If the branch library system is to thrive, libraries must move from the margins of civic life to its center. 

At the end of 2014, the branch libraries of New York City are thriving. Yet even though these essential hubs of neighborhood life are serving more citizens than ever, the libraries themselves are caught in a tricky funding situation that leaves them persistently underfunded, with over $1B in needs recently documented by the Center for an Urban Future. 

Across the city, 207 outdated and infrastructurally deficient buildings must be upgraded, expanded, and in some cases, replaced. But maintenance is only part of the story; the real challenge is to design the right portfolio of mechanisms, leaders, and monuments to restore the prominence of the library in the life of the city.

This is the story of how modest, creative actions taken today can lead to dramatic change in the city tomorrow.

The story begins with something small: your library card.

By uniting the currently isolated Brooklyn, Queens, and New York library systems, this simple card is suddenly empowered to work as part of a unified library system across all boroughs. The change would be symbolic, but also tangible—granting access to an abundance of public amenities throughout the city.  [1]

1. NYC libraries are currently separated into three systems. For example, someone living in Brooklyn and working in Manhattan would need to have two library memberships if they wanted access at work and at home.

But what if a library card could do more? 

If connected to other institutions, the library card becomes the link between services across the city, like a subway or a public pool. The convenience of this approach strengthens the library by bringing it into our daily routine. 

Blurring the boundaries of the library begins to happen more literally as well.

With a budget of nearly zero dollars, the Librarian at Large program brings the guidance of New York’s dedicated front line staff into places where contact with the public is even greater, and during hours when the libraries are closed. 

So a librarian might be stationed on the transit lines serving his or her branch to connect with people who can only come before or after work, or set up at a neighborhood greenmarket on the weekends.

Of course, books already move beyond the walls of the libraries, by virtue of the floating collections enabled by Book Ops since 2013.

As the program grows, Libraries will leverage these trucks as a visibility platform curating a series of murals that express the mobility of the system and spark curiosity.

Like other temporary arts projects in the city, these rebranded book trucks become something to see and be seen with, becoming a meme across social media.

 Later, they’ll fade into the background alongside taxicabs and police cruisers as just another one of NYC’s iconic vehicles.

A new identity system for all of the city’s branches crystalizes small-scale efforts, increasing the visibility of this unified system that operates at the scale of the city, the borough and the neighborhood. 

The basic graphic, which is shown on the flag, conveys circulation, mobility, and most of all, librariness. The upward pointing arrows imply the potential for betterment that libraries provide. The activity in the graphic conveys movement and circulation. And also, there’s a book in the middle of it.  

As the Libraries reach more and more into the lives of the city, everyday people begin reach back. Grassroots participation by regular citizens starts to have bigger and bigger effects. Not just more people using the libraries, but the libraries begin to be shaped and improved by their users. 

In places like Rego Park a self organizing group of volunteers would step forward to chip in with minor maintenance tasks on weekends. In this case bricks are mended and seating repaired within the days of the need being discovered.

But it’s not just the physical plant that benefits from outside attention. The library’s information systems are also ripe for reconsideration. Groups like Code For America begin organizing fellowships and hackathons that bring hundreds of people together to create a new online interface for the library.

Using part of a $1M grant from Google, the Library system builds open APIs that allow a profusion of home grown library apps to be built without introducing the risk or clunkiness of an official redesign process. When something works and the bugs are worked out, the official website can fold those ideas into the main site.

This experimentation leads to a stronger and easier to use main website. MYPL allows users to discover not just artifacts, but networks.

By simply and clearly linking resources across the city, this interface starts to become an important channel where citizens learn about the happenings of their neighborhood.

Through library work stations, home computers, and mobile devices but also buildings, bus stops, and streets.

By this point, small investments in visibility have helped to catalyze contributions from other groups and that, in turn, has led to real and important improvements at minimal cost to the library itself.

In Chapter II the library comes into its own as a platform, and systemic changes begin to happen.