What Exactly IS a “21st-Century” Library?

When Josh Nachowitz, the Brooklyn Public Library’s Vice President for Government and Community Relations, refers to plans for a 21st-century library, listeners might be excused for envisioning a branch manned by drones and robots, or—worse yet—assuming that what he really means is a library devoid of books.

In fact, Nachowitz, the face of the BPL’s controversial plan to sell its aging Brooklyn Heights branch for development as a high-rise residential tower, has a very clear idea of what a contemporary, up-to-date library should look like: the New York Public Library’s Battery Park City branch in lower Manhattan (175 North End Avenue).

“If you’re going to visit one branch, I would encourage you to check out the Battery Park City library,” Nachowitz said in a recent sitdown with BHB. “It’s a one-story library with a mezzanine at the base of a condominium tower…. [I]n terms of programming and having a library in a multi-use residential building, it’s exactly what we want to do here—although it’s smaller.”

On a recent visit to the branch, built in 2010 for $6.7 million dollars, the first thing a reporter noticed was books, and plenty of them. The Battery Park City branch has 24,000 items (books and DVDs) and—thanks to its impressive design—has become the NYPL’s signature statement in a broad plan to modernize its facilities and keep abreast with emerging technologies and changing use patterns.

Along with its holdings, the library provides a range of digital services, from rows of sleek desktop computers (quite busy during a Friday afternoon visit) to ample surfaces for patrons’ laptops to an efficient wireless network that works anywhere in the building.

At 10,000 square feet over two levels, the Battery Park City branch is significantly smaller than the facility proposed as a replacement for Brooklyn Heights; but it appears quite spacious, thanks to an award-winning design by 1100 Architects. With LEED Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, the branch is touted as the “greenest” library in New York City.

A visitor comes away impressed with the tranquil atmosphere created by seating areas nestled among the stacks on the ground floor. Risom lounge chairs from Knoll Studio provide resting places for users, and charming chains of multi-color origami cranes strategically located throughout the main floor contribute to the ambiance. The building’s ceilings—much remarked on by the architectural press—are a pleasing array of shifted triangular plates accented by slits of fluorescent lighting.

A striking circular staircase made of recycled glass and mirrors takes patrons to the reading and periodicals mezzanine, half the size of the ground floor. Devoid of books, it is a retreat for the digiterati and their like: tables were populated by browsers using all manner of portable electronic devices, with the occasional researcher surrounded by sheets of paper—and even a patron taking in a quiet snooze.

Unlike the Brooklyn Heights branch—with its thousands of square feet dedicated to cataloging books, an unnecessary need in the digital age—there’s very little wasted space at Battery Park City. The staff, of course, has its private areas, but the space is clearly designed to accommodate those who use it, not maintain it.

But in one critical regard, Battery Park is a conspicuous example of what Mr. Nachowitz of BPL has proposed as the solution for the Cadman Plaza branch. The library is comfortably nestled in the prow of River House, a 31-story residential high-rise designed by David Rockwell. As such, it is an ideal “comp,” to put the matter in real estate terms, for what Nachowitz and his boss, BPL President Linda Johnson, envision as a paradigm of what the Brooklyn Heights branch and, indeed, perhaps more of the “new” Brooklyn Public Library system might look like.

Once the developer and design are determined, the BPL predicts a two-year completion time for the branch and its host high-rise—clearly a very optimistic timeline of events.

Of course, reality has a way of intruding on glossy predictions: the Battery Park City branch project, for instance, was first proposed in 1999 and, once the Battery Park City Authority agreed in 2004 to donate the space, it was six years before the library opened to the public.

And, it should be remembered, there is a distinctive difference in the contexts. Battery Park City, having been created in the ‘70s on landfill from the World Trade Center’s excavation, is chock-a-block with soaring towers that trumpet their newness. Brooklyn Heights, with its centuries-old town houses and venerable Historic District, is worlds away from the architectural cacophony of its cross-river neighbor.

PHOTO CREDIT: New York Public Library

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  • marshasrimler

    good try Josh.. but this is not Battery Park City .. it is Downtown Brooklyn.. the Brooklyn Business Library and Brooklyn Heights.
    Our business Library is needed by All of its users.. Job seekers,
    students in our many schools and universities.. we are not an enclave.. We are a diverse community that needs our seniors,
    Job seekers, children at el considered. We are in the middle of a downtown brooklyn boom and renewal.. What works for battery park city will not work for us.. maybe some of us but not all of us.
    that is your problem.. You think Brooklyn Heights owns this branch it ..it doesn’t . It is owned by ALL of Brooklyn. A library devoid of Books… theses people really need to be fired

  • Karl Junkersfeld

    It’s funny Michael, this is the branch that I had to join a few years back in order to motivate myself to use a library. It is beautiful and is what I hope the Brooklyn Heights branch will look like when completed. There is so much wasted space in the current library it is almost comical. Also, I don’t agree that there is a contextual problem at the proposed location.

  • Solovely

    Brooklyn Heights (and really all of Brooklyn) is such a fundamentally different area, community, than Battery Park City, any design/planning that begins with a plan that worked at BPC as a “starting point” must then dive into the deep differences, the “compare and contrast.”

    Curious, I wonder how well “new libraries” stand the test of time vs. “old structure, historical maintained libraries”? If one did a study? Perhaps, I am the only fickle one, but I am fair more like to study at, and truly enjoy, a historical library that’s contextual to the community. Newness in library design seems to me, would feel dated, awfully fast.

    Love, love the idea of free wifi, and free, easily available computer access for all! So important to support and empower individuals? Is the Public Library system the best way to do this though? What have other cities done? If our mayor is serious about fixing inequality, internet access / computer access, seems really important?

