February 23, 2012

Columbia artist creates a guerrilla library system throughout Manhattan


On the heels of lawsuits levied against the city for the destruction of the Occupy Wall Street library, Columbia architecture school grad John Locke has clandestinely installed a pair of pop-up libraries in old phone booths.

The project includes installation of custom shelving and the initial collection of books to start the micro library. So far the batting average of the two “libraries” is about .500 when it comes to fair use. One has been depleted of books, which have not been replaced. The shelving was also stolen. The other was removed by the city, which should not count against the project’s success.

In an interview with The Atlantic‘s Cities blog, Locke explains the reasoning behind his bold (and currently illegal) initiative:

The ubiquity of phone booths is interesting because they are completely obsolete, unevenly distributed in outlying neighborhoods and they carry a strong sense of nostalgia with me. They’ve already evolved from their original function as person-to-person communication technology into their second iteration as pedestrian-scaled billboards. I wanted to see if there is a third option in that, yes, they get our eyes for advertising dollars, but they can also give value back to a neighborhood. I was most interested in turning what is perceived as an urban liability into an opportunity.

And what more can you say about books? They’re the greatest things ever, and everyone should have more.

Well, certainly they improve the appearance of an old phone booth. Locke has carefully monitored his experiment, keeping track of the lifespan of each fixture, as well as how he might improve future libraries. The latter issue, of producing more installations, he promises to uphold:

So far only two booths have been converted. There will absolutely be more. Each iteration has to be judged to see what works, both in terms of siting and how to engage the public. For instance, the first test was in a more remote block. The books were neither marked, nor were any instructions given. After a few days the books were gone. I added more, and those too were removed within a few days. After another two weeks, the shelves disappeared.

The second iteration was placed in a more prominent intersection near a subway entrance and was much more successful. I marked the spine of the books to deter reselling, and there was a positive response in that people began leaving books as well as taking them. Unfortunately, after about six weeks the shelves and books were removed. The next iteration will include subtle instruction for how to use the booth, because I noticed a lot of people were hesitant to take a book. Something as simple as a few words, like “share” or “borrow.”

Good luck, guerrilla architect. Perhaps involving a few guerrilla librarians might be a solid next move.