost in DUMBO would give the community immediate access to the library’s entire collection, AND it would serve as a program and exhibition space for a specific audience.

Another interesting example is the area that the real estate folks are calling “Greenwood Heights”. Greenwood Heights is the fastest growing Mexican community in Brooklyn. The streets are always packed, and a major express subway hub makes for quite a bit of foot (and auto) traffic. New schools are being built. The nearest libraries, as you can see on the map are farrrrr awwwway. This is another perfect opportunity to provide a new service to a new community. Perhaps the Outpost is reconsidered as a computer center in this location? I quote this figure in every other blog entry I write, but AGAIN, the Pew Internet study concluded that 2/3 of all people coming to the library come to use a computer. A Greenwood heights technology center, combined with Outpost-style material delivery could actually give users what they need. It’s a perfect exercise in user-centered design: listen to what the users want and then provide it for them.

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Finally, what about Kings Plaza mall? Other libraries, for example King County in Washington State, offer services in shopping malls. What if we offered an Outpost or computer center here? Again, we go to where the people are.

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I hope this all makes sense, if you got this point in reading you may have recognized that some of the text was cut-and-paste from the many, many iterations of this concept I’ve gone through. I really believe that this model, or similar versions of it represent one aspect of the future of public library service. I’m not even going to pretend this represents some kind of all-encompassing holistic solution to the many challenges faced by urban public libraries, but it is a start. The operating cost of one of these facilities is a fraction of the cost of operating a full-sized branch library: that alone is a solid argument for efficiency. Potential benefactors: donate to the Brooklyn Public Library, demand innovative services. The librarians have the solutions but we simply cannot afford to put these ideas into action. Brooklyn deserves the best.

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Last Friday I went to Nextcity: The Art of the Possible, a Rhizome event at the New Museum. Eric Rodenbeck of Stamen Design, artist/designer/educator Christian Nold, and artist/architect J. Meejin Yoon of Howler & Yoon all spoke with Adam Greenfield of NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. This was their agenda:

“Emergent digital technologies are rapidly changing both the face of our cities and our daily experience of them, whether invoked in the production of architectural form, the representation of urban space, or our interface to the locative and other services newly available there. Dynamic maps update in real time; garments and spaces deform in response to environmental, biological and even psychological conditions. We find our very emotions made visible, public, and persistently retrievable. Somewhere along the way, we find our notions of public space, participation, and what it means to be urban undergoing the most profound sort of change.”

Though I get pretty excited about emerging technologies, particularly when they are approached from a philosophical stance, I was most interested in how this panel would address public space. It seems clear that public space will be defined differently in the rapidly approaching era of ubiquitous computing. Adam spoke briefly of Starbuck’s business model being based on Ray Oldenberg’s concept of “Third Places”: places that are neither home nor work, but places where people can publicly interact. Christian came right out and said we don’t really have many true public spaces left at this point. I, the public librarian, sat in the audience, squirming in my seat when the conversation turned in this direction.

Public Libraries are the best examples of public space (or public place, if you want to get technical) in America that I can think of. Public libraries are places of information exchange, places where knowledge is created, shared and dispersed. Libraries are the front line, they are cultural centers where anyone can bring any query and they can be answered or directed appropriately. I find it fascinating to listen to developers of open source software and data visualization projects talk about the way their work makes publicly available information accessible, manipulable, and usable for anyone and everyone. Those developers really work with the same mission public libraries do, yet somehow they represent “the future” and libraries are stuck with this archaic image as book repositories. We really need to coordinate these efforts and work together. Previously, technologies have  challenged the public library as a relevant institution because it has been so costly to invest in the flavor-of-the-month. The dramatic shift away from the home PC, the move of processing power into portable units and the environment, and the shrinking costs of memory and connectivity suggests that public libraries are in a very good position to offer information access to more people in better ways than ever before. How does these changes redefine public space? How do our behavioral patterns associated with these technologies reshape public space?

I’m excited as hell to meet with Adam next week and to talk with him about where the urban public library fits into the Nextcity. I had a forward-thinking professor at Pratt institute, David Walczyk, who said at one point to a classroom full of soon-to-be librarians that if we don’t take a strong creative roles and define the direction in which our libraries are going to grow, then some consultant will get the job and you’ll just be stuck doing what you should have told the library to do years before. I’m convinced that librarians need to look outside their profession to find the future of their libraries. We need to get off our reference-desked asses. Lets take those creative roles and define the Nextlibrary. I’m not going to let a consultant do it*.

*parties interested in hiring me as a consultant feel free to email me with offers 🙂

I’m going to go ahead and post my paper proposal in its entirety since I’ve had so many hits on my other entry. Again, the thumbnail image at the bottom will link to a larger more readable pic.

