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How New York Pay Phones Became Guerrilla Libraries

John Locke thinks people should read more. So in the past few months, the Columbia architecture grad has slipped around Manhattan with a sack of books and custom-made shelves, converting old pay phones into pop-up libraries.

The concept, sponsored by Locke's imaginary Department of Urban Betterment, is that New Yorkers will pick up unfamiliar titles while running their errands and then, perhaps, replace them the next day with favorite books of their own. That's in an ideal world. Of the two guerrilla libraries that the artist has fashioned, one has been used properly while the other has had its entire collection repeatedly ganked by sticky-fingered pedestrians. Its shelves were also stolen.

But Locke has many more libraries planned. With plywood consoles that slip over payphones as neatly as aprons, these sidewalk objets are endlessly replicable. (No doubt they'll feature in his 2012 Columbia course, "Hacking the Urban Experience.") I caught up with Locke over the weekend to ask him about what was and wasn't working with these literary outposts, as well as why he started the project in the first place. Here's what he had to say:

Based on your experiments, do you see the public-phone library as a viable concept?

The phone-booth conversions are part of an ongoing experiment that has not been perfected yet. But I think it can be. The response by people who see them and stop and wonder, What the hell is this thing doing here? has been totally positive, and that's enough motivation to keep trying.

How did you get this idea in the first place?

The ubiquity of phone booths is interesting because they are completely obsolete, unevenly distributed in outlying neighborhoods and they carry a strong sense of nostalgia with me. They've already evolved from their original function as person-to-person communication technology into their second iteration as pedestrian-scaled billboards. I wanted to see if there is a third option in that, yes, they get our eyes for advertising dollars, but they can also give value back to a neighborhood. I was most interested in turning what is perceived as an urban liability into an opportunity.

And what more can you say about books? They're the greatest things ever, and everyone should have more.

Can you describe the phones you've outfitted so far, and how people have responded to them?

So far only two booths have been converted. There will absolutely be more. Each iteration has to be judged to see what works, both in terms of siting and how to engage the public. For instance, the first test was in a more remote block. The books were neither marked, nor were any instructions given. After a few days the books were gone. I added more, and those too were removed within a few days. After another two weeks, the shelves disappeared.

The second iteration was placed in a more prominent intersection near a subway entrance and was much more successful. I marked the spine of the books to deter reselling, and there was a positive response in that people began leaving books as well as taking them. Unfortunately, after about six weeks the shelves and books were removed. The next iteration will include subtle instruction for how to use the booth, because I noticed a lot of people were hesitant to take a book. Something as simple as a few words, like "share" or "borrow."

I want these to be cheap, fast, and easily reproducible. The costs are minimal – the price of lumber and time on a CNC cutting machine. After that, the shelves slot together and slide right into the booths with no hardware or fasteners required. Now that I have identified sites that work, expect more conversions to occur as the weather turns into spring.

Does the city know what you're doing? If not, why not?

(Locke declined to comment, so you can probably take that as a big "No, the city has not approved this project.")

Is there any screening process for the books? For instance, do you try to include great works of literature, or perhaps focus on more accessible and popular novels?

I want everything and anything. I don't have much of a budget, so all the books are donated from people that live nearby and off my own shelves, so everything from Oprah-approved to Jane Jacobs. And obviously as people leave their own books, I'd want the collection to become a record of the interests of that particular site.

A next site I have in mind is near a public school, and I'm trying to get a good collection of children's books.

How do you feel about people taking the books?

The goal is to take and share and leave new books in an attempt to foster community engagement. However, the whole set of books disappearing was a problem with the first version, and of course anytime anything is out on the streets there is a danger of that. But it's not hard to find more books. As they spread and more people become cognizant that these are there and are serving a common purpose, I think that will become less of a worry. For a next step, I've been in contact with local businesses in the neighborhood with the goal of converting a booth outside their storefronts, with the intention that they would help check and take care of upkeep.

In true New York fashion, have people used your shelves as ad hoc trash cans?

No.

Does the Department of Urban Betterment have any other projects in the works?

Absolutely. We're growing to include a diverse range of disciplines and backgrounds, from advertising directors, ex-librarians, sustainability researchers, a wide network of cultural activists and artists and anyone else with optimism and enthusiasm. I don't think the embedded possibilities in phone-booth conversions have been exhausted, and in addition we are planning an unsolicited redesign of the MTA to help solve their very real multimillion-dollar budget gap, as well as the design of a distributed pavilion, the pieces of which people in the area can download, print and keep with them to assemble whenever a quorum of users is reached. Walking down any block, there are ample opportunities in the urban canvas to reassert ourselves as stewards of urban goodwill.

All images used with permission of the artist.

Keywords: New York, Library, New York, Art

John Metcalfe is a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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