Marble Fairbanks Architects with James Lima Planning + Development, Leah Meisterlin, and Special Project Office

From 24-hour, ATM-style vestibules to library cards that double as subway fares.

New York City has 207 branch libraries across the five boroughs, and their average age is 61 years old. And that's the average; at least 52 branches are old enough to remember World War I. While everyone loves a nice historical building, many of these libraries unfortunately act their age. In September, the Center for an Urban Future estimated that New York's branches need $1.1 billion just to achieve a state of good repair.

The average branch library in New York is 61 years old; above, age by borough, left-to-right: Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island. (Center for an Urban Future)

The CUF reports describes the situation as being "on the verge of a maintenance crisis." It's not just that the libraries are crumbling—though many do suffer poor ventilation, lack of light, water leaks, and heating or cooling malfunctions. It's also that they're ill-equipped for modern life. Many lack sufficient power outlets for laptops (the McKinley Park branch in Brooklyn, for instance, has no place to plug-in at all) or activity space for community events or continuing education programs.

To bolster their findings, CUF partnered with the Architectural League of New York for a study of possible designs to improve New York's branch library system. Yesterday those concepts were released during a public showcase. Let's take a glimpse at New York's library of the future.

Marble Fairbanks Architects with James Lima Planning + Development, Leah Meisterlin, and Special Project Office

Marble Fairbanks Architects (with James Lima Planning + Development, Leah Meisterlin, and Special Project Office)

A design team led by Marble Fairbanks suggests pairing library renovation with the De Blasio administration's push for affordable housing—especially in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. Its proposed redesign of the Brighton Beach branch, for instance, would place the library (as well as retail space) at the base of a residential tower that offers a mixture of affordable and market-rate units. The team also suggests using these branches to double as emergency centers during future climate events.

Andrew Berman Architect

Andrew Berman Architect

Andrew Berman and company propose a concept that stresses better use of space in and around branches at New Amsterdam in Manhattan, Walt Whitman and Clinton Hill in Brooklyn, and Hunts Point in the Bronx. Ideas include gathering rooms that remain accessible even after library hours—in essence, free public spaces—to host local events and serve as a "community anchor." They also propose 24-hour, ATM-like vestibules with power outlets, information kiosks, and book deposits.

MASS Design Group

MASS Design Group

Designers led by MASS focused on creating branches that reflect the character and needs of neighborhoods in southern Brooklyn. Rather than constructing completely new libraries, they suggest simple interior renovations paired with roof or façade replacements. This rendering of the Sheepshead Bay branch, for instance, prioritizes more dedicated space for local events and young people. In Coney Island, the designers envision more food and health services and educational programs.



An interdisciplinary team called UNION outlined a program to elevate the public perception of branches as civic institutions. Their ideas range from cleaner library logos and signage to library cards that double as subway cards to marketing campaigns centered on a fleet of book delivery trucks. They also suggest architectural redesigns with wider outdoor space to create "more distinctive, open and flexible facilities."

L+ / Situ Studio


The goal for the L+ design group, led by SITU Studio, was to improve community services within the branches—intensive literacy programs, tech classes, cooking workshops, and so on. One way to do that is by designing customizable, satellite-style library spaces that can be situated in new sites throughout an area. L+ also envisions "retail outposts" that extend the library system and provide specific services in various parts of the city.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Equity

    Why Are So Many People In San Jose Fighting Housing for Teachers?

    The school system’s plan to build affordable apartment units for the city’s teachers has triggered a fierce backlash in one affluent area.

  2. Aerial view of narrow strips of land divided by water, some with houses on them.

    The Dutch Can’t Save Us From Rising Seas

    Dutch engineers are renowned for their ability to keep cities dry. But their approach doesn’t necessarily translate to an American context.

  3. Slogan projected on the Eiffel Tower for World Climate Change Conference

    What Local Climate Actions Would Have the Greatest Impact

    In light of even more dire news about our warming planet, leading thinkers tell us the one thing cities and states could do to cut emissions significantly—and fast.

  4. Life

    How Manhattan Became a Rich Ghost Town

    New York’s empty storefronts are a dark omen for the future of cities.

  5. Transportation

    Why Public Transportation Works Better Outside the U.S.

    The widespread failure of American mass transit is usually blamed on cheap gas and suburban sprawl. But the full story of why other countries succeed is more complicated.