When the city halted construction on a Hunters Point library this past spring, pop-up and mobile libraries provided alternative services. 1 Queens Library CEO Thomas Galante, who is currently on paid leave due to an investigation into his salary and spending, had said plans were halted because of budget discrepancies concerning the complexity of the building’s designs. 2 Hunters Point residents petitioned for access to a public library, leading Queens Library to open a mobile library at the would-be site of construction. In addition, a group called Friends of Hunters Point Library has kicked off their own pop-up library, which uses the “take-a-book-leave-a-book” model and offers free WiFi and downloads to the public.
These solutions follow the recent trend of “pop-up” libraries that seem to mark a renewed focus on community engagement. Some of these libraries, such as Occupy Wall Street’s The People’s Library, are completely community run and often run on donations. Others, like the Cleveland-based ‘Literary Lots’ work with public institutions to provide access in underserved areas. These directives interest me because they recall the idea of strengthening community service. In “The Professional is Political: Redefining the Social Role of Public Libraries,” Shiraz Durrani and Elizabeth Smallwood state that,
Engaging with the traditional library commodity of information in a ‘non-traditional’ way that responds to local contexts, via the involvement of local people in service design and development, will enable libraries to help bridge the gap between the information rich and the information poor (137). 3
The pop-up library’s mobile and ephemeral nature seems to be a direct response to an information age that allows us a constant flow of communication outside of our immediate surroundings, and to a hostile economic climate that has left the poor segregated in underserved and barren areas of the world. These libraries reinforce the necessity of open access to information and its agents, while abandoning its traditional structure and taking on the transient quality of information today.
This new pop-up model seems to be a way to better engage with communities that don’t have access to traditional libraries. However, I wonder if community engagement necessarily equates to community good. Historically, community engagement has not always meant servicing the public in open and honest ways. American libraries have been centers of education meant to proselytize bourgeois ideals to disenfranchised people. In The Alienated Librarian, Maria Nauratil notes
George Ticknor, leader of the Boston Brahmins and a founder of the Boston Public Library, worried that the steadily increasing immigrant population was unfit ‘to understand our free institutions or to be entrusted with the political power given by universal suffrage,’ and he strongly advocated education as a ‘remedy for this influx of ignorance,’ (38). 4
The library’s opening of access to the general public seemed benevolent, but the underlying forces were patronizing in nature. Upper-class philanthropists believed in libraries as ways to assimilate the working class to their ideals and thus qualm social unrest (Nauratil, 39). Pop-up, community-based libraries could easily act in a similar manner, disguising assimilation tactics as wholesome public service. A more sinister view could propose that these libraries are infiltrating community spaces to disrupt existing and relevant conversations.
However, this idea that the library can act as a vanguard of mainstream ideals can be disturbed upon closer inspection. We must question what these libraries are meant to offer us and how they choose to interact with us. Not every pop up library follows the same model.
For example, last year the PEN World Voices Festival and Architectural League of New York set out to create ten Little Free Libraries, which used small non-invasive spaces such as mailboxes and trellises to provide a limited number of books to the public. The readers are invited to give self-directed tours of the designers’ favorite reading spots. The books provided are from popular publishers and include titles such as Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Game series. 5
This year, the Floating Library emerged on the Hudson: a pop-up library aboard the Lilac Museum Steamship organized by artist Beatrice Glow. The space is open to the public. The ship will offer, “a range of reading materials from underrepresented authors, artist books, poetry, manifestoes, as well as book collections, that, at the end of the lifecycle of the project will be donated to local high school students with demonstrated need.” The ship also offers art installations, performances, and workshops dedicated to DIY politics with an emphasis on leftist politics and environmental concerns.
Both pop-ups are at least part artistic experiment, but I wonder which library services the community better. Both have an agenda: the Little Free Libraries aim to be accessible to what the public, while The Floating Library aims to expose the public to new ideas, authors, and culture. What is of more value to the public: accessibility or exposure? The Little Free Libraries were set up in deliberately public places, while the Floating Library exists in a contained and maybe exclusionary place. Surely it’s easier to grab a book from your bench-turned-book-shelf than to trek to Pier 25 on the Hudson River. But then again, we must wonder who has the best access to these Little Free Libraries, all located on the Lower East Side? I would also seek to question: where are the librarians, curators, and information specialists? While I am not about to assert that the Little Free Libraries actively aims to uphold bourgeouis ideals and brainwash the working class, the project isn’t interested in engaging the public in conversation surrounding its material.
The Little Free Libraries project seems to focus more on the book than on the flow of information between people. In some ways, this echoes the idea of the enchained book in university libraries. Andre Cossette touches on this in Humanism and Libraries, noting, “The tidy arrangement sufficiently shows the importance that [universities] accorded to the preservation of books as opposed to their diffusion and sharing” (41). 6 Leaving books in odd corners of New York City for casual perusal could hardly be called a focus on preservation. However, both models of libraries seem to value the book over its information. That seems to be the case for the director of the PEN World Voices Festival, Jakab Orsos, who told the Times, “It really restores my faith, this connectedness — how people are actually harboring the beauty of reading and the book and the importance of the book.” 7 Part of the appeal of the Little Free Libraries project is the novelty of seeing a book in a bird-feeder instead of on a shelf. Glow’s “Floating Library” seems more focused on conversation surrounding content, than the book itself. To me, this seems to be the more meaningful way to engage communities. Whether it’s the most appealing way is another question.
On a symbolic level, I wonder about the uprooting of the traditional, physical library. Removing reading, learning, and conversation from the confines of traditional educational structures in favor of the open spaces we tend to have more organic connections with is appealing to me. These pop-up libraries illustrate the ways that information is no longer confined to institutions. When they include underserved communities in relevant conversations, these libraries begin to, as Durrani and Smallwood say, “help bridge the gap between the information rich and the information poor.”