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Picturing the Library as Public Space

Elizabeth Felicella spent five years documenting how libraries reflect and shape their communities and times.

The Throg's Neck branch in the Bronx. (Elizabeth Felicella)

Elizabeth Felicella’s photographs of New York’s public libraries are empty of people, but full of traces of them. She captures ghosts of letters and fingerprints on chalkboards, and doodles at the base of pencil sharpeners. Paper-wrapped book spines wait for patrons to collect them. There are folded newspapers, squiggles of electronics cords, and chairs pushed back from desks.

Felicella, an architectural photographer, spent five years documenting all of New York’s 210 public library branches. The images are now collected in an exhibition, “Reading Room: A Catalog of New York City’s Branch Libraries,” on view at the Center for Architecture.

She snapped most of the images in the buildings’ interiors before they opened to the public. By the time Felicella left, lines would already be snaking outside the doors. Patrons were eager to get inside, “in every single, solitary case, no matter which branch or what weather,” she says. Even absent crowds, the photographs testify to the central role libraries play in public life.

A chalkboard at the Rochdale branch. (Elizabeth Felicella)

The spaces, she adds, narrate a case study of architectural trends and gesture towards the way the buildings shaped and reflected the communities around them. The precursor to the Roosevelt Island library, Felicella says, was hatched in a couple’s apartment building when they moved over from Forest Hills; she says they petitioned the city for a formal branch. The institutions are nimble: They can be conveners of resources, assisting with job searches, serving as work spaces, or bridging access gaps for internet users. For many people, they’re also sites of comfort and community. One branch Felicella photographed overlooks a mural painted by community members; on the windows, light filters through kids’ paintings. At another branch, Felicella says, a man would regularly create a little fortress of how-to books and sit down to crochet. “The actual place of the library, for some people, is an extension of their world,” she says.

The photographs are displayed in chronological order, inviting viewers to take stock of shifting aesthetics and puzzle out how these spaces evolved their uses over time. “You can read the libraries,” Felicella says. The structures look markedly distinct from one another: with ornate fireplaces, some examples from the early 20th century evoke parlors; many mid-century constructions tend to look more like classrooms, Felicella says. The buildings are “almost like people,” she adds. “They have their own character.”

Brooklyn Public Library’s Pacific Library branch. (Elizabeth Felicella)

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Center for Architecture is hosting a symposium about the present and future of libraries. As my colleague Laura Bliss noted, the institutions are charged with increasingly robust duties, sometimes picking up slack to provide essential services. Meanwhile, they’ve also got to burnish and buttress the structures themselves. (The New York Public Library’s Rose Main Reading Room, tucked inside a 105-year-old building, recently reopened following a two-year, $12 million restoration launched after a plaster ornament slipped from the ceiling.) As libraries continue to innovate around how to best serve their communities, Felicella hopes they’ll preserve their distinctive looks and historic resources. That’s something libraries are especially good at, she says—“keeping the past for the future.”

“Reading Room: A Catalog of New York City’s Branch Libraries” is on view at the Center for Architecture through January 7, 2017.

The Forest Hills branch. (Elizabeth Felicella)
The Hill Castle Library in the Bronx. (Elizabeth Felicella)
The Sheepshead branch, dating to 1963. (Elizabeth Felicella)
The Pelham branch. (Elizabeth Felicella)

About the Author

  • Jessica Leigh Hester
    Jessica Leigh Hester is a senior associate editor at CityLab. She writes about culture, sustainability, and green spaces, and lives in Brooklyn.