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23 décembre 2011

The Uni: an ultra-flexible library

Cet article est d’abord paru dans la revue Argus, vol. 40, no. 2 (décembre 2011).

The Uni, a new project recently deployed in New York City, revisits the concepts of mobile and hyper-local libraries. The Uni can be anything – a reading room in a park, a few shelves on a boat, a temporary installation during a festival, a permanent venue under a bridge.

In its physical manifestation, the Uni is a collection of modular shelves. But two other elements – people and programs – compose the Uni and make it a great model and potential source of local good. I asked a few questions to Leslie and Sam Davol, the founders of the Boston Street Lab.

I understand Uni is a project of Street Lab, a non-profit organization in Boston and New York. Can you explain Street Lab’s mission and tell us a little about its other projects?

We founded Street Lab in Boston right after we moved there in 2006 from New York City. Its mission is to create programs for public space. We experiment, and we think this is a useful role for our small organization. We like new ideas/concepts, but we love things put into action so they can be experienced today. We look for « lighter, quicker, and cheaper » ways to improve the public realm and provide public resources. We do this work because we are urban dwellers and care deeply about shared public space and shared public experiences.

The work began as a series of small projects right in our neighborhood of Chinatown. It grew out of a kind of impatience we felt with ideas for improving downtown Boston not materializing fast enough for us and our kids living here. We had the impulse to try to get more visible community activity going, and started showing films in a vacant lot in partnership with a local community development organization. This is now an annual event we do called Films at the Gate.

Our second project—the Storefront Library—was much more ambitious, but started in a similar way. After attending a year’s worth of community meetings to bring back a library to Chinatown, we proposed using an empty storefront to give people the experience of a library, which would help make planning more effective, test alternative visions for a library, and also try a different kind of advocacy strategy. That turned into a four-month installation of an operating library in a vacant storefront, which made 5,000 donated books, daily newspapers, internet access, computers, and a full calendar of programs, available to the public.

Other projects have included presenting a one-day celebration of home movies called Home Movie Day in an underutilized public room on the ground floor of a downtown office building, and Work in Progress, putting dance rehearsals and a writer at work in a storefront. All of our programs have been free and open to the public.

Although these projects were focused on areas downtown Boston, we always thought about our work as addressing issues facing cities more generally. It’s about trying to carve out space in the urban environment for more types of experiences like Films at the Gate and using a library—experiences that foster public life and connections—right at street level.

How did you get the idea for the Uni? Was it developed with the clear intent to address an identified social need?

We got the idea for the Uni from our Storefront Library project. What struck us most was the impact the space had on people. It was not just about the books. It was about the kind of place it provided—for public gathering, for other organizations, for educational pursuits, for community.

After the storefront closed, we wanted to develop a new project on this model: a small-scale, flexible institution that every urban neighborhood needs, The name « Uni » originally stood for « urban neighborhood institution, » which we used as a placeholder name during planning and development to encourage ourselves to think of creating a solution from scratch. We kept hitting dead-ends when we thought along the lines of “shrinking” existing institutions like libraries and community centers, which do similar work at a different scale. And, over time, the placeholder name Uni just stuck.

We asked local architects to help us come up with a physical system that would let us provide books, and host and run programs outside, and be easily portable. We decided to test it first in New York City, where competition for street-level space is h4 but where there is also a h4 collective mission about the city.

I learned about the Uni from a friend who had heard of your project on Kickstarter, a service you used to collect donations from hundreds of people online. How did your use of social media and the web influence or define the project?

Kickstarter is designed for creative projects that have a defined goal. So it was great for promoting and funding the design. But it also meant that the way we introduced the Uni to the world was through the design and structure. A structure alone of course does not make a reading room. You need a team to run it, books, and program. You need someone to secure the sites, build the relationships, and get the insurance. That’s the institutional side of the Uni that we’re also building.

Kickstarter forced us to be out there, communicating as much as possible, with as many (relevant) activities as possible. Friends posted on Twitter and Facebook, which helped spread the word. All this influenced the project in that it sets a standard for communications going forward.

We also liked the way in which Kickstarter forced us to set a tight 30-day goal which was ambitious and challenging! That’s not the way nonprofits typically work. We’re thinking about keeping that going. In fact, we realize we just met our second, 30-day goal since we were funded on Kickstarter: of being on the ground in Lower Manhattan on September 11.

Is the project also backed by more traditional partners, such as governments or organizations such as libraries?

Not yet. A few individuals donated in a more traditional manner, offline. We’re now looking to fundraise to cover our ongoing costs and the costs of future deployments in other locations around New York City. These costs are pretty minimal compared to brick-and-mortar institutions.

The Uni consists of 144 open-faced cubes that can be assembled to create structures of various forms, with shelf space. What are some of the most original or interesting use cases you have identified?

Hmm. We have just started using it! But we’d love to install a few cubes on the Staten Island Ferry.

Your first Uni will be tested in NYC this fall. How will this take place? Is the New York Public Library involved?

We just tested it for the first time for one day, yesterday, September 11, at the New Amsterdam Market in Lower Manhattan. The New Amsterdam Market is a public market dedicated to reviving a market district on the East River Waterfront in Lower Manhattan. The founder/operator was game for letting us set up on that day to provide a small reading room for residents in conjunction with the operation of the market.

We’ve spoken to the NYPL about the Uni, and hope to find ways to support the public library just as we found ways to support the Boston Public Library with our Storefront Library. We’ve established a partnership with the Brooklyn Public Library for the times when we’ll be in Brooklyn, and will be exploring what this means in the coming months.

What are the different professional expertises involved in this first NYC project?

We’ve got architects and graduate students of architecture who worked on the design and fabrication. We’ve got library students helping us with books and also serving as volunteer staff for the Uni wherever it will operate. My background is in museum administration, project management, and cultural planning. Sam is a former legal aid attorney.

The Uni draws upon all of these fields and areas of expertise. However, in some ways, what the public sees/experiences could be said to draw most upon Sam’s experience touring and performing as a musician (he is the cellist for the band The Magnetic Fields). At the end of the day, we think of the Uni as a kind of performance involving books, librarians and educators of all kinds. And ultimately it’s about affecting the audience and creating an arc of experience.

How will you measure the project’s success?

Apropos of the response above: by how people feel about it, and how it makes them feel about their neighborhood, their city, and their fellow man! By what it inspires. All pretty difficult things to measure. However, we’ll also try to measure success in more traditional ways, including, for example, how many patrons we have, how it impacts organizations that use it for street-level programming, and what happens to the sites where it locates after it leaves.

Do you plan to deploy Unis elsewhere, in other cities, or countries? Could we imagine a future where Uni structures would be a widespread component of urban space?

We really want to test it fully first. Although we have already had interest from places ranging from New Orleans to Afghanistan! Part of our vision is to create a solid model that can be replicated in other locations.

We think the Uni will work best as a permanent, familiar resource for a city or neighborhood. Or possibly shared between several neighborhoods with a goal of supporting place making, civic life, or education. That’s what we intend to test in the first Uni for New York City. But we think lots of places could use a Uni, and 2012 will also be about exploring how to create “blueprints” for replicating the Uni structure, collection and team in other locations. For example, in Boston we’re already looking at creating a Uni that would work in support of “turn-around” public schools. We look forward to more conversations about this as we move forward.

Have you planned a future release of the Uni design? Could it be open-sourced?

Yes, we’d love to consider that once we test and refine. That is the spirit of the Uni—there should be lots of them and lots of things like it in our cities.