Library Redesign: What to do with the Books?

New York Public Library has just re-opened its 53rd Street branch (replacing the old Donnell Library). Justin Davidson in New York Mag doesn’t much care for it


Glance in from the sidewalk, and the eye falls on a set of blond-wood terraces that go cascading into a cave, between walls of metal slats and raw concrete. The vibe mixes the slovenly with the dictatorial. On the steps, felt discs — four per row, not really plush enough to qualify as cushions — demonstrate where to place one’s behind, but in the end most people sprawl or hunch. Neither is especially comfortable. This narrow buried amphitheater gives library patrons a split-llibraryevel vista: above, a rat’s-eye view of the street and passers-by; below, a wide screen playing a promotional slideshow for New York and its libraries. Architects love choreographing such chance urban spectacles, but this one enjoys a special kind of pointlessness.

The Times was less critical adopting a wait and see stance and pointing out that the community space function of the library might be very well served by the innovative design.

As a bookish type, I share some qualms about thinning the collection out during a renovation (but it’s been happening for decades and probably centuries). On the other hand it looks like an intriguing space to me, perhaps pointing towards some new directions of what a library can be.  As John Cage said, “I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.” I’m looking forward to checking it out when I’m up there next, and seeing how it compares to the plans for the new MLK Library in D.C.

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