This text is a part of our newest Design special report, about new artistic pathways formed by the pandemic.
As the primary winter of the pandemic drew to a detailed, somebody in my Twitter feed enthused about an app known as Libby that made it particularly straightforward to borrow and browse library books. I downloaded it, enter my New York Public Library card quantity and proceeded to binge. I devoured all the things by and about Isaac Babel, who wrote tales primarily based on his life in early-Twentieth-century Odessa, and all of Mick Herron’s Slough Home books, a couple of group of unhappy, incompetent British spies.
Libby was created by OverDrive, a Cleveland-based firm that digitizes books and different publications and distributes them to 90 p.c of North American libraries. The app debuted in 2017 however, no shock, had its largest bump in progress in 2020, a 33 p.c enhance in circulation in contrast with 2019. What distinguishes Libby from different library apps, just like the New York Public Library’s SimplyE, is that it lets you learn on a Kindle (as a substitute of, say, your telephone). And it has a particular fashion, minimalist and candy.
Libby suggests, deliberately or not, that public libraries, the precise buildings, are now not essential, that libraries have change into — like all the things and everybody else — place-less purveyors of content material. But when throughout the previous couple of years you changed in-person library visits with an app, you could be lacking out. What many public libraries have performed, regardless of Covid and as a result of of it, is consciously improve their bodily presence on the road and within the neighborhood.
My very own heightened appreciation of the non-virtual library started one chilly night final October. I attended a efficiency of excerpts from a brand new opera known as “A Marvelous Order,” in regards to the critic Jane Jacobs and her city planning nemesis, Robert Moses, in essence, an opera in regards to the worth of public house. Appropriately, it was staged on the broad steps and fan-shaped plaza in entrance of Brooklyn’s Artwork Deco-style Central Library, with the composer, Judd Greenstein, conducting a small ensemble of musicians and singers and with animated graphics by Joshua Frankel projected on both aspect of the library’s ornate entrance entrance.
The plaza in entrance of the Central Library might be one of the best outside house in Brooklyn’s library system (which is separate from the New York Public Library system). Most of Brooklyn’s 61 libraries, together with its Carnegie buildings, courting from the early Twentieth century, lack any type of helpful, accessible exterior house. Or so it appeared.
However in January 2020, the library’s chief technique officer, David Giles, working with a staff that included Annie Barrett of Aalso Architects, launched into a meticulous examine known as “Activating Exteriors,” to forge, in Ms. Barrett’s phrases, a “connection between a civic establishment and its neighborhood.” The thought, initially, was to seek out methods to take away fences and different obstructions that rendered the libraries’ grounds inaccessible to the general public.
Just a few months after Covid hit, the long-term venture was reworked into what Ms. Barrett known as a “deployable technique.” Mentioned Mr. Giles, “We pushed into tactical mode.”
The library determined it needed to transfer at the very least a few of its companies outside. Regardless that the libraries had been closed, the Wi-Fi was left on and, over time, the Brooklyn Public Library put in signal-boosting antennas atop most branches in order that New Yorkers who lack residence web connections might have entry to the online from exterior. Then, at 30 or so branches, they positioned teams of cafe tables and chairs, plus the occasional e-book cart, wherever they’d match, on sidewalks or on slim strips of grass.
However the boldest transfer was the invention of the “Roadway Studying Room,” designed by Ms. Barrett and her agency, and primarily based on the town Division of Transportation’s requirements for restaurant “streeteries.” These little buildings had been supposed to embody the gravitas related to public libraries and likewise a whiff of grandeur. “We weren’t going to do issues like string occasion lights throughout the sidewalk,” Ms. Barrett recalled.
The fundamental sheds, with distinctive, barrel-vaulted roofs, had been fabricated by Bednark Studio, a agency on the Brooklyn Navy Yard, painted an attention grabbing electrical blue and deposited curbside in entrance of the Kensington, Crown Heights and Walt Whitman (Fort Greene) branches. In line with Mr. Giles, the outside seating attracted each common library patrons and random individuals on the lookout for a spot to relaxation. Sometimes, law enforcement officials would use the tables to eat lunch, and, he advised me, “in Brighton Seaside, individuals would play chess.”
