Interview with Leslie Davol, creator of The Uni Project

Uprise Books Project The Uni is a portable reading room for New York City conceived of and run by Leslie and Sam Davol. The Uni provides a new kind of amenity for city residents, while fostering a stronger, more prominent culture of reading and learning at street level.

PROGRAM UPDATE FROM Leslie Davol of The Uni Project:

Why is reading vital?

Reading brings out the best in people. Reading together in public brings out the best in our communities.

Tell us about some accomplishments or successes you've had since winning the prize:

In 2014, the Uni Project

- offered 430 hours of reading rooms on the streets of New York City in 26 locations;
- helped launch five portable reading rooms in other cities run by others, including Seattle Public Library and DC Public Library;
- won the Mayor of Boston’s Public Space Invitational and created a Uni reading room for downtown Boston;
- partnered with National Book Foundation to create two special reading rooms in NYC Parks; and
- launched a new reading room activity that helps New York kids write mini book reviews on the side of our carts!

In 2015, watch for Uni reading rooms in parks, plazas, play streets and other public spaces in New York City. Stay tuned for more Uni reading rooms that pop up in other cities, run by libraries and community organizations. See you on the street!

National Book Foundation:
What inspired your Innovations in Reading-winning program?

Leslie Davol: We started sharing books and creating outdoor reading rooms because we love the city. When you walk through different cities, you pick up on different priorities. Are you dodging bicycles or cars? Can you find a place to sit down? Where are the playgrounds? Look closer and you’ll see differences in the prominence of books. At one end of the spectrum, Paris comes to mind—there seems to be a book store every couple of blocks.

New Yorkers love books and reading. They say that education and learning are top priorities for themselves and for their children. But sometimes, the urban environment of New York can make you think that we’re more interested in just about anything else, from cell phones to shoe shopping. The Uni reading room is simply a way to unleash New Yorkers' passion for reading and learning by using available public space to gather around these activities. It’s a simple but powerful idea, especially in the middle of a city of 8 million potential readers.

NBF: What obstacles or challenges have you encountered along the way?

LD: It isn’t always easy to set up a reading room in a public space. We like to surprise people, amaze them even, by finding ways to put books in places you wouldn’t expect. But we also want people to feel like a reading room in the middle of the city is a feasible, sensible solution that could be an ongoing part of public life. So ideally, our installation should appear dramatic and practical all at once. We’re constantly working on that balance.

NBF: What are the most satisfying aspects of the work your organization does?

LD: Most of our staff and volunteers say the same thing: we love meeting fellow New Yorkers, especially the ones who like books and enjoy public space. The Uni certainly makes it easy to find those folks.

There are moments when we’re packing up the books when there’s a kid who seems to be more than just disappointed that the day is over. Maybe even distraught. Is this a love of books, or maybe a love of a safe, pleasant place to be? Maybe both. We’ve learned that the Uni can be a haven, a kind of oasis in a very busy and sometimes challenging city.

NBF: How has winning the Innovations in Reading prize affected your organization?

LD: It was great to meet fellow prize winners. We’ve started a collaboration with The Uprise Books Project to bring banned books to NYC streets, for example. Of course, the Prize has also let us share our work with thousands of people who follow the National Book Foundation and the National Book Awards. That has strengthened our own work, opened new opportunities, and hopefully added something back to the book world as well.

NBF: What’s on the horizon for your organization for 2014?

LD: We’ll bring open-air reading rooms to even more spaces in New York City, including special initiatives aimed at plazas and play streets. We’ve also designed new infrastructure—a kind of kit for creating reading rooms—that we’re producing for libraries and other organizations across the country. Just recently, we were brainstorming ideas for curating our collection next year and someone suggested highlighting National Book Award authors when we’re out and about next fall. Good idea. See you on the street!

About The Uni Project

The Uni Project

New York, NY

The Uni is a portable reading room for New York City. Conceived of and run by Leslie and Sam Davol, the purpose of the Uni is to provide a new kind of amenity for city residents, while fostering a stronger, more prominent culture of reading and learning at street level.

The Uni consists of lightweight cubes that stack to create an attractive place to gather. Cubes also serve as shelves, providing access to high-quality books and hands-on learning activities for the public to browse and read. Benches provide seating, and experienced volunteers act as hosts. What happens next is simple: people gather around, pull books off shelves, sit down, and read. But the effect is profound: people are transformed into readers on a kind of stage. Neighborhoods are transformed into places where the value of reading and learning is recognized, promoted, and shared.

The Uni was launched with a crowd-funding campaign and put into service on September 11, 2011. In 2012, operating as a nonprofit, Leslie and Sam deployed the Uni ten times in seven different New York City neighborhoods, at times partnering with the Queens and Brooklyn public libraries. They also shipped a second Uni to Almaty, Kazakhstan, for deployment there by the U.S. Consulate, funded by the U.S. State Department.

In 2013, with the support of foundations and a growing list of contributors, the project will more than double the number of NYC deployments, continuing to prioritize emerging public spaces and underserved communities. Leslie and Sam’s goal is to establish a regular circuit for the Uni and involve a growing number of educational partners—teachers, libraries, and museums—who want to reach beyond their walls. The project will also launch a new cart design, created by Uni architects Höweler + Yoon, which will be offered to neighborhoods and cities beyond the reach of the Uni in New York.