Chinatown Storefront Library

The Storefront Library was a temporary library in Boston's Chinatown from October 2009 through January 2010. National real estate firm Archstone donated temporary use of a 3,000 square-foot storefront space at 640 Washington Street, allowing use of the space while it was in between tenants and not on the market. The library offered approximately 5,000 books in both Chinese and English, computer terminals and Internet access, newspapers, a children’s reading area, and a mix of programs and activities—all visible to passersby on the street. Volunteer staff provided the public with translation help, general information and orientation. Ongoing library programs and services included:

  • The Drawing Lab, a self-guided, interactive installation for drawing activities, created by local artist Deb Putnoi;
  • The Human Development Studio, a drop-in, one-stop resource for neighborhood development information and social services, run by local nonprofit Asian Community Development Corporation;
  • Multi-lingual story hours, led by volunteer staff and held twice weekly;
  • Weekly drop-in English conversation group, moderated by library volunteers.

Other special programs included health education, movie nights, spoken word, cultural demonstrations and exhibitions, literacy education, and a variety of workshops and activities for children.


Boston’s Chinatown has been without a library since 1956. Boston Street Lab founders Sam and Leslie Davol live with their two children in Chinatown. As of January 2009, efforts to bring a branch of the Boston Public Library to the neighborhood were stalled. With the blessing of the Friends of the Chinatown Library, a long-time advocacy group, Boston Street Lab partnered with graduate students at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design to transform a vacant storefront into a temporary, community-based library.

The purpose of the project was to give people the experience of a library, as well as model lighter and quicker ways of realizing needs for civic, cultural and community space. It was agreed that the installation would be temporary so that Boston Street Lab could borrow space and realize it quickly and inexpensively, and so that the Friends of the Chinatown Library could continue their campaign for a permanent branch of the Boston Public Library following the project.


Partners in creating the Storefront Library included students at Harvard's Graduate School of Design, art and design collective Department of Micro Urbanism, students from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Archstone Real Estate Company, and Friends of the Chinatown Library. Program partners included the Boston Nature Center, the Chinese Historical Society of New England, the Asian American Resource Workshop, READ Boston, the Boston Children's Museum and over thirty other organizations. See a full list of partners, sponsors, advisors, staff and volunteers here.

Project Outcomes

The Storefront Library successfully gave people—particularly children—the experience of a library in Chinatown. It also provided much-needed public space and increased the capacity of a variety of other nonprofit organizations to engage the public at street level and coordinate their work. The project was implemented efficiently and affordably, making use of underutilized resources, donations, borrowed items, and volunteers, without sacrificing quality. Boston Street Lab funded the project with cash donations from individuals and organizations. The remaining requirements for the project (including space, materials, equipment, services, and personnel) were fulfilled with in-kind donations, donated or borrowed items, and volunteers.

Support for the Storefront Library was widespread throughout its three month operation. For example, the Mayor of Boston, many local and city officials, and a representative of the Governor of Massachusetts attended the Storefront Library's Oct 14, 2009 opening. The President of the Boston Public Library and members of her staff also attended and returned at a later date to see the Storefront Library in operation. Governor Deval Patrick awarded Boston Street Lab a citation for community service to the Chinatown community. The Chinese Progressive Association awarded Boston Street Lab its 2010 Social Justice and Innovation Award. All of this attention successfully generated a broader conversation about the importance of libraries to our collective public life at a time when many urban public library systems—including Boston's—are closing branches or reducing hours.

The Storefront Library closed in Feb 2010 according to plan, in order to allow the community, via the Friends of the Chinatown Library, to push for a more traditional, city-funded branch. All books were transferred to the Friends for safekeeping and use. There is still no public library for Chinatown, however the Storefront Library has reinvigorated the Chinatown community's campaign for permanent library services in the neighborhood:

  • the Friends of the Chinatown Library has expanded its membership. The Friends also recently received a grant from a large foundation to plan a community-based library modeled on the Storefront Library;
  • a library is now included in the community's Master Plan, intended to express the community's vision and priorities for future neighborhood development.
  • there has been increased attention to the issue, including press and statements by elected officials. Groups around the country dealing with closing libraries are contacting Boston Street Lab.

See latest project updates at top right of this page.

