May 15, 2013

Plans unveiled for NYC’s Donnell Library


Pretend you weren’t reading this article. Could you guess what this space is?

The New York Public Library officially unveiled the architectural plans today for the long-left-in-limbo Donnell Branch on 53rd Street. The good news is that it’s nice and airy-looking. The bad news? It’s 70,000 feet smaller than the original branch, probably won’t be open until late 2015, and, oh, wait, they forgot something… From the New York Times report on the plans:

In addition to traditional library elements — like some bookshelves and a children’s area — there will be public spaces, including sitting areas, a 141-seat auditorium and a technology hub.

“Some bookshelves”? “Some bookshelves?” You could be forgiven for thinking that we were no longer talking about a library branch, in a city where print materials still remain by far the majority in circulation numbers. And indeed, the view of the plans (the image above) from architect Enrique Norten and his firm TEN Arquitectos has a nice big wall over the whole area where the books appear to be—so, are there books behind there? Or just more stairs? Who knows? Not us.

Norten’s design adds yet another entrant to the “Big Stair” trend in urban design, as otherwise seen on the High Line and in the Prada store in Soho. (The Times calls them “bleachers.”) While, on the one hand, the Big Stair solves a couple of problems (seating that works for varying numbers of people and types of sitters, how to fit an auditorium in a small space) and recalls the famous steps of main branch on 42nd Street, they also take up a lot of space: space in which there are no books.

The whole design, in fact, represents the privileging of empty space over books. Its bare, mod-table-flecked expanses stretch away west, uninterrupted by anything more bibliographically intrusive than two sets of shelves on the front wall. It looks, indeed, suspiciously like the lobby of a high-end hotel chain, which is what the Donnell will still be part of, should the newest real estate deal for the space stay intact.

But the problem is not with empty space per se—there’s a lot of empty space in the Schwarzman Building—nor with Norten’s design—he seems to have been given what amounts to basically a slice of a building and has made an elegant multistoried gallery out of it. The problem is that there’s no evident effort here to balance the book-holding, book-delivery. and public-space functions of a library, which is exactly what the Schwarzman Building does very well.

This is a library design for people who read books on their phone, iPad, Kindle, or other e-reading device. As such, it’s a design only for the people who can afford those devices. In New York, that’s a lot of people: ebook circulation jumped 168 percent from 2011 to 2012. But that’s still not everyone, and it’s especially not the people who need the libraries most, the people who, as Anthony Marx, President of the Library, writes, made up part of the “nationwide surge in library usage” since the onset of the recession. These are, after all, the people who the public library systems were designed to serve in the first place. So it seems like a shame to get promises from the NYPL for another bookless glass box when what we actually need is a library.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.