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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  • Solovely

    we have unemployment insurance, SNAP, earned income tax credit, etc. … I’d love to see a government program that subsidies internet access for everyone… not just at libraries.

  • brooklynbull

    If I read the lower part of this part aticle rightly – it took 11 years for the BPC to open after the initial proposal. Given the grinding pace of demolition and new construction, Cadman Plaza would take at least that long. And is this reader too cynical when he wonders if a luxury developer will REALLY make the reconstruction of a public library in a super luxury tower a priority??
    I was fervently reassured by a member of the BHA at a recent street fair the “we will make sure! the library goes in!” As for the promised affordable housing component – who makes sure that goes in?
    Why not, for example put this tower on Fulton Street, near SHake Shack – and still earmark some perk windfalls (greater height, etc) for the library?? We do not need a looming shadow over Cadman Plaza park, one of our most-used neighborhood spaces.

  • Daddyo

    More condos for more people to use the park and the new library! Build it now!

  • marshasrimler

    see you in court daddy

  • marshasrimler

    exactly how will the BHA make sure anything happens. They failed on the movie on court st.
    they failed on the st, george hotel.. while they may take care of little things like which day is right for garbage pickup.. they have no clout against a huge developer

  • Daddyo

    Tear down ugly courts for more condos! More parking! More people! More strollers! More coffee bars! More! More! More!

  • hairyone

    “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.”

    Hmmm. This great utopian library is filled with books. How did the books get organized, processed, and placed in order on the shelves? Did the books do that THEMSELVES??

    Let’s say some journalist who thinks he knows all about your business walks into your workplace, sees you sitting working behind your desk, and says. “Hey, what’s SHE doing there? Think of all the wasted space we could eliminate if we just got rid of HER desk!” I wonder how YOU would feel…

  • Andrew Porter

    I have seen a tremendous amount of coverage on line of libraries in which books and printed materials are de-emphasized. One such is a library in San Antonio, which has very few books at all.

    There has also been an enormous number of library closings in the United Kingdom, which local inhabitants and Councils seem powerless to prevent.

    My own library has several thousand volumes and very few e-books.

  • Mike from Brooklyn

    Good morning; when the BHB sat down recently with Nachowitz, Skrodelis and Woloch of the BPL, Mr. Skrodelis- the head librarian for the Brooklyn Height branch – pointed out how much wasted space there was in his branch b/c librarians no longer catalogue books onsite; they are now processed before hand by the publishers. The BH library has a great deal of space dedicated to this unnecessary task.
    For the sake of brevity I did not include this full detail, but it is pertinent to what the BPL sees as an issue at the BH branch – and I was struck by how little dedicated staff space exists at the Battery Park City branch.
    Your reporter

  • Mike from Brooklyn

    Hi Karl: thank you for your comments. I typically don’t like to comment (my hope is that what’s written will stand on it’s own – something I am sure you can appreciate!) but I find that one of the challenges of the BH library proposal is that
    it’s difficult to imagine what a new library might be like. So I
    thought it was useful to follow up on what Joel Nachowitz suggested. Glad you agree.

    The Battery Park City branch is striking, and it was extremely instructive to visit / get a sense of what the BPL believes is a comp for what they might do.

  • rocco

    As of today, the Brooklyn Heights library announced new hours. I guess their idea of a 21st century library is one that opens at 9am and closes at 1pm everyday ….#allinthenameofprogress