The neighborhood library has been a cornerstone of American civic space, providing a free hub for learning and ideas, for centuries. But with the rise of the internet, the role of the library has come into question. The architectural photographer Elizabeth Felicella has traveled all over New York City to photograph all 211 branches of the city's public library. With her series, Reading Room, she argues that these buildings are not only historically significant—they are also living reflections of the communities they serve.
"I think there is no question of their relevance," Felicella says. "I think libraries wrote the book on relevance, literally. Libraries have always been evolving in response not only to technology but also to local communities and other changing public needs."
Over the past eight years, Felicella has ridden public transit to every library branch in the city, capturing not only their architecture and their nooks and crannies, but also the little adaptations that librarians and custodians have conjured to better retrofit the space to changing times. She recalls one now-dismantled library in Elmhurst, Queens, that had an ad hoc garden in front. Its custodian would run hoses through the building itself in order to water the plants—his way of adapting an older building to new uses.
Many of these casual improvisations are eventually formalized by the libraries themselves. The Hamilton Grange Library in Hamilton Heights, in upper Manhattan, recently converted its custodian's apartment—a typical feature in libraries from the early 20th century, whose boilers needed constant tending. Today, this apartment is a space for teens with a dedicated music area, framed by a circular glass sound barrier so the rest of the library's patrons are undisturbed.
But the libraries Felicella finds most exciting are the ones that reveal how their role in society has evolved through architecture.
She photographed the Kingsbridge Library in the Bronx, which has had a home in three different buildings. Spanning more than 110 years of life in the Bronx, these buildings represent its evolution. The original is a small library funded in the 1900s by Andrew Carnegie, who paid for more than 100 libraries, two-thirds of which are in New York City. "It was very much a little house," she says of this first library, almost like a living room. When the neighborhood outgrew it, another was built around the corner in 1955. This midcentury, two-story building is anything but ornamental, built with white brick and a flat roof—which Felicella says was in keeping with the simple, pragmatic style of public architecture at the time. In 2011, the branch reopened across the street in a third brand-new building that won one of the city's excellence in design awards during its construction.
"That building looks almost more like a station, like a transportation hub. It serves a lot of people coming in and out," she says. "There are places to read and work. There are lots of people picking up and dropping off. In each building, you can read that. That’s something that amazes me about the library. They really are a time line, a living time line."
As libraries outgrow their original architecture, architects must negotiate between old and new. The modern library wouldn't be complete without computers and community events, but older buildings weren't built to accommodate these functions. But rather than starting from scratch, Felicella believes the best way forward is to preserve older buildings' architectural features while renovating them to fit community needs. The Stapleton Branch in Staten Island is one example of this fusion: The branch, originally housed in a very small Carnegie library, reopened in 2008 with a glass extension by the architect Andrew Berman. Rather than tearing down the old to make way for the new, Berman created a composite of the two.
"The addition is transparent—it’s glass, it’s what people’s ideal library is now, and to see these two together it really exemplifies what it would look like for architects to find creative ways of making the libraries work while still acknowledging the history of the libraries," says Felicella.
Felicella likes to compare the ideal evolution of libraries to the Dewey Decimal System (go figure). While the system classified all the known areas of knowledge, it also left room for new categories to be introduced. "We don’t know what the library of the future is going to need to do," she says. "We can't say exactly what need it will serve." That's all the more reason to leave the possibilities open by maintaining physical locations for these community hubs.
Even though so much information is just a Google search away today, Felicella believes the libraries’ physical spaces have more to offer us—especially since they’re one of the few remaining indoor spaces in cities that don’t require you to pay to spend time there. She has fond memories of the mysterious world of the Broad Channel Library in Queens—Felicella actually started the project because she drove by the branch one day and saw its windows shuttered. She'd always wanted to photograph it, and she thought it was too late.
Luckily the branch was only closed temporarily for renovations, but Felicella says that her ultimate hope is that no more neighborhood libraries are torn down for development.
"In this moment as a culture, it’s significant that you go to a library to think or to question or to reflect. I feel like all of the people over time who’ve done that, it’s almost like it's embedded in the library itself," she says. "That was my project, to read the libraries, to read what’s going on now but also what’s gone on, this evidence of all of the ideas that come through a library, that people bring and that people look for."