If you spent your childhood lusting after the library in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” there’s a place in Williamsburg you have to visit. It’s called the Brooklyn Art Library and it’s the home to The Sketchbook Project, a collection of more than 35,000 sketchbooks from artists in 135 countries, and the space’s main attraction. Every single sketchbook in the collection is on display and available for your perusal. All you have to do is swing by 28 Frost Street Thursday through Saturday for looksie.
OK, so the protocol is slightly more complicated than that. My husband and I popped into the Brooklyn Art Library hoping we could pull whatever we wanted off the shelves, but we had to tame our book-hungry selves a wee bit. While you may look at any sketchbook in the collection, you have to request titles first. It’s an easy process, never fear.
Go to the iPad stand toward the front of the one-room space, create an account, and start searching. As a collage aficionado, I naturally searched by “collage” first. But you can search for “treehouse” or “cat” and find yourself pleasantly surprised when titles fill up the screen. (Sketchbooks are catalogued according to the country of origin, artist name, sketchbook materials, tag words, and other identifying information.) My husband and I flipped through books on dragons, forest plants, and Berlin.
Once you’ve requested an item, a librarian will pull it off the shelf and bring it to you. Then you have full permission to sit and soak up the sketchbook magic.
I don’t use “magic” lightly. The Sketchbook Project is special. Anyone with $28 can purchase a blank sketchbook from the Brooklyn Art Library and fill it up. How they fill it up—whether with their tongue-in-cheek musings or darkest worries—is up to them. Artists have the option of rebinding, adding more pages, and otherwise altering their sketchbooks in any way they want. As long as the librarians don’t deem a sketchbook hazardous and potentially damaging to other sketchbooks (like if contains sharp objects or comes in sticky from glue), it will be added to the library. Artists can have their sketchbooks professionally scanned and digitized for an additional fee. Every year, some sketchbooks are selected to go on tour via a mobile library.
Started by Steven Peterman and Shane Zucker in Atlanta, Georgia in 2006, The Sketchbook Project trekked north to New York City in 2009. Today the project grounds the Brooklyn Art Library, which has grown into a veritable community. The Brooklyn Art Library claims that it connects over 70,000 artists through its endeavors, including classes, events, art challenges, and more. While many of those connections are digital, the Williamsburg storefront hosts events and rents co-working and studio space.
While I’m tempted to come back for a reading or artist presentation, there’s something stronger that will draw me back: the sketchbooks. I want to see all 35,000.