2017 Update!

"We are now investing $90 million in neighborhood branch libraries all across the city. And I can announce tonight that we listened to the community, and we are finally bringing library services back to the Chinatown neighborhood."  -- Mayor Marty Walsh's State of the City Address, January 17, 2017  

2012 Update

Books from the Storefront Library have a new home, and there is now a library in Boston's Chinatown! The Chinatown Lantern opened April 2012 at 888 Washington Street, in space provided by the Asian Community Development Corporation. The Lantern library is based on the model of the Storefront Library, and is now home to all of the Storefront Library's 5,000 books. Here are some other libraries inspired by the Storefront Library in Cairo, EgyptAllentown, PA, and Evanston, IL.

Storefront Library Web Site

Visit the archived 2010 Storefront Library web site for a look at our daily events, demographic data, and photos.

Go Behind the Scenes: Our Blog

Get a sense of the day in, day out of the Storefront Library: browse an archive of our Blog Posts about the Storefront Library.



5000+ Books Donated

4100+ Books Shelved

1374 Books Circulated—54% Chinese

1335.5 Hours of Volunteer Public Service

540 Storefront Library Cards Issued


427 Hours Open

110 Events Produced

39 Volunteer Staff

2 Paid Staff

Boston Street Lab gathered anonymous data by means of a library card application form. Feedback was also collected in handwritten form, in Chinese and English, on-site. Volunteers translated, entered, and posted the feedback. View the full data here.



Books and culture in Boston’s Chinatown, new effort underway

We concluded the Storefront Library over a year ago in Chinatown, and tonight I’m excited to share photos of something new underway which I believe has tremendous potential to carry the torch forward in the neighborhood. Terrific people are getting behind a new, energetic effort to create a space for Chinatown that can offer books, […]

A Storefront Library for Evanston IL

Creating a community Storefront Library is an odd line of work—exhausting and exhilarating, a thousand mundane details and then moments that move you to tears, all in a day’s work. I suppose it’s like being a librarian, on a kind of stage. One thing is for certain, there aren’t many people doing it. So when […]

Boston Globe editorial, Chinatown library

The Boston Globe published an editorial this morning proposing that the city, Boston Public Library and members of the Chinatown community sit down with developers of a lot on Washington St. and renegotiate a public benefits package to re-direct funding towards the creation of new branch of the BPL in existing underutilized space in the […]

Storefront Library plants a seed at Oak Terrace

Here’s an update on one of the small ripples created by the Storefront Library in Boston’s Chinatown following our closing in February. At the conclusion of the project, our volunteers and staff went to great lengths to distribute the components of the Storefront Library to seed emerging projects in the neighborhood. Read more here. At […]

Time to Move on. . .

Dear Patrons, Supporters and Sponsors, The last day of the Storefront Library at 640 Washington St. will be Sunday, January 17, 2010. If you haven’t had a chance to come by, please do! This weekend, in addition to storytime and a special science activity, we’ll be giving tours for the American Librarians’ Association Midwinter Conference. […]

We're in this (space) together

At the Storefront Library, whether you’re attending a program, reading a newspaper, or working the Drawing Lab, you’ll find yourself among people making the most of a formerly vacant storefront—doing things together and doing things “alone.” As always, we’re open late on Thursday until 8PM. And we’ve got your favorite bilingual storytime at 6PM featuring […]

Sunday: go ahead, draw on the walls & talk

Drawing Workshop in the Storefront Library Sunday, January 10, 12PM-3PM. MAKE YOUR MARK and DRAW in the Drawing Lab! Come DRAW and EXPLORE with artist, Deb Putnoi. You will: Draw to music and different sounds; Draw using your sense of TOUCH as your guide; Experiment with DIFFERENT DRAWING MATERIALS; Draw on different kinds of papers […]

Saturday in the Storefront

Start off with Storytime at 11:30AM. We’ll read the Very Hungry Caterpillar and make our own caterpillars to take home. We’ll be bilingual throughout (English and Cantonese). Thanks to Volunteer Staff Laura Jean and Celia for teaming up for this event. Then, from 12PM-1PM, join educators from Opera Boston for an hour of special storytelling […]

Moose in the Library—Storytime Tonight

Tonight’s storytime is all about moose. Join readers Sharon Tomasulo and Annie Wu at 6PM for Moose Tracks by Karma Wilson and If You Give a Moose a Muffin by Laura Numeroff. We’ll make our own antlers to wear. Bilingual reading (Cantonese). The Library is open Thursday nights until 8PM. When you visit the Storefront […]

View all of our blog posts about the Storefront Library here.