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The Uni: a portable, open-air reading room for public space's video poster

We're building a structure that will allow us to quickly deploy and operate temporary reading rooms in almost any urban setting. Read more

pledged of $20,000 goal
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This project was successfully funded on August 15, 2011.

We're building a structure that will allow us to quickly deploy and operate temporary reading rooms in almost any urban setting.

About this project

We're constructing a portable, open-air reading room called the Uni, which we will begin operating Fall 2011 in New York City. (, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr)

The Uni is a tool to share books, showcase the act of learning, and improve public space. It is a portable infrastructure, well-adapted to the urban environment, lightweight and partner-driven, that can offer books and learning experiences. Anywhere. If we're serious about having a well-educated society, then we think books and learning should be what is prominent, accessible, and all around us.

We need to raise $20,000 to construct the Uni this summer, and the timing will let us take advantage of available grants and donated resources. The result will be an attractive, durable physical structure that we'll use for many years to bring books and programming to a wide variety of locations around New York. The project will also result in a design that can be replicated by municipalities, libraries, schools, and other institutions seeking to bring books and learning experiences to new locations.

The Uni starts with a custom-designed infrastructure that can be adapted to almost any kind of urban space. It consists of 144 open-faced cubes, which can be stacked and locked together in different configurations or heights, depending on site conditions. Together these cubes provide a modular system for programming public space and creating a venue for books, workshops, arts-and-crafts, demonstrations, classes, lectures, public meetings, and small film screenings.

When all 144 cubes are deployed together, the Uni becomes a form that reflects its parts: a striking eight-foot-high cube.

Each Uni cube measures approximately 16” on a side and provides shelf space for approximately 10-15 books or other materials. Each cube also has a cover that can create a bench, a table, podium, or a display surface.

In the early evening or in bad weather, these cover elements can be re-inserted to close up the Uni and transform it into a surprising new form. Overnight, the Uni can be further secured with a locking, waterproof cover.

The books will be organized in a series of “mini-collections,” each filling one of the Uni’s 16″ cubes. Relying on this physical constraint, the collection will be channeled into a series of concise, in-depth looks at various ideas or topics. Whenever possible, each cube will be curated by an individual who loves books and is deeply knowledgable and passionate about a particular subject.

In short, the Uni is a new type of small-scale, portable institution that puts books and learning experiences such as readings, classes, and screenings where we don't regularly see them in the city. It can be installed in various configurations at different scales, and it can thrive in a variety of locations, efficiently transforming areas within parks, plazas, or empty lots into places of community use, learning, and public engagement. 

We already have a team of volunteer librarians and a plan to develop a unique collection of books and programming partnerships. We're in touch with several public spaces interested in hosting a reading room in Fall 2011. Through our partnership with Höweler + Yoon Architecture and Professor J. Meejin Yoon of MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning, we have a design in hand and a team of MIT graduate students who have researched and refined fabrication methods. Funds are needed to pay for materials and remaining labor costs. Now is the moment to build the Uni.

Why are we doing this?

Book stores are closing. Public libraries are struggling. Electronic communication, video games, and online socializing are sapping more and more of our attention. Many urban residents, especially children, do not have access to books and places to read them outside of schools. We seem to be losing touch with books at the very moment, and in the very places, we need them the most. The Uni brings back the book.

What we see at street level in many urban neighborhoods does not reflect our aspirations for ourselves and our society. In particular, if we want a well-educated society, let’s build cities where learning experiences are prominent, accessible, and enjoyable. Let’s show off our best teachers, librarians, and educators doing great work, and give them opportunities to adapt their craft to a public setting. The Uni takes learning public.

Cities need new solutions that do the work of libraries and community centers but are lighter-weight, more flexible, less expensive to operate, and better integrated into our patterns of daily life. The Uni anticipates a future when cities become still more dense, space even more expensive, and rapid social and technological change are the norm. The Uni also recalls a past when we gathered around to hear the news, absorb a story, or learn a skill from another person. The Uni gives us a new place to do what we’ve done throughout history—gather together and be better for it. 

Can we pull this off?

The Uni comes from our experience working on a range of public projects in Boston from 2006 to 2011 as Street Lab, culminating in our 2009-10 Storefront Library. The Storefront Library demonstrated how a small-scale, street-level place for books and learning can have a dramatic impact by offering urban dwellers a way to contribute to and connect with their neighborhood, their city, and each other. At the conclusion of the Storefront Library, we knew we wanted to bring this concept to more communities. The Uni is the solution that we’re putting in play. 

What will the money be used for?

