About the Uni Project
The Uni Project aims to do one thing and do it well: temporarily transform almost any available urban space into a public reading room and venue for learning. We start with the conviction that books and learning should be prominent, accessible, and part of what we expect at street-level in our cities.
To accomplish this, the Uni Project has created a new kind of portable institution called the Uni, which can operate in parks, plazas, farmers’ markets, and other available outdoor spaces. The purpose of the Uni is to share books, showcase the act of learning, and improve public space. It is intended to be a new resource for a city, providing residents with a place to gather and contribute to their own well-being and advancement, as well as that of their neighborhood. The first Uni is a one-of-a-kind, portable reading room for New York City. It will remain permanently in New York, serving as a prototype and test kitchen for the Uni Project.
The Uni: an open-air reading room
The Uni consists of three basic components: a structure, a collection, and a team. These components scale according to the conditions of each site. A small, permanent staff works year-round to enlist others in the Uni’s work, seeking out partnerships for locations and programming to fill the Uni’s calendar, such as readings, talks, workshops and screenings.
The Uni structure is based on a system of 144 open-faced cubes. The cubes stack, lock together, and can be installed in different configurations or heights to create an inviting space for people to gather in public. Each Uni cube has an interior dimension measuring 16″ on a side, providing shelf space for approximately 10-15 books or other materials. Each cube also has a cover element that can be used as a bench, a table, podium, or a display surface. When all 144 cubes are deployed together, the Uni becomes a striking reflection of its parts: an eight-foot-high cube.
The Uni collection consists of new and gently-used books and materials donated to the Uni. Managed with the help of a team of volunteer librarians, the goal is to offer an engaging collection of books and learning experiences to an urban audience, children and adults alike. The collection is organized into modules that help librarians adapt the Uni to different locations and communities, and even change content over the course of a day.
Materials in the Uni are for browsing only and do not circulate. Areas of focus are children’s picture books, poetry, short works, art books, and reference titles. We have also hosted audio cubes and small exhibits. Special ”curated” collections rely on the physical constraint of the 16″ cubes to provide concise, in-depth looks at various ideas or topics. Whenever possible, these cubes are curated by educational institutions or an individual who loves books and is deeply knowledgeable and passionate about a particular subject. Our goal is to bring a sense of passion and depth often missing from content chosen for public space, and our cubes serve to include different “voices” in the collection, reflecting the communities where the Uni operates. Meet some of the cubes here.
The Uni relies on a volunteer corps of librarians, educators, and others, who believe in providing access to books and learning experiences, supporting local residents and neighborhoods, and experimenting with new ways to do those things in the city. The corps is expert at planning, deploying and operating the Uni in different environments. Off-site, they work on locations, permitting, scheduling, outreach and publicity. On-site, they focus on program implementation, audience experience, and documentation. Some on the team have backgrounds in design retail, and planning. They can provide rapid-response technical assistance to nonoprofit program partners who bring programming to the Uni, helping to customize programs and activities for a walk-up, street-level audience.
We think the Uni works best as a permanent, familiar resource for a city or neighborhood, or shared between several neighborhoods with a goal of supporting placemaking, civic life, or education. That’s the approach we’re testing in New York City. But we think lots of places could use a Uni, and in 2012 we built and shipped a second Uni to Almaty, Kazakhstan where it is being used to create a roving library in a collaboration between the US Embassy and a local children’s library.
In 2013, we’ll take what we’ve learned at home and abroad to launch a new, sustained effort to empower communities in New York City to operate their own mini-library spaces based on the Uni model. We are developing a small Uni shelf/bench ensemble with a starter kit of books, activities, and program/operation support that we’ll put directly in the hands of people highly motivated to improve their own neighborhoods. The result will be a powerful community development tool: a small-scale reading room that communities can operate themselves.
The Uni is a project of Street Lab, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.