The Uni Project, Winner of the 2013 Innovations in Reading Prize

February 2016



Each year, the National Book Foundation’s Innovations in Reading Prize awards five prizes of $2,500 each to individuals and institutions that have developed innovative means of creating and sustaining a lifelong love of reading. The National Book Foundation is proud to recognize The Uni Project as a winner of the 2013 Innovations in Reading Prize.

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.