Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Back to the Future at the Storefront Library

I wish library I can buy book.

I wish we had a permanent library.

I wish to be happy and proud of my accomplishments.

In the window of the Chinatown Storefront Library in Boston stood a Wish Tree. Modeled after Yoko Ono's Wish Tree Project, the tree was meant to allow patrons to pass on a spirit of energy and hope. The instructions were:
Make a wish. Write it down on a piece of paper. Fold it and tie it around a branch of a wish tree. Ask your friend to do the same. Keep wishing until the branches are covered.
The Chinatown Storefront Library closed its doors on January 17, 2010, the Sunday that ALA Midwinter was in town. Always meant to be a temporary library, the Storefront Library was an expression by Boston's Chinatown community of its need and support for a library of its own. The Chinatown neighborhood of Boston has been without a branch of the Boston Public Library since 1956, when the branch was closed and demolished to make way for a highway.

Without a local branch, Chinatown residents needing library services have to go to the main library in Copley Square, which, though a beautiful building, may seem rather imposing and hard to navigate for someone looking for Chinese language materials.

The founders of Chinatown Storefront Library, Sam and Leslie Davol, had been involved in community meetings surrounding the proposed design and construction of a new branch of Boston Public Library, and in that process had gotten to know faculty at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. With a new branch on hold due to budgetary reasons, the Davols decided to take action. A local developer offered to let them use a vacant storefront for free. Design students made some gorgeous, modernistic shelving pieces for the library, enabling it to create an inviting environment in an bare commercial space. Library students from Simmons paired with Cantonese- and Mandarin-speaking community volunteers to staff the facility. Donations of over 5,000 books were solicited, and for twelve weeks, a community library came into existence. The operating budget for the entire project was about $10,000.

The day before the closing, I had a chance to tour the Storefront Library and sit down with Sam Davol. Formerly a legal-aid lawyer in New York, he and his wife moved back to Boston with their two children, partly so that Sam could devote more time to music. The Library project was an outgrowth of their involvement in the community and other cultural programming they've produced.

In just a few short months, the Storefront Library has had a clear impact on its neighborhood. People who used to avoid the block because of its vacant, spooky feel began to feel welcomed by the activity surrounding the library. Cultural activities, language classes and storytimes attracted people from the community and passersby.

Initially, the Storefront library did not plan to circulate books, but in the first week of operation patrons told them that they really wanted to take books home with them. A makeshift paper-based circulation system was implemented, and over 1,374 books were circulated in 11 weeks of operation, over half of them in Chinese. Over 4,000 books were catalogued using LibraryThing.

In talking to librarians in general about the storefront library concept, I've gotten a consistent reaction that small storefront spaces could not provide sufficient room to provide internet access; terminals take up more room than books. At the Storefront Library, the computers tended to be lightly used. When I was there, some older gentemen were reading newspapers, some children were reading books, but no one was using the computers or internet access. This could be because the Library did not subscribe to electronic resources.

I think the most important lesson that can be learned from the Storefront Library experiment is that even small temporary libraries can be powerful agents of community development. In Boston, this role was accentuated by a location in close proximity to people's everyday lives. While I've written that the future of public libraries may be in smaller locations, the Chinatown Storefront Library reminded me that many public libraries began as grassroots efforts to promote knowledge and culture.

Now that the Storefront Library has closed, its books will be going to a new reading room, to local schools, and a few to the Chinese Historical Society of New England. The furniture will be going to local schools and daycare facilities. Information about the project will be published on the storefrontlibrary.org website so that similar projects in other communities can learn from their experiences.

As for Sam Davol, he goes on tour. He plays cello with the indie-pop band "The Magnetic Fields", which has a new CD out, Realism. I just got my tickets for one of the shows at New York's Town Hall in March.
I wish there were more people experimenting with libraries.

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  1. That's pretty aweomse. I wonder if they considered leaving it open indefinitely instead; at $10k for 12 weeks, that's only $43k a year they'd have to fundraise, not unreasonable. But I guess the donated space wouldn't be donated indefinitely, they'd have to pay rent. But much of that $10k is startup costs; I bet library students will continue to be willing to volunteer indefinitely (killer resume material; and library students graduate and are replaced by new ones not sick of it) and I bet community volunteers could be found indefinitely.

    -J rochkind

  2. I think that the experiment was worthwhile, and showed/shows the level of community support for a branch.

    I want to take issue with one thing that Eric implies about computers in the space. In a prior incarnation, I was the City Librarian for a large urban community. Two of the branches were storefronts. In one of them, located in the most economically challenged part of the city, computer use was incredibly high. The lack of space for more computers was a constant source of irritation and problems, sometimes including fist-fights over signing up for the terminals. My thought is that perhaps in this particular Boston neighborhood, there is enough internet/computer access provided elsewhere that the public did not need the access. My experiences have been very much the opposite.