The outside studying rooms had been a bit uncared for by the point I visited Walt Whitman in February; the chairs and tables had been eliminated and the construction was hemmed in by illegally parked automobiles. However the thought they characterize — reinvention of the general public library as a free-form group hub — continues to evolve. And, because it occurs, this evolution is what positioned some libraries to operate particularly properly throughout the pandemic.
The brand new Greenpoint Library and Environmental Schooling Heart, for instance, funded partly by a $5 million grant from the settlement for ExxonMobil’s large Newtown Creek oil spill, was conceived as a disseminator of environmental consciousness and data. When it first opened in September 2020, it might provide books solely on a “seize and go” foundation. However the design for its environmental mission, by the structure agency Marble Fairbanks and panorama structure agency SCAPE, offered an uncommon quantity of outside house, together with a rooftop “studying backyard” (with bleachers for the readers and shrubbery for the birds) and a second rooftop lined with planters the place group members might be taught to domesticate greens and flowers.
“From the start we had been investigating all of the totally different ways in which outside house can be utilized by the group,” mentioned the architect Karen Fairbanks. The rooftop areas have been properly used over the previous yr and a half for occasions together with night stargazing and workshops on topics like expertise for teenagers and stitching.
That the roof deck turned a public library standing image throughout a interval once we might solely safely collect outside is a contented accident. In Washington, D.C., for example, the Dutch structure agency Mecanoo included a spacious roof backyard in its renovation plans for the central department of the town’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, a hard-edge 1972 Ludwig Mies van der Rohe constructing. These plans had been accomplished in 2016. The rooftop terrace, nonetheless, with its verdant panorama of untamed grasses and flowers, made its public debut in September 2020. “It’s been by far one of the best used a part of the constructing,” mentioned Richard Reyes-Gavilan, govt director of the town’s libraries.
The King roof deck is, directly, a spot to briefly escape the constraints of the virus and proof of an underlying pattern, Mr. Reyes-Gavilan mentioned. “Libraries have been making an attempt to determine methods to make their buildings much less transactional. We wish individuals to return and keep for lengthy durations of time to see the library as their co-working house or their third place.”
Mecanoo (working with New York’s Beyer Blinder Belle Architects and Planners) additionally included a roof deck in its redesign of the long-neglected Mid-Manhattan Library, now renamed (for the venture’s largest donor) the Stavros Niarchos Basis Library. On my first go to, on a heat autumn afternoon, I used to be astonished by the generosity of the idea: It’s a public rooftop in the course of Manhattan the place you may sit quietly and browse, or drink espresso (there’s a department of Amy’s Bread), for so long as you’d like.
“I want to say that we had been good and foresaw Covid,” Iris Weinshall, the New York Public Library’s chief working officer, advised me. As a substitute the roof deck emerged from group gatherings the place attendees argued for extra and higher assembly and occasion house.
Mecanoo’s founding associate and artistic director, Francine Houben, was offended by the American behavior of squandering precious roof house on noisy HVAC programs. The architect labored along with her staff to plan an oddly formed container in copper-patina inexperienced, generally known as the “wizard’s hat,” to cover and muffle all of the equipment, thereby liberating the roof “for the individuals.”
In fact, all of those efforts to broaden the attain of the general public library have been comparatively modest. Elsewhere on the earth, the notion that libraries are synonymous with openness has impressed bolder gestures.
Probably the most spectacular (and, arguably, most conflicted) instance will be the studying room of the Beijing Sub-Heart Library designed by the Norwegian agency Snohetta. At the moment below building, this indoor house encompasses greater than 4 acres of undulating, glass-enclosed terrain supported by columns that the architects liken to ginkgo bushes. Image Zion Nationwide Park, however with tiers of bleachers reasonably than rock formations. “It’s actually designed to be a chunk of nature,” noticed Snohetta’s associate, Robert Greenwood. “It’s simply so huge that it looks like you might be out in a valley; you’re on a hillside.”
As Mr. Reyes-Gavilan put it in regards to the King Memorial Library roof deck, “Once I’m up there on a heat day like right now, individuals are so grateful that such an area exists.” Or, as Ms. Houben, who argues that each library wants a backyard, recommended, “A library must be so good that you just deliver your individual e-book, proper?”
Karrie Jacobs is a New York-based author specializing in structure, design and urbanism.