Public Libraries in Private Buildings

Jeff O'Neal

CEO and co-founder

Jeff O'Neal is the executive editor of Book Riot and Panels. He also co-hosts The Book Riot Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @thejeffoneal.

I’ve lived near two branches of the Brooklyn Public Library, and both of them were in need of serious, time-consuming, and expensive upkeep. But, funding for library upgrades being what they are and the cost of construction work being what it is in New York, I knew it was unlikely that either of them would ever get the attention they needed (let alone be turned into something really modern).

So, it’s with trepidation that I am in favor of a new trend in New York City: handing over public libraries and the land they sit on to private enterprises in exchange for the developers footing the bill for new library spaces in the resulting buildings.

Having libraries be incorporated into new buildings has a host of advantages: modern conveniences and facilities, integration into mixed-use structures, reduced upkeep costs by being part of a larger structure, and an ongoing subsidy from the deep pockets of real estate developers.

It’s not a perfect arrangement. Some of the city libraries that need the most help have really beautiful, historic structures. The library branches will have to close for multiple years during construction. It’s a deal not easily undone; there’s very little way to ever get this land back. And perhaps most worrying, these kinds of private-public collaborations are likely only to happen in wealthy neighborhoods where developers are confident they can see a return on their investment even after the expense of an integrated library, leaving the areas that most need access to public libraries with sub-standard facilities.

But the truth of the matter is that public funding for libraries is unlikely ever to give Brooklyn the libraries it deserves, so compromises must be made. Perhaps attachment to the traditional ways in which libraries exist is impeding our ability to imagine what new libraries can be, much like attachment to printed books can blind us to the advantages of digital reading. But that doesn’t mean we have to love it.