Last Friday was the loudest it’s been at the Brooklyn Public Library in a while.
That’s because a row of officials had just cut a blue ribbon strung across the entrance of the newly reopened and renovated central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library system, designed by Toshiko Mori architects.
The pandemic caused libraries across the country to reorient the services they offer. In New York City, the library system closed completely before eventually moving to a reservation system for picking up holds. E-book borrowing increased nearly 50% across the country. But while libraries are best known as places to check out books, services like Wi-Fi, computer access, and free meeting spaces are vital community functions and are only possible through its physical space.
The $60 million remodel, the first of four phases, puts those amenities at its center. Prior to the renovation, 65% of the library space was dedicated to book processing operations and not accessible to the public. The library outsourced those operations to a facility in Queens, which allowed architects Toshiko Mori and Landon Brown to identify opportunities for more community-oriented space.
The redesign includes a renovated main foyer and three new service areas for patrons. Up first, straight beyond the welcome center, is what Brooklyn Public Library president and CEO Linda Johnson called the “information commons.” Community members can work there throughout the day; the new space integrates the same art deco design finishes of the existing building to establish a sense of aesthetic continuity. Functionally, it’s designed to help mitigate the digital divide; it includes desktop computers, a recording studio, and a row of small study rooms. “[The] idea is not just to browse, but to have access to spaces that people might not have at home,” explains Johnson. “It’s designed for people who are freelancing and doing serious work as opposed to people just coming here and getting online.” (Though there are computers for that, too.) A staircase connects patrons to the new business and career center directly above, with large picture windows facing Prospect Park, where patrons can get help with small business loan applications, resumes, and cover letters.
Mori also spearheaded a redesign of the browsing experience. It’s called the “new and noteworthy” room, and unlike the typical stacks, books in this room are set up like a bookstore, facing out on tables rather than tall shelves. Librarians curate the books based on new releases or titles that speak to the current moment.
There’s also a new civic commons center, which emphasizes the library as a community resource. It moved the existing passport and ID offices, previously at the front entrance of the library, to the side of the building, along with offices that help with things like citizenship tests and taxes. Patrons access this area via a smaller, secondary door on Flatbush Avenue, highlighting the space as a local service in comparison to the gravitas of the large main entrance.
The Brooklyn Public Library’s renovation shows how libraries are doubling down not just as a place to check out books, but to spur community growth. According to Johnson, the branch services a million patrons a year. The renovation, which began in 2018, is the biggest in its 80-year history.
And they aren’t done yet. Mori and her team are currently designing the second of four phases, including a children’s and teen center, which should be completed in about a year.