Working in Libraries Under Late Capitalism: A Review
Text by Jack Denton
Photos by Erik Augustine
It’s a weird time to live and labor in the United States. The office, for many workers, has either expanded or contracted in such dramatic ways that the term has become nearly meaninglessness. The corporate campuses favored by the tech monopolists feature doctors’ offices, barbershops, and gourmet restaurants: work with a veneer of organic life. As freelance and remote work become increasingly prevalent, homes and neighborhood institutions have become de-facto offices. Savvy startups like WeWork, Breather, and The Wing have commodified temporary work spots — snacks and fancy soap included! And as cities spiral further toward unaffordability, urban public space is as fraught as ever, catering more to tourists with money to burn than to locals.
Within this milieu, the public library occupies a singular spot between office, infrastructure, and social community. In his 1978 autobiography, the literary theorist Alfred Kazin described the New York Public Library as the “church of the unemployed.” Since then, the expansion of the gig economy and the collapse of work-life distinctions mean libraries are actually more relevant than ever — as much for the space as the books.
As a transient worker in the gig economy without funds for a luxe coworking space, I’ve gotten tired of writing in coffee shops. Instead, over the course of a week, I worked at four libraries in New York to try to understand the way these spaces have been altered by this office-ification— and how libraries might also be altering work.
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Brooklyn Central Library
Brooklyn’s Central Public Library stands beige and Brutalist across the street from the rolling meadows of Prospect Park and the triumphal arch of Grand Army Plaza. An engraving to the left of the front door promises “free access to the knowledge and thought of all the ages” inside — though people of all ages are more easily perceptible. On every floor, students, senior citizens, freelancers, and adults from various stripes of life crowd around workspace tables bristling with outlets. In the bustling lobby, a mother feeds her toddler a grilled cheese, and a Hasidic father tries in vain to placate his keening infant’s wail. Two women swap delightfully petty Park Slope gossip. Some people check out books, but the overall scene is open-plan office crossed with public square.
A continual challenge of working in public spaces is what to do with your belongings when you have to go to the bathroom, get a drink, or stretch your legs — necessary, human activities. A parting “can you watch my laptop for a second?” blurted to a headphone-swaddled stranger is tempting but reckless. The Central Library’s three floors teem with at least seven wings to work in, and each time I got up to use the bathroom I used it as an excuse to quickly relocate to a different section. If you need to get up more than eight times during the day, you can start recycling through the rooms, which themselves are vast. You also might want to see a urologist.
Each floor has a subtly different tenor, with studiousness and intensity of air-conditioning increasing as one ascends the towers. There are laptop laborers in every nook of the building, but the ground-level tends to be a bit more of a hangout spot than the upper decks. In the first floor’s Literature wing, a vivacious hum from the adjoining lobby filters into the background. On the third floor, where the busiest freelance workers and students seem to congregate, the most common sound is the pneumatic hiss of passing buses down below on Flatbush Avenue. Everyone is silent. Chatty camaraderie is for the offices of those privileged with full-time jobs and employer-provided healthcare.
In a 1971 letter to the children of Troy, Michigan, E. B White wrote that “a library is many things”: a place to “get in out of the rain,” “to sit and think,” and “where books live.” Brooklyn Central is even more things: an NYC-ID office, passport services center, and a cafe. In addition to providing a free workspace and daytime sanctuary for those with few other third spaces to choose from, the library also serves as complementary town hall. Certainly WeWork and other coworking spaces don’t offer these kind of government services, though their financially stable clientele probably have less need for such offerings anyway. Regarding the cafe, workers on a budget could do worse than the chicken tacos. I skipped the $2 avocado — if I had that kind of money, I’d have joined a coworking space.
Two blocks down from a bodega mural of Ol’ Dirty Bastard and one block from the Franklin Avenue C and S stop is the Bedford Library. The three-cars-long S is the cutest and best train in New York, emblematic of an era when local infrastructure investments weren’t imaginary. The also-tiny Bedford Library is a relic of that era as well, circa 1905. The best community institutions tend to keep idiosyncratic hours, and the Bedford Library is no exception: Despite an otherwise normal schedule, on Wednesdays it doesn’t rise from its slumber until 1 PM. Realizing this only upon arrival, I work for the morning from a nearby coffee shop.