We're raising funds to complete the Uni fabrication at MIT. We’ve got a great team in place, already funded in part by grants, and they are ready to work around the clock at the MIT wood shop to get the job done. We simply need to cover cost of construction materials and part of the students' labor. All materials are minimum waste, and we're relying on in-kind donations of materials and services wherever possible.


During the Kickstarter campaign, we will keep updating this page and also our web site with photos, videos, and news about our work. Thanks for considering our project—we're grateful for your support!

Follow the Uni on TwitterFacebookFlickr.


  • All donations are tax-deductible to the amount permitted by law. We're a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

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  • $20,000 is the minimum we need to pay for most of the materials and part of the labor to build the Uni. When combined with in-kind donations, discounts, and hundreds of volunteer hours going into the project, $20K will allow fabrication to go forward. Every dollar over $20K goes to fully outfitting the Uni with items like a security cover, hand trucks, and other key equipment for operation.

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  • We thought about various container solutions and even bookmobile approaches, but decided lightweight and scalable was the key to gaining a foothold for this kind of program in urban space, especially New York. We also discovered that bookmobiles have been dying because of operational costs (eg. gas), and we have a sense that people don't like the capsule-like atmosphere when you step inside a vehicle or even some temporary structures. So we asked the designers to create a system that we could adapt to all sorts of locations, indoors and out, at half-scale as a 4 ft cube, or even as a linear shelf that hugs the contour of building.

    That said, whether deployed at partial or full scale, we really want to offer a safe, inviting "space" where people feel comfortable gathering, sitting, listening, and reading. We aim to be much more than a bookshelf. The benches and tables are going to be key.

    Here's a link to some research on bookmobiles by the Uni Librarians from last March when we were developing the Uni:

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  • We're working on that. We've committed to a material for the base structure (cubes): white. The cover/seating elements (cones) can be created in different colors. They also can be be lit from inside. Those color decisions are upcoming. We'll share photos.

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  • We've been running outdoor films for the past six years, so we think about rain a lot.

    Outdoors, the Uni will be closed up in heavy rain. The cover/seating elements (cones) protect the books when inserted into each cube. On top of that, we'll have a security cover that is waterproof for nighttime. The current Uni design is intended for operation in good weather, but we think there are opportunities to build on this initial design in the future to offer shade and shelter. The Uni can also be installed indoors and in sheltered open-air situations, like under an elevated.

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  • You selected
    Pledge $5 or more

    57 backers

    Contributor: Your name on the Uni web site, email invitation to all Uni public programs, email acknowledgment of your tax-deductible gift. A Uni button that you (or a local friend) can pick up anytime at the Uni.

  • You selected
    Pledge $25 or more

    52 backers

    Contributor: All benefits above, plus a subscription to "Postcards from the Uni"—a series of collectible postcards mailed to you from each location where the Uni touches down. The first card in the series will be sent from the MIT shop and signed by the Uni team. Subscription runs through the end of 2011.

  • You selected
    Pledge $50 or more

    36 backers

    Contributor: All benefits above, plus your very own Uni Reading Room "No cell phones please" sign designed by M+E Design (Brooklyn, NY) and an extended subscription to "Postcards from the Uni" through the end of 2012.

  • You selected
    Pledge $100 or more

    32 backers

    Donor: All benefits above, plus a Uni Tote Bag designed by M+E Design (Brooklyn, NY) and an invitation to a special reception for Uni Donors and Sponsors.

  • You selected
    Pledge $250 or more

    12 backers

    Donor: All benefits above, plus your name added to a list of 2011 Donors on the Uni structure. The 2011 Donor Panel will be displayed at all launch events, exhibits, and installations through the end of 2011.

  • You selected
    Pledge $500 or more

    7 backers

    Founding Donor: All benefits above, plus your name added permanently to a list of Founding Donors on the Uni structure. The Founding Donor Panel will be displayed permanently on the Uni for NYC during its lifetime.

  • You selected
    Pledge $1,000 or more

    3 backers

    Founding Sponsor: All benefits above, plus your name engraved permanently on a Uni Book Cube. You become the sponsor of that 16" cube full of books and its seating element/cover. It's like sponsoring a seat at the theater. (After the launch of the Uni, this naming opportunity for a Uni Book Cube will only be available to donors at levels of $2,500 and above.)

  • You selected
    Pledge $2,500 or more

    0 backers

    Project Sponsor: All benefits above, plus you name on master signage as Project Sponsor. It's like sponsoring a wing of a new museum. Contributions at these greater amounts will have a dramatic effect on our work and represent a high-impact contribution to books, learning, and the urban environment. We’re dedicated to the Uni Project for the long haul, and we’re looking to involve, recognize, and build relationships with those who join us with this level of commitment.

Funding period

- (30 days)