Libraries weren't always located in their own stately buildings. Many of our branches used to operate out of pharmacies, laundry rooms, storefronts, and more! In celebration of our first new branch in nearly forty years—Adams Street Library, located in a former factory in DUMBO—we're bringing you stories of new libraries in old places.
Want to learn more about the topics brought up in this episode? Check out the following links!
- Visit Adams Street Library, read about the building's history, or check out these books about DUMBO and Vinegar Hill.
- See pictures of some of the libraries McCullough-Mulvin Architects built in a former church and an old Carnegie library and more.
- Read more about John Muir Library in a former fire house, Merchants' Square Library in a grocery store and our own Library in Transit sattelite branch in Brookdale Hopspital.
- Read the International Federation of Library Associations book called New Libraries in Old Buildings, which mentions several of the projects in this episode!
- Listen to another Borrowed episode about old library buildings: "Carnegie's Legacy."
Krissa Corbett Cavouras In October of 2021, BPL opened its first new branch in nearly 40 years: Adams Street Library is our 60th library branch, and it’s located in DUMBO, right under the Manhattan Bridge.
[Sound of trains]
Adwoa Adusei Which is probably one of the noisiest neighborhoods in Brooklyn, with the B, D, N, and Q trains rattling overhead, the sound of jackhammers as streets are repaired streets and new high rises go up, and of course the subtler sound of the waves. Because Adams Street Library is right on the waterfront, with a breathtaking view of the East River and the Manhattan skyline.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras But, the really cool thing about Adams Street Library is that when you walk inside the double doors…
[Sound of doors opening, then quiet]
Krissa Corbett Cavouras The cacophony of DUMBO disappears. It’s like a sanctuary.
Kat Savage The windows are completely soundproofed, so inside the building [whispered] it's quiet.
Adwoa Adusei This is Kat Savage, the supervising librarian at Adams Street.
Kat Savage It's really a unique neighborhood and a unique place to be, looking out on the water and serving this neighborhood that's, you know, changing a lot. And they’ve never had a library before.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras What’s special about this library space — aside from the fact that it’s our first new branch in decades — is that it is not a stand-alone library building, like all of our other branches. Adams Street occupies the first floor of what was once a factory.
Kat Savage It had many lives over the years. I think at one point it was an envelope factory, I remember hearing about.
Adwoa Adusei Before it was a paper company, the factory building — which takes up half a city block — manufactured all kinds of tin cans, from paint cans to vegetable cans to lard pails, according to an advertisement archived in our Center for Brooklyn History. Today, the top floors are mostly residential and the bottom floor is, of course, a library.
Kat Savage It's kind of funny because we do have upstairs neighbors. So, sometimes we hear, I think their dog, sometimes we hear them vacuum. It typically is, you know, after the workday is typically over. It's kind of amazing. It's like, this is a New York library. You have upstairs neighbors.
Adwoa Adusei Adams Street might be our first library with upstairs neighbors, but it won’t be our last! Two of our libraries currently under renovation — Sunset Park and Brooklyn Heights — will re-open with apartment buildings overhead.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Adams Street is unique because it’s our first permanent branch in an already-existing historic building that has been refurbished for use as a new library. So, in honor of our 60th branch, our whole episode will feature new libraries in old buildings. I’m Krissa Corbett Cavouras. It’s good to be back!
Adwoa Adusei I’m Adwoa Adusei and it’s great to have you back, Krissa. This is Borrowed: stories that start at the library.
Adwoa Adusei Today, we might think of libraries as stand-alone buildings just for that purpose. But, that wasn’t always the case.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Right, and that idea likely comes from the Carnegie buildings that went up en masse in the first few decades of the 20th century. We have eighteen Carnegies still standing here in Brooklyn, which is nearly a third of our branch libraries. And there are thousand of Carnegie library buildings still in use across the world. In fact, have a whole episode about Andrew Carnegie’s legacy, which we’ll link to on our show notes page. But before and after stand-alone, Carnegie-inspired library buildings, libraries often just popped up anywhere they could, often sharing space with other businesses. And there are lots of examples of this in our own history. As early as 1912, Midwood and then Mill Basin libraries opened as what was called deposit collections within pharmacies, where patrons could just pick up and drop off books. Kings Bay and New Lots libraries originally operated out of neighborhood storefronts. Paerdegat Library opened in the abandoned laundry room of the Glenwood Project in 1950, and Cypress Hills Library opened on the ground floor of the Cypress Hills Houses in 1955.