Finally inside, I sit in the far back of the first floor, where a rare squadron of outlets are clustered by the fire extinguisher. A lively group of old-timers hold court at the table behind me, debating all sorts of neighborhood issues. Though I work with headphones on, an excited man at my table periodically shares information with me from an article he’s reading about $130 billion in gold recently discovered in a Russian shipwreck.
Working out of a local institution like the Bedford Library raises questions about what is owed to a community when you make it your office. In contrast to large, destination libraries like Brooklyn Central, local branches solicit communal engagement, which can be at odds with the isolated focus a workspace often requires. A few years ago, I spent a long stretch living a few blocks from the Bedford Branch. I often worried whether I was doing enough doing enough to avoid being a neighborhood gentrifier who contributed little beyond raising rents. Related thoughts emerged during my recent visit to the library. With my mind in my computer, to what extent was I present? I tried my best to be engaged with the library community, but a tide of work threatened to undermine my attempts throughout the afternoon.
The line for the sole bathroom is four people deep when I go to use it, which proves a challenge. Possibly sensing my agony, a guy offers me the ability to cut his girlfriend in line as thanks for earlier allowing him to charge his phone in the outlet I had been using. I decline. “Probably good not to,” he tells me. “She’s pregnant, bro.” Incredibly, the library doesn’t have a single water fountain. I resolve to fill up my water bottle in the bathroom sink, but can’t bring myself to do it, given the powerful smell.
The second floor is essentially a deck built onto the library’s 1905 base, with only railings and a bit of height separating it from the first floor. At least in the summer, the upper tier is less communal, a better bet for work mode. Industrial fans buzz out a lot of the downstairs noise, but visitor beware: they are relentless and it gets kinda chilly. Outlets are also more abundant upstairs, with a few power strips along the wall. Still, I preferred the first floor, where I was less productive, but happier. As a sometimes-lonely remote worker, I’ll take all the community I can get.
NYPL Bryant Park
The most famous of New York City’s 200-plus libraries is almost certainly the flagship Bryant Park branch of NYPL, with the lions standing sentry out front. Arriving after a long subway delay (a risk for library commutes), I eat an early lunch of leftovers in the tourist-drenched park nextdoor. No food is allowed inside, so Sad Desk Lunches, bane of the nine-to-five office worker, are happily impossible for the library freelancer.
When you enter the library, they search your bag like you’re at a museum or a Yankees’ game. This will happen again when you leave certain rooms, and eventually when departing the library — worse than the TSA. Maybe that’s because it kind of is a museum. A few different exhibits are going on when I visit, the most prominent one having something to do with 1960s counterculture. All libraries are repositories of history, but this one is especially indifferent to the present and its workers.
In the 1921 edition of the Bulletin of the New York Public Library, the chief reference librarian wrote, “The charm of the flagstaffs on the front terrace, the design of their bases, the beauty of their sculpture are lost upon many of us, simply because they are things we see day by day — and therefore fail to give the appreciation to which they are entitled.” Nearly the opposite is true today. The building has since become a National Historic landmark, and to make the library more picturesque at nighttime, the Bloomberg administration brought in François Jousse, the French engineer responsible for lighting Paris’s touristy monuments. Partially mummified in display cases, the grand library now risks the fate of the Most Photographed Barn in America in Don Delillo’s White Noise: “No one sees the barn.”
Until I ascend the spectacular staircases to the third floor, I begin to worry that I’ve made a mistake coming to this location. It’s a place to see, not to work. But I finally stumble upon the “Catalog Room,” a Hogwarts-y working room with beautiful golden desk lamps and carousel-sized chandeliers. I attempt to settle into my laptop, but tourists keep streaming through in huge, distracting packs. Unlike the life-noise of the other libraries, the commotion isn’t indifferent to me. Tourists gawk as I attempt to work and several take flash photography in my direction from point-blank range. I have unwittingly become part of the exhibit: Freelance writer, c. 2018.