American public libraries exist to promote self-initiated lifelong learning and to build an informed democracy. Parks, town squares and public libraries are the only public spaces in the United States; spaces free to everyone provided they adhere to basic rules of socially acceptable conduct. Ample public space promotes a healthy community ecology; it facilitates the cross-pollination of ideas and conversations between individuals. How are public libraries to extend this same community building, conversation-facilitating, discourse-enabling paradigm to the virtual world? How do the rules of engagement differ, and what are the challenges, similarities, and differences associated with community building on the social web?

Successfully transforming a physical public space into a public place requires a leap of faith on the part of the administrators who oversee that space, because place-making is user driven. A public space is built with a specific programmatic projection, but the space only becomes place when the patronage re-enforces the programmatic function of the facility though use. This is the appropriation of space. The appropriation of physical space is an instinctive, intuitive, self-organizing activity, taking place both at an individual level and as a collaborative, intuitive effort on the part of multiple participants.

The social web is not actually space. The social web is a self-organizing metaphor for space, a simulation of space, and while the rules of engagement in this virtual space originate in the established context of physical space, they are embedded in a digital mediation which lacks the complexity and intricacies of interface that our physical body has evolved in order to interact with real space. Social web participants create place via their virtual personalities, profiles, or avatars. They customize their profiles in the way we decorate our apartments in the physical world. Efficient place-making then becomes relative to the usability of the particular social web platform; place-making as a practice is reinvented by the social web medium as personality-making. A public library’s place-making potential on the social web lies in enabling and facilitating the creation of patrons’ personalities, not in trying to recreate itself, the library, as a personality. Personality is regularly re-appropriated on the social web when html code is cut and pasted from one personality to another, much the way a skateboarder re-appropriates a set of stairs as a recreational obstacle in the physical world.

A complete paper will further examine personality-making as a place-making practice in virtual architectures, investigate the ways in which physical public libraries can or cannot support these efforts, and anticipate useful programs for virtual public spaces as community-building enterprises in the future. It will present case studies of successes and failures of attempts at community building via social web architectures in public libraries. It will explore best practices for bridging the gap between digitally mediated virtual space and the real, flesh and blood individuals that make physical communities.

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I’ve been doing some research on how public space becomes public place at public libraries, in both physical architectures and virtual architectures.

I just submitted an abstract as a proposal to present a full paper on this topic at a conference. Fingers crossed. I hope to be writing a lot more about this topic in the future. In the meantime, I wanted to share with my readers a graphic that sort of explains my train of thought. Click on the thumbnail to be directed to a larger image.

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One of the great things about going to conferences in strange cities is that you get to explore new architecture and have a different urban experience than you may be used to in your own city. I definitely took advantage of this at the ALA Midwinter Meeting in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Savings Fund Society is an example of architectural genius, so I had to see it.

As a resident of Williamsburg, Brooklyn I have long admired the Williamsburg Houses, a housing project located where Bushwick Avenue and Grand Street intersect. That’s right, I admire the architecture of the projects. While some would argue that the public housing schemes that were designed as utopian visions in the 1930s-1950s, many by European immigrants, were urban planning disasters, one has to step back, consider their historical context, and admire the concepts and aesthetics of which they were born. William Lescaze, a Scandinavian immigrant and proponent of International Style architecture, was responsible for the design of the Williamsburg Houses. In 2003 here was a NYC Landmark and Preservation Committee hearing concerning these buildings. I’ll quote it below, or you can read the pdf here.

“A collaborative project of the Federal Public Works Administration and the newly established New York City Housing Authority, the Williamsburg Houses are notable as one of the earliest housing developments in the United States to reflect the ideas of the modern movement in architecture. In the 1920s Williamsburg was one of the most densely populated sections of Brooklyn and nearly six hundred, mostly frame, structures were demolished to create the 23.3 acre site. Proposed in 1934, this residential complex was skillfully designed by the Williamsburg Associated Architects during 1935 and most units were occupied by 1938. The partnership included Richmond H. Shreve, of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, the architects of the Empire State Building, and William Lescaze, the Swiss-born architect who helped introduce the “International” style on the eastern seaboard. Lescaze was responsible for the design, which includes twenty 4-story structures on four “super” blocks turned at 15 degree angles to the street grid. Oriented to the sun and prevailing winds, this unusual layout produced a series of large and small courts, many of which flow into a large public space at the center of each block. A light-colored palette distinguishes the facades, executed in tan brick and exposed concrete. Among the most prominent features are the entrances, marked by blue tile and projecting stainless steel canopies, and the handsome streamlined storefronts. The complex was widely discussed by contemporary critics and more than 25,000 New Yorkers applied for 1,622 apartments. During the mid-1990s, the buildings underwent an extensive restoration which included the replacement of all exterior materials. Sponsored by the Housing Authority, in consultation with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, these alterations were remarkably sensitive and in the 4th edition of the AIA Guide to New York City the “revivified” complex was called “the best public housing project ever built in New York.”

Lescaze’s townhouse office, also a masterpiece, is in midtown Manhattan and you can visit it.