Adwoa Adusei And, it’s not just a thing of the past! When some of our branches close for renovations, we often open up temporary locations. Right now, Sunset Park Library is temporarily located on the first floor of a police department building and, until recently, Brooklyn Heights operated out of half of a church.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras One project that we wanted to highlight is a satellite library branch that opened up inside a hospital. And this one is unique for us because it’s an example of staff taking initiative to remain in their neighborhood communities.
Larissa Larrier So the idea came about when we got the news that East Flatbush would be closing for renovation.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Larissa Larrier is the supervising librarian at East Flatbush Library, and she’s the mastermind behind the hospital library program called “Library in Transit,” which was a BPL Incubator project, a program that gives grants to innovative library initiatives. Incubator is supported by The Charles H. Revson Foundation.
Larissa Larrier We pitched the project and we already had a partnership with Brookdale Hospital, which is located right around the corner with us.
Adwoa Adusei When one of our branches has to close down for whatever reason, we usually offer a temporary library in a van, which we call a bookmobile. But services at a bookmobile are really limited. You can browse a small collection of books, check out and return books and get a library card, but you can’t pick up holds or use technology.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras And in East Flatbush, many patrons relied on their library to access computers and the internet. So, when Larissa and her staff decided on the Brookdale Hospital as a temporary location, she made sure to include laptops, iPads, printing services, as well as a place patrons could sit down and take a minute out of their day to relax and read.
Larissa Larrier The majority of our population was actually the hospital staff. And then once word really started to spread, you know, we were able to get the public in those doors. And they were coming just as quick as the hospital staff. And it was so much to the point where they were like, "Um, you guys should just stay here." And we were just like, that would be nice, but you know, we have to open eventually.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Unfortunately, during the pandemic the "Library in Transit” had to close over safety concerns for staff and patrons. Brookdale was hard-hit early on in terms of the COVID-19 pandemic. And Larissa is looking forward to re-opening the East Flatbush Library soon.
Adwoa Adusei We're all looking forward to that day, for sure. Okay, so I have another example of a temporary library operating out of a pretty unique place.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Oh yeah? What's that?
Adwoa Adusei This library is in Carmel, Indiana, and it’s currently housed in a former grocery store.
Beth Meyer It is inside an eighty thousand square foot grocery store that had not been occupied except by spiders and mice for three years.
Adwoa Adusei This is Beth Meyer, Assistant Director of Carmel Clay Public Library. In the middle of the pandemic, with their branch under renovation, the main library decided to move its entire collection to the former grocery store.
Beth Meyer Once we realized it would be so much more work and honestly not advantageous to move all of our stacks, our physical bookshelves, we set about cleaning all of the shelves that had been left behind. And so it's still grocery store shelving, which is much different than library shelving. We actually ripped motors out of the freezers. And so we've been using those as displays and shelves for our materials. We even managed to rearrange some of the letters on the wall that are very grocery store font, and instead of saying MEAT or BREAD, it says READ. We've tried to be a little clever here and there.
Adwoa Adusei And the surprising thing? Even though it’s an awkward, temporary space, their patrons apparently love it!
Beth Meyer There are a shocking number of people who say, "So, are you just going to stay here?" And if you walked in, it's clear we have done nothing beyond just the very minimal, you know, making sure we are shipshape and Bristol fashion as far as like the fire marshal is concerned, and getting our materials in good shape. We've not painted. It still looks very grocery store like, from the 90s.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras That honestly does sound pretty cool.
Adwoa Adusei It’s a sight to see! We have pictures up on our web page so listeners can see that, too. And, another funny thing about Carmel Clay Public Library is that this is not their first branch in a grocery store.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Wait, it's not?
Adwoa Adusei Nope. The Joyce Winner West branch is also a former grocery store, albeit a much smaller one.
Beth Meyer So okay, if you've not hung out in the Midwest very much. We like our grocery stores and we like a lot of them and there are loyalties, and if a chain can no longer sustain its model, they leave a lot of open spaces. I think we just, we have a lot of flat surface parking and a lot of grocery stores.
Adwoa Adusei Beth said the main branch will be vacating the grocery store by the end of the year.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras So, what's going to happen to the space?
