Introduction: The Sidewalk Library - MSPF

This guide has instructions for how we made The Sidewalk Library prototype for San Francisco's 2016 Market Street Prototyping Festival. The Sidewalk Library was conceived as a way to engage more San Franciscans with their Public Library.

Mission Statement

The Sidewalk Library is a collaborative effort between two San Francisco Public Agencies committed to improving the lives of our residents: The Public Library and Public Works.

Sidewalk Library takes the idea of Public Library as community center and event space and literally (or pun intended, literarily) brings it to the street! This project aims to expose users of Market St. and festival goers to the great educational programs and events that the SF Public Library system has to offer by repurposing an outmoded icon of street literature offerings: the news rack.

Step 1: Materials

-(4) San Francisco newsracks. The main piece of the prototype. Used to store books.

-(14) sheets of plywood 4' x 8' x 1/2". (12) sheets for the flooring and (2) sheets for building the wood planter boxes.

-(8) rolling step stools like the ones found in the library. Used for seating. These were the cheapest we found.

-(4) sheets of MDF 4' x 8' x 1/4". Used to make the chalkboards and magnetic art panels.

-(32) elevator bolts and related nuts and washers. Used to anchor the newsracks to the plywood flooring.

-(28) 50lb sandbags. Used to secure plywood and newsracks from tipping over.

-(36) nail plates. Simpson TP45 or similar. Used to join plywood flooring sheets.

-Carpet Trim. Used to create a beveled edge around the plywood flooring to make it ADA accessible. We used 2" wide x 6' long strips.

-Wood Screws. You'll need around (150) #4 or #6 x 1/2" long to connect nail plates and plywood sheets. You'll also need 1" long screws to build the planter boxes.

-Fabric. Used to cover the base of the newsracks and hide the sandbags.

-Double sided tape. Used to attach the fabric to the newsracks. Also used to secure rug to plywood flooring.

-LED Stick-on lights. Battery operated. Used to illuminate the contents of the newsracks at night.

-L-brackets to attach planter boxes to the MDF panels & newsracks.

-Plastic drop cloth. Used to prevent excess water from leaking out of the planter boxes.

-Groundcover plant flats. Used to fill the planter boxes and create an interest accent.

-Magnetic Primer paint. Used on the MDF panels to make them magnetic.

-Chalkboard paint. Used on the MDF panels to turn them into chalkboards.


-Varnish for plywood flooring. Provides a nice sheen and greater weather resistance & durability.

-Rug. Makes for a nicer, more welcoming space.

Step 2: Design

1. Since our design centered around re-using the newsracks, we started out by measuring existing newsracks on the street.

2. Next, we brainstormed different newsrack configurations. Our goal was to use the newsracks to create a 'room' along the periphery of the sidewalk that was permeable enough to draw people in, but was enclosed enough to feel comfortable. We also had to leave enough clear space along the edge of the sidewalk so we didn't block walking space.

3. Early in the process we began collaborating with our team at the San Francisco Public Library to determine their programming needs. Then we brainstormed different ways that we could use the newsracks to store books, and provide additional programming space.

4. Next, we came up with different ways to prevent the newsracks from tipping over, without making them too bulky or inaccessible.

5. Once we were assigned our specific installation location along Market Street, we took site-specific measurements to understand the opportunities and constraints.

6. We settled on a final design to support the newsracks that involved bolting them to a 4'x8' plywood sheet and weighting the plywood sheet with sandbags. This made them stable, but the plywood edges made for a potential tripping hazard. We then came up with the idea to create a continuous 'floor' of plywood sheets surrounding all the newsracks.

7. We then modified our design to work with the existing conditions of our specific site, changing the newsrack and plywood configurations to accommodate trees, light poles and circulation needs.

8. Next we had to figure out how to make the continuous plywood 'floor' ADA-compliant, since the 1/2" plywood sheets were too thick to just lay on the sidewalk without some sort of sloping transition.

9. We decided to use aluminum carpet trim strips to create tiny ramps at the plywood edges.

10. At this point, we had our functional design pretty well figured out, but we knew we needed to modify the newsracks to make them more interesting to the public. As landscape architects, we were drawn to the idea of bringing more planting to the sidewalk. We decided to add small planter boxes on the tops of the newsracks to hold trays of edible greens and groundcovers.

