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Brooklyn Public Library: an Open Book

Sep 26, 2013 1:58 PM | 0 comments

As we've recorded in the webpages of this blog before, the Brooklyn Collection serves as the defacto institutional archive for the Brooklyn Public Library.  We keep the annual reports, the retired library cards, the book plates, the program flyers, and all the other flotsam and jetsam one would expect to be generated by the fifth-largest library system in the United States, serving a population of over 2.5 million Brooklynites.  It is not often that these materials see the light of day, so we are very pleased to announce a new building-wide exhibit at the Central Library -- Brooklyn Public Library: An Open Book -- curated by the Brooklyn Collection and featuring ephemera, photographs, newspaper clippings, and blueprints documenting the history of this beautiful Art Deco monument to learning at Grand Army Plaza.


Wait, what?  That's not the Central Library, is it?  No, not exactly.  Above is a rendering of the original plan for the library, designed by the architect Raymond F. Almirall in the Beaux-Arts style that was popular at the turn of the century.  Construction on this library began in 1912 but came to a halt in 1919, leaving a gaping hole in the ground and one lone wing along Flatbush Avenue. 

The lone wing stayed in this purgatorial condition for nearly 30 years as various campaigns to raise funds to finish the library came and went.  By the time the project was finally rejuvenated in the late 1930s, the modernist aesthetic had taken hold in America, rendering the previous design woefully outdated.  The architects Alfred Morton Githens and Francis Keally were hired for the redesign, which incorporated the pre-existing wing into a new blueprint for the building -- one based on an "open book" motif.

More than the just a history of the building itself, the exhibit also includes artifacts of the daily life within the Central Library -- the aforementioned program fliers, book lists, and staff memos that record the rigors, joys, and value of librarianship through the 20th century.


In the Brooklyn Collection display cases, we feature candid and professional photographs of library staff members who have worked at Central through the years.  Many of the departments and staff members depicted here -- like the audiovisual squad, the micromaterials division, and the scores of catalogers -- are no longer a part of the Central Library.  As technologies, services and priorities change within the institution, staff are relocated, new skills are learned, and whole departments vanish.  We are lucky to have in our archives these images of Central life as it was lived in years past.

This exhibit has also afforded us the new and exciting opportunity to collaborate with Brooklyn Public Library's first Artist-in-Residence, Elizabeth Felicella.  An architectural photographer, Felicella has already built up an impressive catalog of library images in her project to photograph all of the branch libraries in the five boroughs of New York.  For this exhibit, she has turned her camera upon the more intimate spaces within the library -- the hidden nooks of the stacks, the behind-the-scenes corners of the archives, and above all else the overlooked beauty of library that lies within plain view for those with the eye and the patience to find it.  On Wednesday, October 30th, at 7:00pm we will host Ms. Felicella in the Brooklyn Collection for a reception and a conversation about her work with libraries and in our archives. 

Photo by Elizabeth Felicella, 2013.

There is, of course, much more to see in the exhibit than we can present here, and we encourage you to visit the Central Library in person to view the exhibit in its entirety.  For those who can't visit, we will be posting blogs through the next few months highlighting different subplots in the history of the Central Library, so stay tuned.