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Cleveland, New York Gain Portable Reading Rooms

The Cleveland Public Library has installed a portable reading room in a trendy downtown district in the hopes that locals who flock to the area to dine and shop will also check out the library’s new open-air book kiosk.
Dubbed the BookBox, the custom-designed galvanized metal and reclaimed wood structure, which opened July 21, houses about 200 books, offers free wireless, and makes laptops available for Internet browsing. The compact mobile unit resides in a newly renovated park in Cleveland’s lively Market Square District, which is also home to a growing population of artists, local food producers, trendy restaurants, and shops.
The idea is to entice city dwellers and suburbanites, who frequent the area’s boutiques and dining spots, to also stop by the CPL’s warm weather book kiosk. “It’s a great opportunity to tout our services,” CPL public services director John Skrtic told LJ.
“The CPL’s BookBox brings some of the wonders of the CPL to new patrons right in the heart of one of Cleveland’s most exciting neighborhoods,” said library director Felton Thomas in a press release.
Especially on Saturdays, the trendy neighborhood is “one of the busiest places in the city,” Skrtic said. The BookBox is open Monday, Wednesday, Fridays, and Saturdays, from 9 am to 1 pm.
On opening day, about 200 people stopped by the structure, whose door opens up to reveal a small seating area with book shelves lining the back wall. In a nod to the adjacent hundred-year-old food emporium, the West Side Market, which was visited by about 100 million people last year, the BookBox is featuring titles on cooking, urban agriculture, and other food-related topics.
Thus far, locals who have wandered in to the BookBox have browsed the collection, signed up for library cards, checked out books, or browsed the Internet on the library’s laptops, Skrtic said.
BookBox is similar to the nonprofit Uni Project, (part of the nonprofit Street Lab) which creates temporary reading rooms that it installs in public spaces in New York.
The CPL’s BookBox is a makeover of a 13’x9’ x7’ structure originally designed under a grant from theCleveland Foundation as a portable retail shop, called the ShopBox.
Conceived by visiting Chilean architect Cristian Schmitt, the structure briefly served as a temporary bar for a Cleveland theater and as a T-shirt shop, but was then transformed beginning last winter, with the aid of public spaces group Land Studio, into the BookBox. Cleveland architect Bradford Watson weatherized and refitted the structure with shelving and a door, to turn the mobile store into a warm weather library outpost.
“We’re really thrilled with [the BookBox],” Kathleen Cerveny, who oversees the Cleveland Foundation’s arts program, told LJ. “I can’t think of a better use for it than literacy.”
“I think the BookBox is a great concept that perfectly fits the original design,” Schmitt wrote in an email of the transformation his original structure from retail store to reading room.
Now in its second summer, the nonprofit Uni Project, erects temporary modules made from interlocking 16-inch cubes in heavily trafficked public areas like neighborhood plazas and street festivals. Last year, co-directors Leslie and Sam Davol, with the aid of a group of volunteer library students and book lovers, assembled and set up modules at four sites.
This summer, Sam Davol told LJ, the group is setting up at least four more units. The first two were installed at an East New York, Brooklyn farmers market July 28 and on a Corona, Queens plaza the following day. Uni plans to return to Corona and East New York, as well as Williamsburg, Brooklyn, later this summer.
Each cube has a theme. The books and items on display don’t circulate, and nonprofits, local businesses, and individuals volunteer to donate them. The Uni Project is funded by an MIT HASS grant and $20,000 in Kickstarter funding. Individuals make small donations as well, Sam Davol said.
Volunteers who work at the temporary facilities include book lovers and library students. They help to assemble and disassemble the units, answer questions about the books and artifacts, and field questions about the structure itself.
To drum up donations of money, books and helpers, the couple uses social media tools like Facebook and Twitter, Sam Davol said. The co-directors also set up face-to-face meetings with potential donors and volunteers.
“I’m on the road a bunch,” said Davol, who works as a musician when he’s not donating his time to The Uni Project. “I reach out to people by visiting libraries, bookstores,” and other book-friendly venues. “Those contacts become our grassroots.”
One of the donors of volumes to the effort was New York Bound Books owner Barbara Cohen who gave the Davols about 20 books for a Uni last summer. The couple met beforehand with Cohen to select which volumes to display.
“They came here with their children,” she recalled in an interview. “They’re really dedicated to this. They thought about what I was giving them and stood here and asked about the books.”
Libraries are starting to work with the group, as well. The Queens Public Library donated children’s books for the Corona event, a spokeswoman said. At last year’s Brooklyn Book Festival, the Brooklyn Public Library opted for donating books to a Uni module set up at the event instead of sending a bookmobile, said Richard Reyes-Gavilan, BPL’s chief librarian.
BPL also “set up a portable circulation system,” Ryes-Gavilan, who now sits on the Uni Project’s advisory panel, said. “We [also] registered a bunch of people for cards.”
The playful modules attracted families with kids attending the festival. “Lots of parents were borrowing lots and lots of kids book,” said Gavilan. “People were reading to their kids, sitting around the structure [and] kids were playing around the thing”
It was a “great way to increase the visibility of the library,” he said
In addition to its New York outposts, the group just launched a new structure in Almaty, Kazakhstan And this summer, Uni’s home base is moving to New York, said Sam Davol, who added that he hopes to be able to hire a couple of staff people to help run the program.
“New York is unique in its love of public spaces,” Davol said. If you’re going develop a civic engagement project like The Uni Project, “you’ve got to do it in a place they’re going to return the ball as hard as you hit it.”

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