Uni @ New Amsterdam Market, 9/11/11

On September 11 I took a long walk along the East River to the New Amsterdam Market, near South Street Seaport, to experience the New York debut of Uni, the “portable reading room” developed by Leslie and Sam Davol (of Magnetic Fields fame), funded in large part via Kickstarter, and designed by Höweler + Yoon Architecture. According to the project’s website:

The Uni Project aims to do one thing and do it well: temporarily transform almost any available urban space into a public reading room and venue for learning. We start with the conviction that books and learning should be prominent, accessible, and part of what we expect at street-level in our cities.

To accomplish this, the Uni Project is creating a new kind of portable institution called the Uni, which we will install and operate in parks, plazas, farmers’ markets, and other available outdoor spaces in New York City beginning Fall 2011. The purpose of the Uni is to share books, showcase the act of learning, and improve public space. It is intended to be a new resource for the city, providing residents with a place to gather and contribute to their own well-being and advancement, as well as that of their neighborhood and city.

The collection, comprised of donated materials, is organized into topical “mini-collections” (focusing mainly on poetry, short stories, essays, art, children’s books, and reference) that have to fit within the structure’s 16″ cubes. I kind of like the intentional “design determinism” here; the spatial structure imposes an editorial mandate. In addition, individuals and groups are invited to “curate” modules on special topics. The New Amsterdam Market installation featured modules by 826NYC, New York Bound Books, and Furnace Press.

A few cubes are dedicated to interactive exhibits or activities, thus representing the integration of reading and making, thinking and doing. The Drawing Lab cube provided materials to make a zoetrope, while another offered inspiration and tools for patrons to write their own “flash fiction” — “snapshot” short stories. The Uni also aims to partner with other cultural and educational institutions (they collaborated with the Brooklyn Public Library during the Brooklyn Book Festival last weekend) to develop a “full schedule of public readings, talks, classes, afterschool programs, workshops, and screenings.”

I love how this project has the potential to put learning front and center in public space. As its creators explain, “What we see at street level in many urban neighborhoods does not reflect our aspirations for ourselves and our society. If we’re serious about having a well-educated society, let’s build cities where learning experiences are prominent, accessible, and enjoyable.” Through its innovative design Uni calls attention to itself, and it makes explicit the anomalousness of its program in the midst of highly commercialized, highly distracting environments. I’ve always thought public libraries served a similar function: they might not be in the streets in the same way that the Uni is, but at least the public library’s presence along the street — in buildings that are often among its cities’ grandest — demonstrates the tremendous value a community places in learning. The day our libraries disappear from the urban fabric is the day our cities lose their souls.

I’m convinced by the Uni creators’ explanation of the need for this project: its ability to make learning “prominent, accessible, and enjoyable”; its ability to provide opportunities for unique, spontaneous street-level experiences; its ability to serve as a partner to large institutions, allowing them to provide programming, often on a smaller, more accessible scale, outside their walls. Uni also has the potential to reconnect us with the book. According to Uni’s website: “Many urban residents, especially children, do not have easy access to books and places to read outside of school. Book stores are closing. Public libraries in many cities are struggling.”

That last sentence is the only thing that gives me pause about this project. What is Uni’s relationship to the public library? Is it an alternative, a competitor, a partner,…? There have been a whole host of on-the-street “guerilla library,” micro-library, and distributed library efforts (e.g., the Corner Libraries, Ourshelves, the Underground Library, this thing, etc.) over the past few years. How do they regard their relationship to their bigger, more place-bound institutional siblings?

A recent Wall Street Journal article quotes Queens librarian Lauren Comito, who regards these niche libraries as “perpetuat[ing] the myth that libraries are ‘a bunch of books on a shelf’ and that anyone could be a librarian, you just have to like to read.” She continues:

“At least one of these ‘DIY’ libraries is a doghouse full of books… Well, if people confuse [public libraries] with being just a bigger version of a doghouse full of books, then yes, they could weaken our finances by cheapening our value from a profession to a hobby.”

While I think these portable/distributed/guerilla/niche/alternative/atomized library projects are charming and exciting, and they have the potential to play really vital civic and cultural and educational roles, we can’t come to think that these ad hoc projects — however organized or systematized they might become — could serve as a replacement for our “struggling public libraries.” That big, lumbering institution, fallible though it is, serves critical custodial and infrastructural and civic functions that none of these pop-ups ever could. Could a pop-up manage an archive of thousand of linear feet of archival documents? Could it maintain an insanely complex technological infrastructure and subscriptions to thousands of online databases? Could it provide a physical space where the homeless, the latchkey kids, and the otherwise disenfranchised can come in from the cold on blustery days? No — we still need the public library proper to play these roles.

I’m not saying that these on-the-street projects do regard themselves as viable substitutes to the library-as-institution. I’m just saying it’s important that we consider what their relationship could be, so that both serve mutually beneficial roles.

Uni’s creators acknowledge that “cities need new solutions that are lighter-weight, more flexible, less expensive to operate, and better integrated into our patterns of daily life.” The nimbleness, the portability, the in-the-streetness of Uni offer lessons that our traditional public libraries can learn from. Uni also issues an important reminder of the significance of design — of creating a material infrastructure that enables this flexibility and efficiency. Uni could serve as an R&D lab for the existing public library; it could “provid[e] a place to experiment and learn new engagement strategies that work equally well “back home” in more traditional environments. The Uni [could support] existing institutions.”

I’m all for guerilla tactics, DIY urbanism, and other “interventionist” strategies (Mimi Zeiger’s series of “Interventionist’s Toolkit” articles on Places has been fantastic). But I think it’s important to remember that DIY isn’t necessarily counter-institutional, that it’s possible for institutions to be good guys. The public library is one such protagonist, and I’d hope that these DIY projects would aim to support the good work that the library has always done and to help the institution innovate its way back into “on the street” vitality.

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