Adwoa Adusei They’re not sure, but Beth had at least one plan for the building before they move out.
Beth Meyer I personally would like to have a giant paintball war in here before we have to leave, but I don't think that's going to go over very well. Because if you saw the place, there are shelves and hidey holes and all kinds of things. So yeah, I would like to have a paintball game in here. [Laughs]
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Okay, Beth, if that happens, we’re all coming to Indiana to play paintball in a former-library-turned-grocery-store. Okay, Adwoa, I’ve got one for you. This library is in Windsor, Ontario, in Canada. And, let’s see if you can actually guess what kind of building it’s in.
Rebekah Mayer Coming up to the front of the library, you can kind of tell that it's ... like, where the windows are placed, it's where there was like a roll up, kind of garage door. So you can kind of tell that there was something there that needed vehicles to go into.
Adwoa Adusei Um, I'm going to guess like, a parking garage?
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Close! It’s actually a former fire house.
Adwoa Adusei So, not close at all.
Rebekah Mayer There was also a customer from the neighborhood who donated some some fire safety, fire uniform items as well. So there's a helmet in there. I think there's also a boot, possibly?
Krissa Corbett Cavouras That’s Rebekah Mayer, a public service librarian at Windsor Public Library. And she worked at that fire house library—which is called the John Muir Library—when it first opened in 2019. The building is really unique because it's actually a combination of two historic buildings: the town fire hall built in 1921 and horse stables, which date back to the mid-1800s. There’s an observation tower where patrons can climb up and look around, and there's also a good amount of open space because, well, there used to be fire trucks inside the building. Rebekah mentioned that they used the big, open space to run a popular “speed friending” event for the large number of students in the neighborhood.
Adwoa Adusei Talk about new uses for old spaces!
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Yeah for sure. Another interesting thing I learned is that the library in many ways saved the building itself.
Rebekah Mayer The city had been looking for a use for that building for a while because it had historical significance. And if the library wasn't really, or the city wasn't willing to take responsibility for this building and make an effort to clean it up and reuse it, then it would kind of lose its significance. It would maybe lose its structure even more.
Adwoa Adusei So I guess it’s historic preservation and community service rolled into one.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Right, and that’s not unique to Ontario. There’s actually a book that came out this past June from the International Federation of Library Associations called New Libraries in Old Buildings, and that's what led us to talk to the folks at John Muir Library in the first place.
Adwoa Adusei It’s a really cool read and it covers a bunch of different library projects where old buildings were refurbished to be used as libraries. The book takes a sustainability perspective, too. One of the authors writes that, “it is no longer the case that demolishing and rebuilding are less expensive than maintaining and reusing."
Valerie Mulvin There's a huge focus at the moment within the architectural community to try and reduce the amount of a carbon footprint that we have by, say, changing materials, looking at more sustainable materials and so on.
Adwoa Adusei That’s Valerie Mulvin, an architect and director of McCullough Mulvin Architects in Dublin, Ireland, a firm that has created many new libraries in old buildings.
Valerie Mulvin But I think the big thing that is the huge elephant in the room is the fact that the building stock we already have and reusing that is the most sustainable thing we could do.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Another part of the IFLA book on new libraries in old buildings is this idea that in many small towns, there’s probably an old building right at the center that needs a new use.
Adwoa Adusei Here’s Valerie again, talking about exactly that idea.
Valerie Mulvin You're thinking of pieces of streetscape and whole town centers which need anchor points. And they need footfall. They need people to be coming into them. And we find that libraries in Ireland, we find, are one of the most popular uses. They bring huge numbers of people in. The footfall in any library we’ve done has increased by—I don’t know, Ruth, you might remember some of the figures—but they’re astonishing.
Adwoa Adusei Valerie told us about a recent project they completed in Blackrock, a seaside suburb of Dublin, that saved three historic buildings dating back to 1860: the former town hall, the city technical school and, actually, a Carnegie library building that had fallen into disrepair.
