NYC Phone Booths Turned Into Free Mini Libraries by Architect John Locke

by , 02/26/12

John Locke, graceful spoon, mini-library, green design, eco-design, sustainable design, recycled materials, public space, urban design, urban space, free library, bookshare, social design, Manhattan, NYC

The libraries are part of Locke’s urban intervention project call the Department of Urban Betterment (thus, DUB). The first mini-library was installed on a phone booth eight blocks further north in a rather desolate area that has little foot traffic. The books disappeared within six hours and the plywood shelf within just ten days. In order to counter this, Locke chose a much more conspicuous location near an express train stop on Broadway and put a visible logo on the bottom of each book’s spine. The shelf itself is completely detachable.

The new library hasn’t been vandalized, but Locke believes that the logo makes passersby reluctant to leave with the book and return with another one, which is the idea – to create an egalitarian book-sharing system for the city. He writes on Graceful Spoon, “I intentionally wanted to avoid any directions…but after seeing people hesitate when confronted with 002, perhaps there is a more subtle way to gently describe an intended use.”

+ Graceful Spoon

Images via John Locke



  1. timjbd July 10, 2012 at 4:51 pm
    Books will be back. This is not likely to cause that but the end of cheap fossil fuels will. It takes power to read on a computer. What will happen when people have to choose between heating their house, refrigerating their food, turning on a light or surfing the internet? Which will be the first to go?
  2. corinnetakara March 1, 2012 at 1:14 am
    Yes, that is a good point that phone booths were important after 9/11 and this can also perhaps re-frame how we view public phone booths. How could one design these to be more efficient, helpful emergency hubs? Public phone booths certainly are no longer a part of our daily lives in the way they once were. Yes, there is a person who has the job of emptying out the change from pay phones, just as there was a person who had the job of lamplighter in the era of gas lights. How many designers can startle us into recognizing cultural shifts through mundane objects? Not only does John Locke invite the public to contemplate potential new functions for the relic we were too busy to notice was a relic, but he also marries it with the idea of a library….another public resource undergoing seismic shifts due to technology. Libraries are re-imagining themselves, their content and their role in society as more people shift to digital reading devices. You can see some of this vibrant conversation going on at Library 2.0 What is the future of libraries in the digital age? What is the future of the phone booth in the digital age? How can we re-imagine both to be vibrant resource hubs for the public of today and tomorrow? These are the key questions posed by this wonderful design installation.
  3. j-o-y February 29, 2012 at 4:09 pm
    Phone booths were essential after 9/11 when many people did not have cell or home phone service. They are an essential piece of emergency management. The person whose job it is to collect money from or service the pay phones probably does not love the books being their way.
  4. corinnetakara February 27, 2012 at 4:27 pm
    This is a great idea and I will be sharing it with the children I teach as we are exploring design solutions to public space needs. There is also this Brazilian project, Estante Publica, which is similar in concept but uses bus shelters to host these informal public libraries. Wonderful idea! Thank you for posting.
  5. sherilynbv February 24, 2012 at 7:20 pm
    Great concept and a brilliant idea where phones double up as that displayed. Phone booths should still be a part of city street- scapes however as they are a vital link for many.
  6. lanemcdonald February 22, 2012 at 6:27 am
    Essentially a "freebox" of books that I doubt are very useful or good. And there are far too few books to call it a library. I do not use a cell phone, gave it up last year and am very glad I did. I think there are more people who choose to be with them than you think and that public phones are still important and convenient and not "obsolete" as you claim.
  7. sweetdee February 21, 2012 at 4:08 pm
    Perhaps there should be a vending machine-library type system to prevent people from just looting these shelves. More accessible libraries on every street corner?