Between 2008 and 2013, I photographed the branch libraries of New York City’s three public library systems: 212 branches in all, spread across the five boroughs. Through arrangements with each of the library systems, I worked mornings before the branches opened to the public. I traveled by subway and bus and made six to twelve pictures of each branch, interiors and exteriors, using a 4×5 inch view camera. My archive, to date, holds over 2,000 negatives.
The library was a generous subject — it served as a rich source for reflection on both the topic at hand and on my work as an architectural photographer. Melvil Dewey’s objective in establishing his decimal system for library classification was to encourage browsing: materials were organized by subject so that a reader might encounter a related, but perhaps unknown, book on her trip to the shelf. I identified with Dewey’s reader and adopted “browsing” as a criterion for shooting — a process that might render more or different things than I anticipated. I borrowed metaphors from the library and began thinking of my photography in terms of reading and writing. The library offered a reprieve from the often strict conventions of architectural photography. Without abandoning my objective of describing each branch in pictures, I took license to shoot in long and short sentences: big, overall views full of tables and chairs, but also plants, bathroom graffiti, pencil sharpeners (a lot of them), magazine covers, people waiting in line outside. No shot list was applied: I photographed what struck me, following tangents, filling out categories that emerged on their own over the course of the project. The richness of the process was the richness of the branches themselves. I found them beautiful, even — and sometimes especially — the most neglected, with their layers of use, fragments of earlier arrangements, updates, familiar elements, improvisations, accidents, incongruities: in short, places that look something like what everyday thinking feels like.
I began by browsing; in the end, if I have come away with an agenda or a wish, it is that the branch buildings of New York City’s public libraries be understood and maintained as a collection — a rare and living architectural legacy, all the more extraordinary for its mutations, planned and unplanned, over the course of the last century. It is a collection that is part and parcel of the evolution of modern public life as we know it; places that reflect and shape our best and changing aspirations as a society and as individuals within it.
For more on the current state and future of New York’s branch libraries, read The Architectural League’s feature “Re-envisioning Branch Libraries,” which outlines the League’s collaboration with the Center for an Urban Future on a design study to articulate new architectural, financial, and programmatic possibilities for branch libraries and collects additional content exploring various aspects of these neighborhood-based resource centers.
Reading Room received support from the Graham Foundation and the New York State Council on the Arts Program for Architecture Planning & Design. Excerpts from the catalog have been exhibited at Art in General, Art on Third at the Mid-Manhattan branch library, and the NYPL Bronx Library Center.
Elizabeth Felicella is an artist and architectural photographer living in Manhattan. In 2013 she was the artist-in-residence at Brooklyn Public Library where she worked closely with the Brooklyn Collection and its photographic holdings about the Central Library building. Previous long-term projects include Idlewild:An Atlas of the Periphery of Kennedy Airport and Uneasy Spaces: Security and the Public Realm.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or The Architectural League of New York.
 This count includes libraries facilities that are not designated as branch libraries for the purposes of the Center for an Urban Future’s Re-Envisioning New York’s Branch Libraries report. The report analyzes 207 branches, defined as permanent facilities with circulating collections, a count that does not include sites such as the Far Rockaway Teen Annex or the Queens Library’s Adult Literacy Centers.