Valerie Mulvin That building was derelict and the front of the library had begun to crumble. And there was a huge amount of work to do on a plaster facade from 1905, which had all kinds of plasters and columns and carved detail. It had all begun to fall off. And, between persuading the library council that they should use an existing building, because we were able to offer them the additional space, the whole thing began to work. We find very often we have to persuade people to do this. People always think, and it’s true, it’s easier to tear something down and start again if you’re just thinking like, let’s think of it as a project management thing, or as a purely engineering thing. But we do find that with a little bit of work, a little bit of love, and a little bit of thought, you can do something which really makes a contribution to the history, to the heritage, to the sense of continuity in a small township.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras That does sound familiar, because Brooklyn Public Library is constantly updating our stock of old buildings. A handful of our libraries are closed for renovation at any given time to make sure that those buildings can be as functional and as modern as they can be. But it is also important to us to try and preserve these beautiful pieces of history and community.
Adwoa Adusei Ruth O’Herlihy told us about another project that McCullough Mulvin Architects worked on: Rush Library, in another Irish seaside town that needed a new library. The town decided to re-purpose an unused Catholic church, which gave the project a unique challenge. Namely: how do you take a building that was once a religious place with specific doctrines and rituals, and turn it into a place of free thought and learning?
Ruth O'Herlihy That kind of mind shift was important. You know, that was also part of the way we were thinking about the design. Something had to change radically in order for it to be kind of accepted by the community as the new kind of community focus, which was the library.
Adwoa Adusei And here’s Valerie again:
Valerie Mulvin I suppose the challenge of a church is that it's a high volume space. It's terribly axial. It’s like vrooom—it's about all of your focus is about heading for the altar. And the altar in this particular situation had quite a beautiful set of old victorian tiles and painted decoration on the walls.
Adwoa Adusei So instead of all the focus being on the altar and these religious. stained glass windows, the architects created a winding path with different wooden elements leading up to the front of the building. And the confessionals?
Ruth O'Herlihy We were delighted to be able to make a music listening place in the confessional. So you can sit there now and listen to music. And I love that.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Wow, now I really want to take a trip to Ireland and visit all these libraries.
Adwoa Adusei I know. The pictures are really gorgeous, but it doesn’t do it justice. I think we have to take Borrowed on the road.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Yeah, absolutely. After the last couple of years, I will take any opportunity to travel internationally. For now, let’s get back to our own very exciting new library in an old building: Adams Street, in DUMBO and Vinegar Hill, and one of the most important aspects of any library: the people who use it.
Kat Savage Dumbo has changed a lot over the years, as well, as I understand it. Going from sort of a neighborhood that didn't really have a lot, to a neighborhood where we're seeing a lot of new construction, a lot of businesses coming in. And we're serving a population that makes $200,000 a year and a population that makes $12,000 a year. And everyone is equally welcome to come in and use the space. There's an organization called the Doe Fund that does a lot of work for the Dumbo Improvement District, and they're like super awesome workers, but they work outside all day long. So we see them sometimes come in here just to warm up, read things and, you know, take a moment out of their day … a gentleman just walked in of that …
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Just as Kat was talking, a Doe Fund worker in a blue jumpsuit came in and sat down at a table, facing this absolutely stunning view of Manhattan. And, what’s so cool about this space is that it’s so bright and modern and actually feels like you’re in a book store or even—dare I say it?—an Apple store.
Virginia Marshall Wow, okay, this feels very modern. It's very bright and light.
Adwoa Adusei Kat led our producer Virginia to the glass-walled meeting room and flicked on the lights.
Kat Savage This is sometimes called the Space Odyssey Room. We do get a lot remarks on, "Oh, this doesn't feel like a library. This feels really modern, really new."
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Then Kat took Virginia to the children’s area which, at Adams Street, is right in the center of the library.
Adwoa Adusei Oh wow! Usually kids areas are off to the side or upstairs.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras That’s true, but this was a conscious decision by the architects and community members who gave feedback on the designs for Adams Street, to make the kids the center of the library.
Kat Savage We’re all, no matter how old we are, we all have been children. We all have been babies. We've all learned how to read. And this is a place where you know, things begin. There's something that happens when I'm in this room where the colors, I think, start something in my brain. I actually get so much work done in this room when I'm on the reference desk.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras The children’s room is bright orange and really fun and warm. And, even though the library opened during the pandemic, Kat said that Adams Street already has its regulars.
Kat Savage We're seeing a lot of the kids come over after school and finding this space to be a place where they can put down their backpack, work on some homework, socialize with one another until it's time to, you know, do the next thing in their day. The Teen Space with that curtain that moves across, I've taught the teens that they can move the curtain open and shut as they see fit, and they have embraced that with great gusto.
