How the Brooklyn Heights library branch found a new home
EDITORS’ NOTE: The Brooklyn Public Library, first established by a state grant in 1892 when Brooklyn was still an independent city, now serves Brooklyn with 61 locations all across the borough. This makes BPL the institution with the largest direct engagement factor of any in Brooklyn. The 60 branches, combined with the main library at Grand Army Plaza, continue to make a strong cultural connection to Brooklynites of all backgrounds and ages. Thus, the Brooklyn Eagle has begun a series to profile each neighborhood branch.
BROOKLYN HEIGHTS — This week I visited the Brooklyn Heights branch, located at 286 Cadman Plaza West and recently rebuilt. It is the largest neighborhood branch in the BPL system. The original Brooklyn Heights branch was established in 1903 and located on Montague Street before moving to its current Cadman Plaza location in 1962. The original Cadman Plaza library was a standalone building of a vaguely Greco-Roman design punctuated by six sculptural reliefs designed by Clemente Spampinato that surrounded the entrance.
In 2016, following 54 years of usage and with the building becoming increasingly dated, the BPL elected to temporarily relocate the branch to 109 Remsen St. in order to demolish the old library and build a new one at the same location. Ultimately, a 36-story apartment building (One Clinton Street) was built on the site but with the ground floor containing the new Brooklyn Heights Library.
The new library was opened on June 8, 2022, in a sleek, modern space boasting far greater facilities than the previous building. Entering the library, there is a total juxtaposition with the bustling Cadman Plaza outside, offering a quiet, peaceful space to work and read in one of the library’s many sitting areas.
Turning left upon entering, a visitor is met by the Main Hall featuring high ceilings and rows of bookshelves; it also contains a welcome desk and a locker from which visitors may access laptops to use during their visit. In contrast to the standard bulky desktops one often sees in a library, the laptop locker takes up far less room and allows users to work wherever in the library they like. Additionally, the Main Hall contains the reading circle — an open amphitheater-like space, complete with a big screen that is used for readings and other events.
To the right of the entrance is a large work area with a number of desks overlooking the corner of Clinton Street and West Cadman Plaza. Within this space is Jean Shin’s sculpture, “Something Borrowed, Something Blue,” an upside-down tree hanging from the ceiling wrapped in denim donated by library patrons. The leaves on the tree represent all the Brooklyn neighborhoods containing a branch of the BPL along with the name of the most borrowed book from the year each respective branch opened.
The library’s second floor contains a designated teen area featuring a games room and books aimed at young adults. Teens often struggle to find a space in libraries, which typically only contain designated areas for young children and general spaces often occupied by adults. The second-floor mezzanine area at the Brooklyn Heights Library offers a place for teenagers where they can be a little louder than in other parts of the library and with books and facilities aimed directly at their interests.
The library’s basement is home to the children’s area, complete with stroller parking as well as corked floors and walls specifically designed to contain any noise within that area. It also contains a multipurpose room that can hold over 200 guests that is used for conventions, events, and readings.
Last, scattered throughout the library are meeting rooms named after streets in the neighborhood such as Orange and Cranberry, with two of those rooms containing one of the six sculptural reliefs that once fronted the old library (the other four are on display at the nearby Walt Whitman Library in Fort Greene). These rooms can be booked by anyone with a library card and have become a popular space for meetings by those who are working remotely in the post-COVID era.
Thanks to its excellent facilities and location in a busy part of the borough on the border of Brooklyn Heights and Downtown Brooklyn and adjacent to Borough Hall and the Supreme Court, the library attracts a diverse clientele. The branch’s Managing Librarian Rachel Tiemann gave her perspective saying “It’s sort of like a subway car in Manhattan, if you stopped and served all those people at the same time.” “We have people who aren’t necessarily from the community who are here working at Borough Hall or at the law offices. We have people coming from Connecticut, Staten Island and New Jersey picking up their holds here, so it feels very downtown.”
However, despite the library’s impressive facilities and ability to serve patrons from across the tri-state area, Tiemann also emphasized its community feel and value to people living in Brooklyn Heights. “We have a really vibrant neighborhood community here as well who are very literary and who very much love their library,” said Tiemann. “A lot of families come here for storytimes and other people come to get the latest best seller and to talk books.”
Lastly, Tiemann spoke about the social responsibilities of the library. For many Brooklynites these libraries offer the best (or only) Wi-Fi accessibility available along with access to useful technology like laptops and printers. “We are near a lot of social service hubs, so we have folks coming in with different needs,” said Tiemann. “So we might have people who need help printing and filling out forms for housing or finding shelter for the night.”
The BPL elected to keep the WiFi running in the libraries while they were closed during COVID and found its usage remained high as people would travel to local branches in order to connect to the internet from outside. “It’s really every walk of life coming in here, so we wear a lot of different hats,” said Tiemann.
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