Bonnie Tsui is a contributing writer to CityLab. She writes frequently for The New York Times and is the author of American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods.
A handful of new programs offer books in public spaces to anyone who wants them
In 2007, Colin McMullan started the Corner Library Project. The program title is actually quite literal - McMullan installs small, weatherproof sheds on street corners in cities like New Haven and Brooklyn. Inside are collections of books accessible to members and curated by the community.
The original New Haven project came out of McMullan’s longtime affinity for public libraries. "My mother and father both work in public libraries," says McMullan, a handyman and artist who now lives in Williamsburg. "I love that we have a public institution that is based around the idea of sharing resources equitably with everyone."
He thinks the concept of the library should be extended to everything, from tools to kitchen gadgets and sports equipment. If sharing with other members of the community was easier, he says, "we wouldn’t feel so compelled to buy and possess so many things for ourselves."
In New Haven, McMullan worked with a literary advocacy group to re-stock the library throughout the six months it was open. In reality, it functioned more as a book exchange than a library. It didn’t have a fixed collection, and books kept disappearing.
In Brooklyn, McMullan experimented with a handful of models, including a school desk chained to the street and a wooden structure that resembled the ubiquitous urban newspaper distribution box.
He's now in the process of planning and installing permanent Corner Library branches all over New York City.
"Right now, I’m just working with people I know and trust and making just as many branches as we can handle maintaining," says McMullan. He manages the Williamsburg branch along with Gabriela Alva, who runs the art project/space EyelevelBQE, and volunteer librarian Kyra Ferber.
The library’s eclectic collection currently includes materials like The Old Farmer’s Almanac, pamphlets on nature preserves in New York City, Popular Mechanics’ The Boy Mechanic: 200 Classic Things to Build, handmade zines and children’s books donated by local artists, and a copy of Goethe’s Faust.
McMullan is working on "opening" locations in the Flatiron/Chelsea area of Manhattan, and in the Prospect Heights/Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. The two branches are both slated to launch in the spring. Recently, he discovered Little Free Library, a group that is building a nationwide network of micro-libraries. McMullan eventually intends to merge his efforts with that group.
At the end of the day, McMullan wants to encourage citizen participation in the sharing of public spaces. His new brainstorm involves installing miniature libraries as part of the tree pit structures lining public sidewalks, much the way that cafes and other businesses have done with tree benches to extend their influence onto the street.
"Every city has various restrictions and regulations on the uses of sidewalks -- you just have to learn the quirks," he says. Installing tricked-out tree guards is one area of public space where the city government actively encourages citizen participation and care. Why not get a library out of it, too?