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Street Smarts: The Uni Project's Outdoor Neighborhood Reading Room

The Uni is a portable reading room designed to help making books more accessible in urban neighborhoods.

How can books be more accessible in urban neighborhoods? At a time when public libraries are underfunded and bookstores are closing, the Uni Project is hoping to help get more people reading by bringing books to the streets, literally.


The Uni is a lightweight, portable structure that's part library, part classroom. 144 open cubes can be stacked together in various configurations, and filled with donated books that the local community can browse (though not check out). Volunteer librarians staff the exhibits. The founders explain their motivation:

What we see at street level in many urban neighborhoods does not reflect our aspirations for ourselves and our society. If we're serious about having a well-educated society, let's build cities where learning experiences are prominent, accessible, and enjoyable. Let's show off our best teachers, librarians, and educators doing great work, and give them opportunities to adapt their craft to a public setting. The Uni takes learning public.

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There's a difference between the Uni and some other outdoor library projects, like, say, bookmobiles or phone booth libraries; the Uni is deliberately designed to be a place where people gather together and hang out, with chairs for lounging and reading. Because the books can't be checked out, people get the benefit of spending a little extra time with their neighbors. The project designers say part of their intention was to help bring people together to share stories, skills, and local news.

The first Uni installation was in Manhattan in 2011 after a successful Kickstarter campaign, and it's roamed around New York City ever since, most recently in areas heavily impacted by Hurricane Sandy. Last year, the project also sent a Uni abroad to Kazakhstan. In 2013, the team will be working with several organizations in New York to help them set up their own portable reading rooms.

This post is part of the GOOD community's 50 Building Blocks of Citizenship. This week: Get a Library Card. Follow along, join the discussion, and share your experience at #goodcitizen.

Image by Thena Tak, HY Architecture, courtesy of the Uni Project

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