11. The Library team requested space for teenage art projects and magnetic poetry, so we came up with an idea to mount 'art panels' on the backs of the newsracks in place of the ad panels that they typically display.

12. Next, we worked out the details that would allow us to secure the art panels and planters to the newsracks.

13. Finally, we had to have something to cover up the base of the newsracks and hide the sandbags. We decided to use fabric attached with double sided tape.

Step 3: Fabrication

We divided the fabrication process over 4 weekends:

Weekend #1 we built the planters. These were made simply by cutting plywood sheets to the appropriate dimensions to make lid-less boxes. Then we attached the plywood sides and bottom with wood screws. Pretty simple.

Weekend #2 we varnished the plywood flooring and planters to make them more durable and weather-resistant. It also added a nicer look. This was done by simply painting 1 coat of shellac on the top surface of the plywood sheets and the exposed sides of the planters.

Weekend #3 we cut the MDF art panels to the appropriate size so they'd fit on the back of the newsracks, then we measured and drilled holes in the MDF to align with the holes in the back of the newsracks. Later, these holes would allow us to bolt the panels to the newsracks.

Weekend #4 we painted the art panels with 3 coats of metallic primer paint (in order to make them magnetic), and added a final coat of black chalkboard paint on top to make them writable and erasable. The magnetic primer paint actually worked, and magnets stuck to the panels!

The rest of the fabrication had to wait for installation day, since we wouldn't receive the newsracks until the morning of our installation!

Step 4: Installation

This was our big push, as most of the construction and fabrication had to wait until the newsracks were on site and ready to go. The installation had to be completed between 6am and 11am on Thursday, October 6th, so we had to make it quick and easy!

1. We met the team from ClearChannel at 6:00 am on Market Street, and they unloaded the newsracks for us.

2. Next we laid out our 12 sheets of plywood in our pre-determined configuration.

3. Then we placed the newsracks in their assigned locations in the center of plywood sheets along the perimeter. After measuring to make sure they were centered, we marked and drilled holes in the plywood where we would bolt the newsracks to the plywood.

4. After drilling holes, we placed elevator bolts through the undersides of the plywood, with the threads poking out of the holes. The flat 'head' of the elevator bolt allowed the plywood to sit back flush with the sidewalk pavement.

5. Once the bolts were in place, we lifted the newsracks into place, aligning the holes in the frame with the bolts in the plywood. Once in place, we secured the newsracks with washers and nuts.

6. Then we began securing the plywood sheets to one another by screwing nail plates at all the adjoining edges. This made for a more stable base, and eliminated any raised edges from warped plywood. The end result was a smooth, uniform surface without gaps or tripping hazards.

7. Next we bolted the art panels to the back of the newsracks and put the planters on the top.

8. Then we secured the planters to the art panels with L-brackets and wood screws.

9. Then we attached the carpet trim strips to the edges of the plywood flooring where people would be entering and exiting the space. We reversed the carpet trim so that the wider face was sloping down from the plywood to the sidewalk. This meant that we had to screw the short face into the plywood, but the pre-drilled screw holes were on the wide face. So, we drilled new holes in the short face and screwed it to the plywood.

10. We laid sandbags at the base of each of the newsracks. 8 sandbags for the 4-wide newsracks and 6 sandbags for the 3-wide newsracks.

11. Then we filled the planters with trays of edible greens and groundcover, cutting the trays to fill in any gaps.

12. Then we attached the fabric to the base of the newsracks with double sided tape.

13. Last, we cut the rug to fit around the lightpole in the center of the space.

Step 5: Interaction

One of the major goals of The Sidewalk Library was to provide an outlet for public outreach about the SF Public Library and its various programs. To accomplish this goal and educate people, The Sidewalk Library was staffed during all hours of the festival and different programming events were held throughout the 3 days. The following programs were particularly successful and drew in big crowds.

1. Free books! This was on-going and the major feature of the prototype. Old and new library books no longer in circulation were stored in the newsracks for people to browse and take at their leisure. This was extremely popular and we gave away hundreds of books.

2. Library card sign-ups. This was on-going throughout most of the festival and dozens of people signed up for library access.

3. Magnetic poetry. This was a fun, collaborative game that groups, couples and individuals could play at will and in passing. It drew in a lot of people and was popular among all ages.

4. Education. Library staff were on hand throughout the festival passing out information about all the digital resources and free programs available at the library.