Hunters Point Library Confronts Accessibility Issues

In the weeks following the opening of the Queens Public Library's new Hunters Point branch, a number of visitors pointed out that many areas are not accessible to people with mobility issues that would interfere with their ability to climb stairs.

Three levels of library with bookshelves and windowsAfter decades of planning, the Queens Public Library (QPL) opened its new Hunters Point Community Library on September 24 to widespread acclaim. The $41 million branch, situated on the Long Island City waterfront, features expansive views of the Manhattan skyline throughout the building, including from the vantage point of three terraces above the lobby that housed part of the library’s fiction collection, periodicals, and work and charging stations.

In the weeks following the opening, however, a number of visitors pointed out that these are not accessible to people with mobility issues that would interfere with their ability to climb stairs. Although each of the library’s five floors is accessible by its single elevator, there were no elevator stops at the three sublevels in question.

Hunters Point was designed by Steven Holl Architects, under the NYC Department of Design and Construction’s (DDC) Design and Construction Excellence program, which pre-selects and pre-qualifies design firms to work on certain DDC public buildings projects. The branch’s webpage identifies it as “wheelchair accessible,” and, stated DDC executive director of public information Ian Michaels, “The library meets the requirements of the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act].”

However, the design does not align with the library accessibility checklist developed by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), which stipulates that “All parts of the library should be accessible.”

QPL had originally planned to bring books to patrons who couldn’t access the fiction selection on request. “As our staff planned for the outfitting of the building, they determined that the shelves would fit the adult fiction collection—aside from bestsellers and new releases—and that [staff] would retrieve books from the area for customers,” QPL director of communications Elisabeth de Bourbon told LJ.

But this solution would still have precluded customers’ ability to browse the shelved collection, or enjoy the famed view.

“As people started to use the library, and as our staff started to settle into the building, it became apparent that retrieving books was not enough. Less than two weeks after the building opened on September 24, we moved all the materials from that area and relocated them to other locations in the library,” said de Bourbon.

“Our goal is to be inclusive and welcoming, and to provide opportunity and access to everyone,” said QPL president and CEO Dennis Walcott in a statement. “As we move ahead with the current and future renovation of libraries in our system, we are going to ensure that all of our customers can fully and safely use our resources.”

In the weeks since its opening, Hunters point has also reportedly been subject to cracks in the concrete floors, an inadequately soundproofed quiet room, and roof leaks, according to the New York Post ; the rooftop reading garden is still pending Department of Buildings inspection.


“I missed something important,” admitted New York Magazine architecture critic Justin Davidson, who had ebulliently praised Hunters Point at its opening. In a subsequent column , Davidson wrote, “meeting legal requirements is a false standard; even vertical buildings can and should always be designed so that they offer the same quality of experience to everyone.”

The concept of universal design calls for a facility to be designed and built “so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability, or disability.” This aim should be considered throughout the design and construction process, according to the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design .

It is not always possible to achieve 100 percent accessibility in renovated libraries, noted Charles Higueras, acting director of project management at San Francisco Public Works. A building’s existing footprint may not be large enough to accommodate enough shelving to put every book within arm’s reach of a patron using a wheelchair. “So you do the best you can throughout to ensure that ambition for creating more access is possible,” he told LJ.

The design and construction for a new library, however, should have oversight on accessibility throughout the entire process, Higueras said. In San Francisco, for every public building erected there is a disability coordinator in the Public Works Department responsible for periodic reviews of design from start to finish, who works with the design professional and the administrator of the organization in question, such as the library director.

But it is also not unknown for these ideals to get lost in the construction process, said Higueras—especially on a project where the work has been drawn out for many years; the design process for Hunters Point was begun some 20 years ago. He speculated that it may have been a matter of a decision deferred until it was too late to resolve.

“It may be that when [the process] first started, the awareness and the full commitment to full access wasn't perhaps as present,” Higueras said, and over time “they found themselves at an impasse where they have so many materials to display or make available, there's no way they can do it if they bring it all down to a level that's accessible to someone in a wheelchair”—thus the decision to bring patrons materials on request.

However, he added, “It’s not universal design.”

Although QPL President and CEO Dennis M. Walcott has said that inclusivity is a goal held by QPL, Sherry Machones, director of the Northern Waters Library Service, WI, and president of the American Library Association (ALA) Association of Specialized, Government, and Cooperative Library Agencies told LJ, feels that the Hunters Point Library doesn’t demonstrate that commitment. “Even more troubling is the possibility that library staff with mobility issues would not be allowed to do their own job and fulfill this promise,” she said. “The Library Bill of Rights clearly states that libraries should provide equal access to collections, services, and facilities for all library users. There needs to be a permanent and equitable solution so that everyone can access all areas and have the same quality of experience.”

Accessibility issues extend to parents with strollers as well, Machones pointed out. “I am amazed that such an obvious flaw was able to make it past the design phase and more disheartened that this flaw was allowed to pass through to completion. So many people along the way failed their community.”

QPL is assessing the situation with the Department of Design and Construction and Steven Holl Architects, de Bourbon said. (As of press time, Steven Holl Architects had not responded to LJ’s request for comment.) “As we move forward with new projects,” she said, “we will be even more proactive in addressing the needs and circumstances of every single customer.”

“I hope that libraries who are working on inclusiveness can see this as a cautionary tale,” said Machones. “There clearly needs to be more oversight in all stages of planning to ensure nothing like this happens again. There needs to be opportunities for staff and the community to analyze and respond to plans at every stage. If there are members of your community that are not able to participate in input sessions, then go to them and ask them for their input. Your library will better serve the community if your plans reflect everyone in it.”

Such inclusive input might be positioned as a mandate in all aspects of service for the library, Machones suggested. “I would have regular community conversations to learn about what ways the library could improve. I also would recommend the library undergo an inclusive services assessment,” such as the Inclusive Services Assessment and Guide developed for Wisconsin Public Libraries.

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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C Dye

Making every book within arms reach of a wheelchair user deprives a library of acres of usable shelving. The low shelves also are inaccessible to older patrons with bad knees. In this case, yes, there should have been a way for a wheelchair user to reach each floor level, but taking away materials from the eye level of the majority of patrons impairs browsing and limits collection size to the detriment of all users. Grocery stores get premiums to shelve their products on the fourth fifth and sixth shelves, and we should remember why.

Posted : Nov 18, 2019 06:23

Candace Green

I am utterly fed up with accessibility always being an afterthought. Bring books to patrons? Argh! No, I am not personally disabled - but my closest childhood friend was in a wheelchair, and this just reinforces the constant refrain of "Oops - well, you're a nuisance aren't you?" that we felt whenever she tried to go shopping, eat in a restaurant, or yes, use a library. That was 40 years ago. You'd think we'd be a bit better at this by now. I also lived in NYC for a decade, until a couple of years ago - and was chronically disturbed by how utterly inaccessible much of the city's attractions are. You'd expect the public library to do better. This is a complete disgrace, NYPL. Shame on you.

Posted : Nov 05, 2019 08:31



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