So naturally I was really excited to see another of Lescaze’s realized projects, the first International Style skyscraper. The Philadelphia Savings Fund Society building is a real Philadelphia landmark; it stands in center city with pride and prominence. My favorite aspect of the PSFS building is actually more of a Functionalist feature. Check this out:

“For the first time, instead of hiding the different functional areas in the building, they were made visible in the exterior form. For each of these functional areas, different materials were used.

The base of the building, which included retail stores, is covered with polish gray granite. The base forms a podium from which a 30-story T-shaped office tower rises. The rear of the building acts as the service core and is covered with glazed and unglazed black brick. It contrasts with the sand colored limestone facade of the offices. The windows form horizontal strips, emphasizing the horizontal layers of office floors. Wilcox objected to this idea, so as a compromise exposed vertical columns were added.”

I wrote a post about participant-driven re-appropriation of library space a little while ago, and I spoke a bit about repurposing, renovating, and re-tasking buildings as a creative practice that is a crucial part of simultaneous individual human development and urban development. I didn’t really address the important issue of preservation and the delicate balance between repurposing architecture to maintain a healthy community versus preserving historically significant buildings as cultural artifacts. Loews Hotel’s stepped in and purchased the building in 1997 after the PSFS parent company went bankrupt. It’s a pretty snazzy hotel now, and a lot of the American Library Association functions associated with the conference were held in their facilities. I was initially distraught when I realized that Lescaze’s building had been renovated and retasked, but it has been a few days now and I’ve had the distance to get a grip and see this as a positive outcome. I had hoped to visit this place and enter a time warp, like the type of time warp you experience when you visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water. Instead I was sitting in this giant conference room with cheap carpet and junky furniture. I was looking at a 1997 reinterpretation of a 1932 space, and much to the dismay of the preservationist in me it totally worked.

This, as often seems to be the case, got me back to thinking about public libraries, specifically old Carnegie era facilities, and how we renovate them to serve as 21st century libraries. I can really only speak of the branches at Brooklyn Public Library with any authority, but I know that it is a real challenge to be burdened with these beautiful, landmarked, aging, costly to maintain facilities that are frequently poorly located and were built to serve as knowledge sharing spaces for different people in a different time. Unfortunately, I have yet to visit any renovated early 20th century style library (let’s say pre-1930), in Brooklyn or otherwise, that I feel is a really exceptional reconsideration of a library space via the needs of 21st century users. Put simply: as of thus far, it appears to me that we need to build entirely new libraries, totally rethink the way library systems function, reconsider the distribution of materials between facilities, and start from the ground up. I want to be wrong, I want this to run parallel to my experience with the Loews Hotel renovation of Lescaze’s building, I want to look back at this post in a few days and find that I am just being something like a crank purist preservationist.  Until then….

A shoutout to Gretchen Hams and her people at the Muhlenberg Branch of the New York Public Library for the creation of their brand new teen space! I went to school with Gretchen and I know this has been a long time in the works. There will be a soft opening for the space this Tuesday, and I’m looking forward to going and checking it out.

Creating teen spaces in public libraries is a welcome trend. Teens use our libraries. We want them to use our libraries, so the consensus has been “lets make them comfortable”. Put differently and perhaps coldly, a user need exists so we create a space that best fits the program for that user’s needs. What would happen if we didn’t make the spaces for the teens?

They would define it themselves.

The reappropriation of space is an activity that children, teens and young adults excel at. Cities, particularly New York (my city) are wonderful places to watch space be recycled and reclaimed by new tenants and spontaneous participants. Every single loft conversion, from SoHo to Bushwick, from TriBeCa to Long Island City represents a space someone saw as an opportunity for innovation and change. Skateboarders are great reappropriators of space as well, take a look at any waxed up curb or handrail for evidence. A lot of people have really enjoyed the reappropriation of the McCarren Park pool in Williamsburg, Brooklyn as a performance space. Some of our great museums have been converted and retasked as well: PS1 is an old school, and the New York Hall of Science was a 1964 World Fair pavilion.

I am of the opinion that this reappropriation is healthy and developmentally important both for the spaces and for the users or participants creating those spaces. One of my greatest hideouts as a kid was the shaded area underneath a large pine tree that was otherwise surrounded by dense brush. My sister and I turned that area into our “fort”, where we spent hours mixing concoctions out of mud and tree sap, whittling away at walking sticks, being creative. Isn’t it great to think of our teen spaces and our children’s rooms in public libraries as little forts, creative havens for young minds to explore tangents?

Space is never static, immutable, or closed, it exists for and because of its users. When these NYPL librarians watch the way their new teen space functions, they will be watching to make sure it exists in harmony with the patrons it was intended for. The teens will determine how successful the space is as they use or don’t use it. It is the librarians’ job to make sure that in six months if something needs to change, if the entire place needs to be rearranged because it is being used differently than they had anticipated, they will do it. Being a good librarian is a tough job… you have to be a service interface designer, an architect, a behavioral psychologist… ☺

Congrats to Gretchen and company for their success!