CHB Interviews: Jerome Chou of Branch

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You may have noticed a curious table set up in front of CitiBank’s parking lot at Move About Myrtle the last two Sundays.  The volunteer group, Branch, is dedicated to setting up a temporary public library to counteract library budgetary cuts and reduced operating hours.  I was curious as to how the group got started and how it works.  Branch volunteer Jerome Chou explained.

1. How did Branch come about?  How many people are involved?
The project is a response to the recession and budget cuts that have affected all kinds of public spaces (parks, libraries, transit). Branch creates a low-cost temporary intervention to reclaim public space, in partnership with the people using it.

About a dozen volunteers are involved with the temporary Sunday library, but we really see this as a community-based project.  For instance, about 150 people signed up for library cards on opening day last week, and we asked them to recommend a book for our collection, and to write it down on a book cover (we have a lot of donated printer surplus covers). We installed over 100 of those covers on the fence along the parking lot. So visitors are basically curating the content and transforming the space collectively–that’s the goal of the project. This week, we’ll be asking people for their ideas about designing and programming the space.

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2. Is the program directly affiliated with the Brooklyn Public Library?  If not, how have they responded to the project?
We’re not affiliated with the BPL, but we’re all big supporters. We’re thrilled that starting this weekend they’re able to resume Sunday services and late-night hours at a number of branches throughout Brooklyn. We hope that our project gets people talking about how important libraries are, especially in a recession.

3. How does Branch work?  Where do you get the books from?  Do people need to get a library card?
People sign up to get a library card, which is free to anyone, and Branch will be open 1-5pm every Sunday until the end of October. We’re getting donations from publishing houses and individuals, but we definitely need more help with books–especially with the “wishlist” that visitors are generating (it’s going up on our website, www.branchlibrary.org). At the end of September we’ll begin loaning books, with a one-book-per-visit limit. In the meantime, we’re providing a “reading room” complete with lawn chairs, free sunday papers, and earplugs.

4. How did you end up at the bank parking lot?  How long will Branch be operating there?
Our original idea was to house the project in a vacant storefront, but we couldn’t find landlords who were willing to rent space one day a week. One of our volunteers contacted MARP through an urban planners network, and MARP suggested hosting the project on the Citibank lot as part of their Move About Myrtle events in September. Citibank agreed to allow us to use the lot until the end of October.

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5. What is your background, and how did you get involved with this project?
I’d been going to the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library almost every Sunday until it closed. It seemed like terrible timing–there were a lot of news reports about how people were using libraries more than ever in the recession. I talked to a group of friends–designers, artists, planners, librarians–and we all felt like we could use this time to start a community organizing and design project: work with local residents, pool our resources, use low-cost or donated materials, and create a temporary public space.

I’ve worked as a community organizer for Brooklyn ACORN, a city planner for Baltimore City, a project manager with the firm Field Operations on Freshkills Park, and with the Design Trust for Public Space. Branch combines a little of all of those things–organizing, public space, design, and a lot of logistics.

6. What do you foresee the future of public libraries to be?
I’m not an expert, but it’s pretty obvious if you visit the BPL main branch on Sundays that the library is an amazing resource, and will be for a long time–as long as there’s adequate funding.

7. How can someone get involved with Branch?  Does Branch have several locations, or just in Clinton Hill?
Anyone can get involved: just e-mail librarybranch@gmail.com or visit us every Sunday to volunteer, donate books, or just sit and read the Sunday New York Post. We’re just in Clinton Hill this fall, but definitely this model could be replicated. We got an e-mail from someone in the Bronx asking about it.

8. What neighborhood do you live in?  What’s your favorite thing about Clinton Hill?
I live in Crown Heights, but I’ve lived in 3 different apartments in Clinton Hill. One great thing is we’ve talked to people from every kind of background–racial, economic, you name it.

9. Any favorite Move About Myrtle activities?  (aside from Branch, of course!)
I’m dying to check out the Roller Rink.

10. If you were a flavor of ice cream, what would you be and why?
Coffee Oreo–it’s my favorite, might as well be it.

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  1. Pingback: Libraries Branch Out - The Local - Fort-Greene Blog - NYTimes.com

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