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Digital Public Library of America

New York’s Underground Libraries

I’ve spent a good deal of time on the subway, perpetually frustrated by the lack of wifi and cell service, waiting for twitter to buffer between stops until my train finally resurfaces just enough for my feed to reload. On occasions like this, I find myself wishing desperately I had thought to bring a book or download an app before sliding through the turnstile and squeezing my way into an inevitably too-full, signal-less train.

Recently, designers from Miami Ad School have suggested a novel solution to the wifi-less subway ride: using Near-Field Communication technology to allow commuters to download books. Commuters could use NFC-enabled smartphones to access “Underground Library” signs and download the first few pages of a popular book. Upon resurfacing, a map would direct commuters to the nearest NYPL branch, where they could check out a hard copy of the book they’ve just begun.

Miami Ad School’s “Underground New York Public Library” reminded me of an effort to catalog the subway’s readers, a blog fittingly titled “The Underground New York Public Library.” The blog features high-quality photos of subway readers — commuters immersed in books while waiting for trains, straphangers turning pages while squished into crowded corners. (Be careful: the blog has infinite scroll, so a quick look can easily turn into 45 minutes of browsing…) Occasionally Ourit Ben-Haim, the photographer behind the blog, will interview readers about their books. Ben-Haim sees the blog itself as a “visual library,” an archive of sorts documenting how we travel, what we read, and the ways in which those two ubiquitous activities entwine themselves in our daily lives.

The two Underground NYPLs have something in common beyond their name; they both call attention to how we read, and to the unavoidable limitations on what we can choose to read as we commute. In the case of Miami Ad School’s NYPL, the target audience consists of bored subway riders. Any book, even if it’s chosen from a a relatively small pool of options, is a vast improvement on the previous state of booklessness. The readers who constitue the blog’s Underground NYPL, have, in the moment, no choice at all. They are already immersed in their books, and they’ve each brought only one book for their commute. The difference between the two approaches to subway reading, then, is a difference of both scope and temporality. Do you pick something (anything!) to read only after you’ve boarded your train, or do you choose one thing to read, perhaps from the vast collection of NYPL itself, and keep it with you throughout the day?


Image courtesy of brownpau on Flickr; used under a CC BY 2.0 license.