While it’s not as widespread in its reach as the Little Free Library movement, New York City’s Uni Project is also putting books into the hands of readers – with pop-up open-air reading rooms in the city’s public spaces. Mobile structures set up in parks, plazas, and closed-off streets unfold to reveal shelves for books and contain benches for sitting while reading under the supervision of the Uni Project’s staff and volunteers, who are for the most part educators and librarians. Unlike the Little Free Library, the Uni Project’s books do not circulate, but are read on the premises. To date the Uni Project has traveled around four of New York City’s five boroughs, partnering in every location with a local community organization or library and prioritizing underserved neighborhoods.
“We’ve always wanted to go everywhere and Staten Island is the last borough on our list,” explained Sam Davol, the 501-c-3 nonprofit’s executive director, noting that, despite the logistical challenges of transporting a pop-up reading room from the Uni Project’s SoHo headquarters to New York City’s least accessible borough, arrangements are being made to set up in a park there sometime this year.
It has also provided reading room kits for other organizations to use in their own literacy outreach efforts, including the Brooklyn and Queens public libraries, libraries in France and Australia, and the Seattle Public Library. A science reading station with an Uni tower of books is currently installed inside the Brooklyn Public Library through January.
“We’ve served thousands of patrons and have been observed by thousands more in passing,” Davol said; the Uni Project was founded by him and his wife, Leslie Davol, in 2011 after they’d operated a similar organization in Boston from 2006 to 2010. “The point is to read and enjoy books in public with others. People are transformed into readers on a kind of stage, and neighborhoods are transformed into places where the value of reading and learning is recognized, promoted, and shared.”
The Uni Project provided 430 hours of reading time on 107 separate occasions in 26 different neighborhoods in 2014, mostly in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens). Mobile reading rooms have included one set up under the 7 train line in Queens and another at a hip-hop concert in the Bronx. Recently, the Uni Project partnered with the National Book Foundation in the Great Book Giveaway on November 19, during which Neil Gaiman and Daniel Handler stood beside Uni Project carts parked in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park, giving away copies of National Book Award finalists to hundreds of readers who stood in line for hours in the bitter cold to receive a book from the two authors.
The Uni Project owns its collection of books, with some of them donated by such organizations as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Hall of Science, and 826NYC. The Uni Project inaugurated its first artist-in-residence this past October, inviting a young illustrator to sketch scenes at the reading rooms. In 2015, the Project intends to supplement its book collection by adding puzzles and drawing materials to the mix.