Adwoa Adusei Okay, so if we can’t get to Dublin, maybe we just go to DUMBO?
Krissa Corbett Cavouras Yes, that sounds much easier. And, Adams Street wants to see you! Kat said that in the first couple of weeks that the branch was open, they were issuing 240 new library cards every week.
Kat Savage You know, don't think this happens a lot, opening a new library. I am so excited by the opportunity to really say, "Hey, we're going to do things, you know, in the way that makes sense for this library, for this neighborhood." And we want to provide, you know, the best, most welcoming place that we can for folks in our communities and the world.
Adwoa Adusei Welcome to the BPL constellation, Adams Street.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras To round out this episode, we’re bringing you books about DUMBO and Vinegar Hill from Sasha Jones, another Adams Street librarian.
Sasha Jones So this is a very kind of wide ranging, diverse list of books about different aspects of Dumbo. I think that Dumbo, like most neighborhoods, is one of the, you know, it's one of those places that's best explored on foot. It very much feels like a neighborhood that's still in flux. You know, there's a lot of construction going on and there's also just a lot of visitors to the neighborhood because it is so well known as a photography destination for tourists. And so it has this sort of like in motion feeling to it sometimes. And then of course, there's also a lot of layers to Dumbo because the way it looks now is very different than how it looks in the past.
So Birding at the Bridge: In Search of Every Bird on the Brooklyn Waterfront is a book by Heather Wolf. And it's really a definitive field guide to the bird population of Brooklyn Bridge Park, which, depending on how you are looking at it, is Dumbo's front or backyard. It's written by a Dumbo resident who is an application programmer at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. And what I love about this book is that it's so compact, it's sort of a small square book that will fit in your pocket or a small bag. So it's a great companion for walking around the park and getting to know the environment. And the book itself is filled with stunning nature photography of all of these different birds that you can find in the park, as well as tips for exploring and finding them on your own. And it's also kind of laced through with Heather's personal narrative that I think has a great power to kind of spark your own sense of connection to Dumbo's natural environment.
The next book on my list is The Black Churches of Brooklyn by Clarence Taylor. This is a thorough and invaluable resource for readers interested in learning about Dumbo's black history. And Dumbo was home to a free black community in the 19th century and was actually the first location of several prominent black churches that then went on to move to Bedford-Stuyvesant and other neighborhoods. This book is written by a professor emeritus of history at Baruch College, a native Brooklynite, Clarence Taylor. And while there are resources to be found online, there are not as many widely accessible print books on both Black history as there should be. So this one is a really great start from our circulating collection for readers and researchers interested in understanding black roots in Dumbo and the roles they've played in the borough's history, present and future.
The next book that I'll talk about is When Brooklyn Was Queer by Hugh Ryan. That's a groundbreaking exploration of Brooklyn's LGBTQ history from the 19th century onwards, and it's one of those works of public history that's really vibrant and readable and brings the past to life. And one quote that I really like from Hugh Ryan, is that “Queer life in Brooklyn began by the water and spread outward.” So it's, you know, goes from Coney Island all the way up to Greenpoint and Dumbo is sort of, you know, right in the middle of all that. So, you know, with Coney Island, you have the circus and that whole culture, but you also have the Navy Yards and all the factory buildings like the one that our library is in. And then of course, you have all of the different buildings and businesses and services that served the people who lived and worked in those environments. So it's really, there is just sort of an endless amount of stories you can tell about about that history.
Adwoa Adusei Borrowed is brought to you by Brooklyn Public Library and is hosted by me and Krissa Corbett Cavouras. You can find a transcript as well as the full book list for this episode on our website: BKLYN Library [dot] org [slash] podcasts.
Krissa Corbett Cavouras This episode was produced and written by Virginia Marshall, with help from Fritzi Bodenheimer, Jennifer Proffitt and Robin Lester Kenton. Our music composer is Billy Libby. Meryl Friedman designed our logo.
Adwoa Adusei Borrowed will be back next month. Until then, visit our very newest library branch at 9 Adams Street in DUMBO.
Special thanks to our beta-listeners on this episode—Melissa Morrone, Sarah Eagan, and Brynna Tucker—for providing valuable feedback.
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