Co.Design

How Designers Banded Together to Remake New York's Libraries

The roots of an influential project that involved hundreds of architects and designers.


In 2001, the Association of Librarians signed on to a new project to help define the needs and solutions for the libraries of the future. They thought that the word "library" was too old-fashioned and wanted something more snappy to compete with the "media lab" down the hall. They said that librarians of the future weren't going to "shush" their students, which inspired the designer of their new logo—Pentagram's Michael Bierut—to place an exclamation mark inside the word: The L!brary Initative was born.

The Robin Hood Foundation partnered with Syracuse University's Masters of Library Science Program and began a process for educating the new librarians. Robin Hood raised millions of dollars, librarians went back to school and got their masters degrees. But that was only part of the plan—new libraries would also be built to serve New York's neediest students. The Board of Education paid for construction, and the build-out of the first series, completed in fall 2002, included libraries in Harlem, the South Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island.

Since 2001, over $40 million has been donated for the L!braries. Scholastic and HarperCollins each donated one million books. There are now 56 amazing libraries—each designed by architects throughout the New York area. And this month, Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi's new book, The L!brary Book: Design Collaborations in the Public Schools gives the backstory about the very powerful L!brary Initiative, a project I was honored to be a part of from the beginning—but never realized how big it would be when I agreed to it.

One day in 1997, Lonnie Tanner came to see me on behalf of the Robin Hood Foundation with a proposition: Volunteer some design services for the small education non-profit. I showed Lonnie to the door, I told her I wished I could help but all my energy was going into opening the frog design beachhead in New York City. But later, when I left for lunch, she was still there, talking to Karen Davidov, Henry Myerberg's partner at HMA, who suggested we could collaborate on the project. Little did I think, as I begged Lonnie to let me get back to my real work, that eventually our work on the project would make a huge impact.


Somehow the Beginning with Children School charter school had gotten Robin Hood to fund either a new chemistry lab or a library. Lonnie took us out to see the site in a demolished area of Williamsburg, Brooklyn at 11 Bartlett Street. After we surveyed the former Pfizer executive office building, we convinced them to do a library because the room on the top floor they designated for the library was nicer then the chemistry room space. Plus we figured that a library would make a greater impact on more kids—they only take one year of chemistry and use the library all the time.

Another fortuitous opportunity was that their "media lab" was next door, so we asked to annex it so we could control a bigger space. Another good move, since then, digital media has obviously become the leading information source! In fact we designed the whole place as a media space with information everywhere—famous poems printed on the shades (so when the kids stared out the window they would still be learning) and random vocabulary words printed on the pillows (oversized flashcards to spark their imagination even when they were relaxing). frogdesign's head communication designer, Gregory Holm did the typography and graphic design from California. We commissioned children's book illustrators to create pictures that we combined into a mural on the hall outside the library. We wanted all decoration to have educational value and furnishings to encourage socialization and curiosity.


We realized that libraries are not just a place for storing books, they are essentially a place for sharing learning—a place to discover and teach. The library is a collective place, like the gym and the art room that is used by the whole student body through all their years in the school. Libraries are a common space for families too. We got big comfy chairs for parents to read with the children, made a carpeted area for storytelling and specified tables for whole classes to meet. We branded it: "Our Library" because we want the students and their families to own it.

As we were driving home across the Williamsburg Bridge from the opening, Lonnie, Henry, Karen and I mused: Why shouldn't we do more libraries like that? How could we not roll them out, like Carnegie did with his libraries?

A few months later, Lonnie was back with a plan to spearhead a project to build new libraries as a great way to fight poverty in New York City. Scholastic and other publishers donated books, and a woman named Carol Knoll helped reinvent librarians' roles. The Board of Education chancellor Harold Levy was brought on board with his adviser Jonathan Levi. There are more than 600 public elementary schools in New York City so Henry invited a cooperative group of ten architecture firms to each design one of the first prototype libraries. The rest is history.


Like most good projects, back when we started, we didn't realize what the innovations would be or what was going to be successful. But we were curious and we leveraged opportunities we found. These L!braries are tangible evidence of how design transforms the experience of one room. You can measure how that seed grows to make a school better place, and in a few years we'll see those graduates making our world even better. The kids can see and feel how design works.

Everything that Henry, Lonni, Karen and I put into Our Library in the beginning has been multiplied by the L!brary Initiative, not just 56 times, but again by all the other schools that copied the program, And many more times, year after year by all the kids who use those libraries and hopefully more times by what they will accomplish in their lives thanks to those exciting rooms.

It's design that's long overdue!

Photos by Peter Mauss/ESTO

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