  • Susan O’Doherty

    The Brooklyn Heights library already has free wifi and computer access. I agree that “modern” architecture tends to date quickly!

  • Anonymous

    Seems odd that the BPL would force the closure of a highly-used branch against the will of the local constituency in order to replace it with what can only be described as a test pilot of this so-called “library of the future” – seems like a big gamble to take

    The typical way this is done is by opening a model to demonstrate the attractiveness of the “future” version and convince people it is a good idea so it is something they want rather than something they are being forced to accept

    Why don’t they open a model and get the local users on board rather than forcing it?

  • marshasrimler

    dear neighbor
    BPL is all about real estate. thats why. look at their board dominated by real estate people like Jordon Borowitz. former mouthpiece for Mike Bloomberg now.. for the Durst organization and a bully

  • Name

    shhhh. just shush, already. you speak as if you know what people want here. you don’t. I don’t know a single person out of many many friends in the hood that want to keep this old library – or the business library. put that downtown somewhere. have you ever even been to the BPC branch? we would be lucky lucky lucky to have anything near as nice as that for our families.

  • Chubby Burkhardt

    This is the forum for your cause so comment away as you should. But why don’t you go to the beach and relax. Have a cream soda. Forget about the library and step outside. It’s beautiful out today.

  • marshasrimler

    you will not silence me.. giving away of public assets that were seized through eminent domain for a private luxury condo is wrong period. Who are you anyway?? You apparently know only the wrong people. Everyone I know is against this plan. We want a refurbished library.I have been here for many years you .. ? If you believe in what you say.. why not reveal your name

  • marshasrimler

    yes it is beautiful.. i agree with you. I can comment from outside on this lovely day. I am in the park

  • marshasrimler

    who pays your salary BPL

  • Solovely

    In the spirit of saving precious public spaces from real estate developers, consider signing the save pier 6 petition; trying to save more green space at this much beloved, busy, and beautiful spot; it’s also a city jewel, and has a higher calling than condos.


  • marshasrimler

    i agree

  • heights res

    I don’t know anyone who supports giving away public property for private profit. Everyone I’ve spoken to wants the library to (be fixed) and stay…..

  • oakey hall

    NOBODY BUT YOU IS TALKING ABOUT A LIBRARY DEVOID OF BOOKS!!!!! Wake up Marsha. Listen to reality.

  • oakey hall

    Thats right….because you’ve got enough money to afford a laptop or an IPad. Our public library system provides thousands of free computers for the many hundreds of thousands of your neighbors throughout Brooklyn who aren’t able to afford a computer of their own….they rely on the library to close the digital divide, access job training and other resources…etc. and they deserve nice libraries too. Brooklyn extends FAR beyond our little 1% enclave here in Brooklyn Heights…..if this project generates money for the BPL people to invest in libraries in poor neighborhoods than I’m all for it.

  • bethman14

    They have….in Kennsington. Check out the new library there….very modern and packed with people. And with books.

  • bethman14

    Wow. Classic CDL Tea Party mentality on display yet again….if you’re against the project you MUST be in the pay of the BPL…or simply know the “wrong” people. Man, guess we better all fall in line with the CDL propoganda. What next? Re-education camps for those of us who don’t think the “correct” way on every issue or dare to disagree with the People’s Kommissars Rimmler and White?

  • bethman14

    Hey Marsha….why aren’t you rudely demanding to know the real name of “heights res?”

  • bethman14

    Interesting argument….so according to you, the library isn’t in Brooklyn Heights, a historic low-rise community characterized by blocks of 19th century row houses but in Downtown Brooklyn, a high density central business district characterized by soaring skyscrapers?
    So why again are you so up in arms about another tall building in Downtown Brooklyn?
    And you’re right…it is a resource owned by all of Brooklyn. So why should the CDL, a tiny group of 1 percenters in Brooklyn Heights get to soley decide its fate as if they have proprietary ownership of the BH branch?

  • marshasrimler

    Did you read the description of the library at Battery Park .. Oakey
    Can you understand it

  • marshasrimler

    many others are opposed to relocating the brooklyn business library.like the Brooklyn NAACP.. for me its not about the tall building its about the giving way of public assests that were part of an urban renewal area taken for a public purpose

  • marshasrimler

    that is why a refurbished Brooklyn Business Library should remain at its present location .to help close the digital divide in a place that is readily accessible to ALL including the handicapped. It should not be buried in the stacks at Central. People need access to get jobs.
    Pitting our neighborhood against others for resources is a cynical game promoted by BPL. They should be ashamed of themselves. I support selling library bonds that will help all of

  • marshasrimler

    are you a BPL employee? Kommisar??

  • marshasrimler

    you are over the top.. Kommissars?????

  • marshasrimler

    asking people to stand up is not rude..calling them names is

  • bethman14

    Amazing. You just can’t fathom that someone can be your neighbor and disagree with you. Its perfectly possible for reasonable people to disagree on a political issue. Just because someone does not think exactly the same way you do Marsha does not mean that they’re corrupt, on someone’s payroll, etc.

  • bethman14

    Buy they’re NOT “giving away public assets.” They’re creating a new library that will still be owned by the City and selling unused air rights that will fund projects in other libraries….I really, honestly don’t understand the hysteria about this. Maybe its generational.

  • marshasrimler

    What generation are you a part of

  • Solovely

    Why such vitriolic tone? everyone here has great ideas and wonderful ideals.. the devil is in the details, in a reasoned analysis… blogs aren’t necessarily good vehicles for that! and some type of compromise is almost always necessary… But in general, giving away historic assets, to help one generation, or fund other “new ideas” usually turns out horribly. This library needs updating, like any library deserves!
    I’m sure the air rights above city hall are worth a $$$ too, to carry the argument admittedly to an extreme…