The Story behind the Uni Project

The Uni Project at Four Freedoms Park in May 2014

The Uni Project at Four Freedoms Park in May 2014

Last year in May, Leslie Davol, co-founder of the Uni Project, wheeled the open-air, portable library to a shady corner of the Park and opened its bookshelves. Children, parents, tourists, students, joggers, and others stopped by the library to browse the books, and stayed to read under our Linden trees. The installation was a great success and it is just the type of event we like to host at the Park - one that surprises, educates, and brings people together. (And we think FDR would agree!)   

Courtesy FDR Library. 

Courtesy FDR Library. 

This year, the Uni Project returns to the Park for three weekends: May 9&10, July 11&12, and October 3&4. We asked Leslie to share the story behind the project, its design, and what's up next for the Uni Project. 

Q: Tell us a little bit about the Uni Project and the impetus behind starting this program?

Leslie: My husband Sam and I founded the Uni Project together, and we run all aspects of it today. The impetus comes from our drive to improve the city for all who live here, and we also love sharing great educational experiences and resources with New Yorkers. Great stuff happens when you take activities like reading and learning out from behind walls and make them public.

Q: The first Uni reading room was launched via a crowd-funding campaign. What was that experience like?

Leslie: Launching the Uni on Kickstarter in 2011 was intense but incredibly satisfying. It allowed us to take our idea public rapidly and also develop an initial community of supporters, many of whom are still connected with us today. The experience of that crowdfunding effort has stuck with us, showing us the value of having a broad, diverse group of supporters, like folks who support us by buying a book from our wish list or volunteer their time as librarians. We love that supporters of the Uni Project are from all walks of life, just like the people we serve.

Courtesy The Uni Project

Courtesy The Uni Project

Q: How has the Uni project grown and expanded since 2011?

Leslie: We launched the project in fall 2011, and have since been growing rapidly, setting up reading rooms 100 times in 26 neighborhoods last year alone. In a short time, we’ve served thousands of patrons and have been observed by thousands more in passing. Everywhere we go, we partner with community groups, and our circuit prioritizes underserved neighborhoods, many identified in partnership with city agencies such as NYC DOT and NYC Parks. We also partner with all three of the city’s public libraries, and we have expanded our collection with the help of museums such as New York Hall of Science and MoMA.

The project has been hailed as a "groundbreaking idea" by Library Journal and was awarded an Innovations in Reading Prize from the National Book Foundation in 2013. In 2014, we were a winner of the Mayor of Boston’s Public Space Invitational, leading to a portable open-air reading room for Boston. Working with architects, we have also designed and fabricated several different types of portable reading room structures, which we have provided to libraries and other nonprofits around the world who are copying our idea.

Q: What types of books can you expect to find in a typical reading room?

The Uni Project at Ozone Park. 

The Uni Project at Ozone Park. 

Leslie: Our collection is made up of real books and hands-on activities, like drawing, puzzles, and origami. We’re not a book swap nor a lending library, so the books return to the shelves at the end of the day, moving on to our next location. The point is not to take books home and read in private. We want people to read them together, in public, and be seen reading. That’s why we choose books that work well for browsing: short fiction, art books, poetry, and lots of picture books. And because our librarians watch over the collection, we can share high-quality, unusual, and even fragile books, like pop-up books. We want to put out what you wouldn’t expect in public space. And we find that a little trust goes a long way with our patrons.

To be engaging, some of the collection is also organized into a series of mini-collections curated by individuals or organizations here in NYC who have a real passion or expertise about a topic. One of our favorite shelves is filled with books that have been banned or challenged, curated by Uprise Books, a group that uses these books to engage teens in reading. It always surprises people to learn how many of their favorite books have been banned at one time or another.

Q: Are books for adults and children? How are books selected?

Leslie: Our collection has books for all ages. Books are selected based on what we’ve learned works to attract people over and give them a good experience reading in public space. Collections are also curated specifically for each site.

Some of our favorite books are titles that transcend the traditional distinction between children’s and grown-up books, like the Powers of Ten flipbook. There are some wonderful books on graphic design that visually grab young kids, like Watching Words Move. And adults are always picking up our pop-up books.

Courtesy The Uni Project

Courtesy The Uni Project

Q: What types of books do you think will be particularly inspiring given the setting at Four Freedoms Park?

Leslie: We’ll be packing books with photography and history from the period of FDR, books about NYC landmarks and its waterfront, books that might appeal to a more international audience, and also books that illustrate the ideas encapsulated in the “four freedoms” speech. It’s such an inspiring and stunning setting. We’ll bring Matteo Pericoli’s book, Manhattan Unfurled that tells a story of sorts from a close observation of New York City's skyline.

Each time we visit another place in New York, it helps us get to know our collection better and make some additions to improve it. The Uni gets better as we move through the city.

Q: Tell us about the design of the portable reading room. Who made it? What materials were used?

Rock-stage-case on wheels. Courtesy The Uni Project

Rock-stage-case on wheels. Courtesy The Uni Project

Leslie: Good design has always been important to our work. It helps us provide people with a good experience in public space. So far we have developed two types of portable reading room structures, both designed by our friends at Höweler + Yoon Architecture specifically for the Uni Project. One is a kind of tower made up of individual cube-shaped shelves that stack. The other is a kind of rock-stage-case on wheels that opens up into a wooden, sculptural double-sided book shelf. Custom designed benches made of lightweight plastic complete the installation in both cases. We’re now using the tower for longer-term residencies where our structure stays put, and the cart to pop-up week-to-week around New York City.

Q: What have been some of your favorite experiences with the Uni project? Favorite locations?

Leslie: I can’t get enough of watching people explore our books, sit down, and read. We create the same beautiful scene, over and over again, neighborhood to neighborhood, and there’s something so compelling about that since it brings out values and characteristics that we all share. We have a lot of wonderful conversations with people and each location is a new adventure, and we love breaking new ground.

Courtesy The Uni Project

Courtesy The Uni Project

Q: How do you see the Uni project changing and expanding in the next couple of years? Any specific goals?

Leslie: We’ll offer other types of activities that get people engaged in the act of learning together in the parks and on the streets of the city. In June, we plan to launch a new program called DRAW NYC that will get hundreds of New Yorkers of all ages drawing together in the public spaces of their neighborhoods. That program will come with its own cart stocked with drawing materials and prompts, and include an artist-in-residence. Our next cart and program will be called SOLVE NYC, which will get people engaged in math and science puzzles and activities. Finally we’re also developing a program and cart called LEARN that will let us partner with various groups around the city to create pop-up museums on different topics. The big idea behind all of these efforts is to create an organization dedicated over the the long-term to bringing great, walk-up educational experiences to the street and sharing them with as many New Yorkers as possible.

Q: How can people get involved in the Uni project? 

Leslie: There are three ways to get involved: you can volunteer, donate books, or donate money. More info on how to get involved is here: www.theuniproject.org/help/.