In March, a group of New York library officials released a statement declaring that a "staggering infrastructure crisis" has crept up on the city's public library system. In Brownsville, Brooklyn, one branch is "routinely forced to close on hot days" due to problems with air conditioning. Others are plagued with water-damaged books and facilities that are too small to accommodate everyone in their community. General interest public libraries are no less necessary than they were in 1901, when Andrew Carnegie donated the equivalent of $147 million to construct 65 of them across New York City, but their focus is increasingly shifting away from books and toward things like English classes, job training workshops, community meeting spaces, or just places to read the news online for those without internet access. While the public must continue to fight for these more practical resources, a number of oddball independent libraries cropping up around the North American continent offer an experience that can't be found in their traditional counterparts.
These boutique libraries are working to stretch our very idea about the word "library," creating a real living community around the often very lonely act of reading. "We've been taken since the beginning with this idea of the social life of the book," says Rachel Valinsky, a founding member of the alternative library space Wendy's Subway, which opened a year ago in a stark industrial space in the outer reaches of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I spoke to three of their organizers around the long plywood table in the center of their loft space, surrounded by books about the history of revolution and the avant-garde. "We're interested in the ways that we can activate the book beyond the shelf and have people engage with the idea of the library more broadly as a place of coming together."
They pay their rent with a monthly membership fee, and each of their 35-odd members receives a key to the space that guarantees 24-hour access to their reading room, a wi-fi password, and hopefully a couple fresh rolls of toilet paper in the bathroom down the hall. Their library, which is pooled from founders' personal bookshelves and from collections gifted by other high-profile bibliophiles, is non-circulating, meaning the books can't leave the space. "Hopefully that means people are reading them here, together, and not going off into their homes and reading them alone," Valinsky said. "This model is an interesting way to have a sustained membership of people who are engaging with the space as much as they are engaging with the books."
The library model, as opposed to the standard bookstore concept, also sidelines the commercial aspect, emphasizing the power of the collective over the power of cash. "I think there's something disruptive about the library model within a larger system of commerce or economy of books," Valinsky told me. They're currently preparing to set up a temporary library at NADA in May, a mega-money art fair where they will deploy their custom-designed mobile reading room, a collapsible furniture set that transforms on the fly into a mini library of 500 books. "[NADA] is an overtly commercial three-day event, [and] we're installing this very non-commercial project as a space where people will sit and stop traffic, which [goes against] the point of being in an art fair where you're supposed to walk around and see everything."
In North America alone there is a vast, loosely-connected network of grassroots and independent organizations offering some variation on the library model, from the zine libraries that have existed in New York, Chicago, and Boston for upwards of two decades to the more elevated art and literature hubs like Wendy's Subway, which have begun to spring up in recent years. Rather than attempting to provide the same services as "big box" public libraries, however, they tend to have a more single-minded focus on their own esoteric interests.
The Personal Libraries Library is a tiny, subscription-based lending library run by artist, printmaker, and researcher Abra Ancliffe out of her living room in Portland, Oregon. Now nearing its five-year anniversary, the library's concept is that it recreates—down to the exact edition—the personal book collections of history's great artists and thinkers, a list that thus far includes Argentine literary hero Jorge Luis Borges, Italian absurdist Italo Calvino, and 60s art star Robert Smithson, of Spiral Jetty acclaim. Membership costs $15 for two years (a price she chose so that it might be accessible to her students at the Pacific Northwest College of Art) and it comes with a twice-yearly shipment of printed matter—posters, essays, and odds and ends—that arrives at your doorstep via her own in-house publishing venture.
Visits can be made by appointment, or simply by wandering in during open hours, which vary according to the season. "In the summer the reading room hours work really well because I live next door to a farmer's market, so people just wander in," she told me over Skype from her home-slash-library in Portland's King neighborhood. "I'll open my front door and I'll put a sign out that says "Personal Libraries Library." It's not like I'm hawking people into my home, but I think people just come from the farmer's market and they're feeling really like, I don't know, free."
The library sprang forth from Ancliffe's romance with the embodied beauty of the book itself. Which means she's carrying the torch for an increasingly arcane art form, especially as larger libraries shift their focus away from physical book storage, replacing shelves with classrooms, computers, and e-books. "It's not just the text of the book that matters," she explained, "but all the para-text: the design of the book, the materials that were used, the type of paper, the typefaces, the way that illustrations were printed, the binding. I find that all the material considerations and design considerations are incredibly important, and something for me to really revel in."
The rise of powerful search engines and online databases means that those with internet access and media literacy are less dependent on libraries as large, centralized nodes of knowledge production. That means the concept will naturally pivot if it wants to survive, Ancliffe said. "Now libraries can target a specific community or audience rather than having to be scattershot," she says. As the library model becomes an increasingly rarefied form, it's attracted artists and thinkers who are interested in exploring and re-inventing it from the ground up. "As things become more on the fringes, that's where artists start to pick it up and use it for their own means," she continues. "That happens with techniques like letterpress and all these commercial production techniques. The minute they become outdated, artists begin to pick them up and use them." There's a reason that Polaroid instant film appeared on the market again alongside the $180 retro cameras they sell at Urban Outfitters.
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At its most minimalist interpretation, a library can just be a space that facilitates the exchange of books between friends. "We wanted our books to be for other people to read them, and stop being on our bookshelves," said Maru Calva, a founder of Mexico City's Biblioteca Aeromoto, which opened its storefront in February of this year. They have three differently priced subscription options and are open from Wednesday through Saturday, with a library that's mostly culled from organizers' own collections—though more donations are starting to roll in from various museums and foundations. "We had this idea that everyone would bring their own books, and instead of you being able to read ten books you can also read the other 40 books that the others shared."
The idea is simple, yet radical, in that it creates a way of using shared resources without having to possess them—much the same as with other co-operative endeavors like bike tool libraries, where one can rent equipment or parts for fixing bicycles, or seed libraries, which have similar models for helping would-be farmers grow their own produce. "[The founders] have always talked about this, about how life would be so cool if there was no money, no?" Maru said, laughing at her own idealism. "I think in a way Aeromoto responds to this idea. Yes, we have to pay our rent, but in a way we are proposing other kinds of economies, I think."
But the boutique library also breaks with the historical tradition of what made the grand libraries of modern America so great in the first place: practical educational resources for all walks of life, especially those who otherwise wouldn't have access. "What I see happening in many alternative or independent library spaces—not always, but often—is a deemphasis on the need for a site of practical space where people, particularly the disenfranchised (in the widest sense of the word), can congregate," said Judah Rubin, a Baruch College professor, poet, and library nerd. Despite their vocal tendency toward hard-left revolutionary politics—with lip service paid to buzzphrases like "community outreach" and "inclusiveness"—these organizations have the potential to drift even further out of touch with the needs of a wider demographic. It's partly because their funding tends to come from within their own hermetic bubbles, meaning organizers aren't accountable to a wider public.
That being said, let us also not underestimate the average person's interest in books. "We are really starting to build this public program with activities for different ages, different disciplines, with the book as a base all the time, or as a support," said Aeromoto's Calva, pointing to the Institute for Graphic Arts in Oaxaca—an exhibition space, cinema, and library opened by Mexican artist Francisco Toledo in 1988—as an example of how these institutions can successfully connect with a wider public. "Every time you go to IAGO, all the time there are young people, old people, children reading. That's what we dream of. We dream about it being open all the time, and always having someone researching or giving a lecture or learning something. We're starting to realize that this was something other people want too." After all, everybody loves books, even if they don't know it yet.
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