Underground Library: Cute Idea, Slightly Shady Premise

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this Underground Library project, developed by a group of students from the Miami Ad School, referenced in various magazines and blogs over the past several days (recent appearances include Atlantic Cities and the Paris Review blog). The concept is quite clever; as Co.Design explains it:

Subway smartphone users swipe at a special poster promoting a curated selection of books on offer, after which the first 10 pages will be automatically downloaded to their mobile device in an easy-to-read ePub or PDF format. Once they reach their stop and emerge aboveground, a map will pop up and direct them to the nearest available NYPL branches to nab the physical copy.

Downloading a sample from NY’s Underground Library

Options for technically realizing such a project (the proposed solution is Near-Field Communication) are addressed and debated in the Co.Design article and on Vimeo. A very similar project was proposed last year — by Vodafone — for the Victorei metro station in Bucharest: users could download selections from a curated collection of books and audiobooks, but rather than being directed to access the complete texts in the public library, users were pushed to the website for Humanitas, a book publisher.

Of course subway libraries aren’t new. We’ve got analog versions here in New York, and in Madrid and Stockholm. Plus, I’m sure some cities and towns are using some form of book vending machine in transit stations.

[Update 4/1: The Philadelphia Free Library announced a QR code-based virtual library at its Suburban Station platforms.]

Vodafone's Bucharest Metro Library
Vodafone’s Bucharest Metro Library
Underground NY Public Library: somebody's getting some Shirky action.
Underground NY Public Library: somebody’s getting some Shirky action.

Also worth a mention is Ourit Ben-Haim’s Underground New York Public Library, “a photo series featuring the Reading-Riders of the NYC subways”; the photos themselves are meant to coalesce as a “visual library.” (See this article about the project in the American Reader. Ben Haim’s work reminds me a lot of Adrian Tomine‘s illustrations of transit-reading.)

All the aforementioned examples are potential case studies for libraries considering more nimble, responsive modes and spaces of service (yes, I’ve written about this before.) But getting back to the project du jour: the NFC Underground Library: as much as I’m charmed by the project itself, I can’t help but be a little irked by the pitch that establishes its context:

Ever since the creation of the Internet, the use of public libraries has been on a decline. Now, with the invention of smart devices, people can learn about anything, anywhere. Well, almost anywhere. …[T]he Internet still does not work underground…

Ah, the converging myths of (1) ubiquitous Internetization of the entirety of the human cultural record and (2) universal public access! The false assumptions about public library use! These misconceptions are dispiritingly prevalent. Quite a few similar “nimble library” or “library outpost” proposals rely on similar false premises, as I’ve written about here:

At a time when digital information is replacing almost every kind of printed document, iPhones, iPads, Kindles and other similar portable devices have become books.

Many people would regard it as an anachronism to think that a library could still have any relevance as an architectural typology in the face of the digital upheaval that has changed the ways we approach information and objects, transforming entire industries, such as the video, music and printing industries.

With the advent of the internet…all of the world’s knowledge is available instantly to anyone who desires it.

We can celebrate these inventive projects without buying their false premises. As I wrote earlier, it’s understandable that the creators of these projects, and those who review them, would want to “ascribe some historical and cultural significance” to the transit or pop-up library “by suggesting, say, that a team of up-and-coming designers [or a group of entrepreneurs, or a telecom behemoth] has revolutionized a thousands-of-years-old institution by proposing a new program and making it mobile [and/or subterranean]; or by painting a really bleak picture of the status quo, to which your featured design offers an alternative.” But why do that? Why not acknowledge the realities — of information access, of library service, of the state of urban infrastructures — within which your proposed project operates? After all, if you’re promoting public reading, why not show that you’re doing a little homework yourselves — that you know your context?

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