Thirty-two thousand books line the walls at 103 North 3rd Street — to take it all in is to spend a lot of time squinting, staring, standing back in awe. "There's so much amazing work here," says co-founder Steven Peterman. "Just looking at the shelves really captures the beauty of the project as a whole. Each book is a story. Each book is a voice."
The Brooklyn Art Library, as the space is called, is home to The Sketchbook Project, an eight-year-long undertaking that has resulted in the collection and cataloguing of tens of thousands of artists' sketchbooks from around the globe. Anyone — regardless of artistic background — can submit, so long as he or she meets the annual deadline and a small fee. Once turned in, each 32-page volume is made searchable by subject, place of origin, key words, and other various categories — then, it's added to the library so that anyone who visits can find it and flip through its pages.
Stationed in their current location since 2010, the Art Library serves as both storefront and community space, inviting locals and tourists alike to browse. Teachers bring students on class visits; shoppers stop in to peruse an assortment of paper goods and art materials. Each time, they're greeted by a friendly staff (a small one, with less than ten members total), who are at the ready to help navigate the shelves.
As a neighbor of the shop since it opened, I've come in many times, often just to look around, but also to share it with visiting friends — it's a perfect, only-in-New-York gem, and though it's built on an idea that seems larger than life, the library itself manages to somehow make the city — and the world — seem smaller. "I love the idea of connecting the community," Steven says, "and of finding people who have the same thoughts and ideas as you, all over the world, who haven't been dead for 100 years."
"There's no way we could have predicted that we'd get here," he continues, "that we'd end up in Williamsburg, with this many books. It's been a little like we're on a ship moving through the fog." When asked whether he's seen everything in the space, he smiles. "Definitely not. When the deadlines come, we get bags of mail at once. So we're always finding things we've never seen. There's always a treasure to be found."
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Five Minutes with Steven Peterman:
Where did The Sketchbook Project originate? We started in 2006 in Atlanta. We opened up a gallery where you'd pay us a monthly fee for wall space, but it wasn't really what we wanted to do. We wanted to work more with the community, so we started a series of projects — the first was called A Million Little Pictures. We sent out disposable cameras with a simple idea in mind: that many different people would come together to create something. The Sketchbook Project was just one of many things we were doing at the time, but it was one people kept relating to. And it continued to grow — between 2009 and 2010, we grew from 3,000 people doing the project to 28,000. In the art world, often you have to know someone or pay to have your work seen, but we wanted to create something fun and non-intimidating. Eventually, we moved to New York in 2009. And here we are.
What's been the most exciting part of the journey thus far? It's allowed us to travel and meet people all over the world. We met a woman in Australia in her 60s who did the project and then decided to go to art school. I love that there are great illustrators and artists participating, but there are also people who are just looking for a way to tell a story.
Do you keep a sketchbook yourself? I have three books in the collection. Everyone who works with us has made one over the past few years. Every late winter, we get together as a staff and share them. It's really changed my perspective on the project — it's so much work to make a 32-page book.