All that melts away, however, when I relocate to the massive Rose Reading Room, which separates “Research” from “Visitors.” The research side looks much like the Catalog Room, except several magnitudes larger, richer with outlets, and bereft of tourists. Other than the occasional growl of a chair being pulled in or out, the room is silent. Its ceiling, some 50 feet up, is painted with fair weather clouds and adorned with gold trim. Briefly I forget the surrounding Midtown storm, and I get to work.
If I told you that Poets House is a bad place to write a poem, would you believe me? The library sits on the mouth of the Hudson River in the shadow of One World Trade, deep in Manhattan’s tail. Upstairs, large bay windows display the foliage of the park below and the charmingly meager skyline of Jersey City standing as tall as it can across the water.
When I enter through the building’s glass and metal facade, four different people in their early 20s are sitting behind a front desk, reading. They look up from their books in unison, and I fear an impending ask for a hefty suggested donation—an uninformed worry. Instead, they only smile through their glasses as I make my way to the elevator. Like most libraries across the city, Poets House is funded by a mix of philanthropy and government money, and is free to the public.
The library is small, just two long, skinny floors. Mercifully, maintenance work on the ground level obstructs my path to the voice recordings of luminaries like Walt Whitman and Sylvia Plath that haunt the steps between floors, mitigating some of the building’s anxiety of influence. The lime-colored walls along the second level are lined with doctor’s office-style paintings and framed printings of poems. Chapbooks poke invitingly out of the bookshelves.
It’s all a little bit too pleasant. Rather than the ramshackle dustiness I had hoped for from a house of poetry, it has the tidy charm of a break room at the beautiful letter-writing company that Joaquin Phoenix works for in Her — the AirSpace aesthetics shared by The Wing and practically every AirBnB listing. Unlike the other libraries, Poets House has no tension between workspace and community; perhaps because it is neither. I find myself unable to write, struggle to do much more than just bask in the comfort. The simple delights of the park below and the sailboats beyond make even rote tasks difficult. Given that poetry is an extravagant luxury for many an overworked person, there’s an appropriateness to the opulence of the space.
Parks weren’t a joyous space for Stanley Kunitz, the founder of Poets House and two-time Poet Laureate of the United States. Kunitz’s father ended his life in a public park in Massachusetts, and his poems often grappled with this death and its location. So perhaps he didn’t find the parkside Poets House so overwhelmingly, benignly nice—and thus maybe was able find productivity there.
Not me, though. So when a staffer came by my table to inform me that the workspace would be closing early for an event, I met the dismissal happily. I streaked out into the purgatory of the terrible city outside, hungry for some dissonance.
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And so we soldier on, all trying to live and work, find community and privacy. Libraries offer these things, albeit imperfectly — they weren’t really built for individualized labor in the way that, say, WeWorks are (it’s in the name!). We’re left trying to fill the void for affordable temporary work environments at the same time we try to reckon with wider changes in social infrastructure. In the short term, we need cafes with desks and outlets. In the long term, we need revolution.
In his 2000 book Bowling Alone, sociologist Robert Putnam maligns a decades-long decline in participation in civic organizations and social activities like bowling leagues. Putnam worries that the diminishment of these community groups will mean a worrisome drop in “social capital,” and a resultant unraveling of democracy. But today, it seems Putnam has it backwards; it’s the decline in literal capital and our oligarchic faux-democracy that’s forcing the cannibalization of community spaces. As cities further bifurcate into playgrounds for the rich on one side and hostile marketplaces for underpaid contractors on the other, libraries remain one one of the last free bastions of communal space. And yet we are — I am — turning them into spaces for that same precarious labor, instead of community building.
A few weeks ago, New York City announced plans for a “freelancer’s hub” in DUMBO, a place for remote workers to toil in solidarity and attend workshops. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, the mayor’s office called the hub “the first concerted effort by a U.S. city to support freelance workers in the gig economy.” Sure, workshops are a welcome addition. But has anyone told them about the libraries?