The historic Lilac Museum Steamship currently houses a pop-up library (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

It isn’t often you’re given the luxury of unwinding in a library aboard an old vessel, unless you’re Charles Darwin or Steve Zissou. For one month, however, the historic Lilac Museum Steamship — the last steam-propelled lighthouse tender in the country — docks by the Hudson River, open to the public as a floating library, free of charge. Organized by artist Beatrice Glow, the project transforms the cabins of the 81-year-old ship into reading nooks, with the main deck functioning as an outdoor reading space complete with inviting cushions stacked on wooden pallets.


The library emerged as a pop-up “antidote to the disappearance of mental and physical space in the increasingly urbanized and cyberized world,” as its website states, lamenting the seemingly inescapable overload of sounds in New York City. To emphasize the space as a quiet refuge from daily noise, the Floating Library asks visitors to turn off all their phones from the minute they step on board.

Although the selection of reading material is naturally limited compared to a larger, conventional library, the collection is varied, filling crates stacked on their sides with novels, poetry, art and music books, manifestos, and more. Texts by Milan Kundera, Patti Smith, John Yau, Slavoj Žižek, Tony Fletcher, and Joseph Mitchell (my personal journalism hero), for example, reside on the shelves, alongside the expected maritime tomes. And while the officers’ rooms and sleeping quarters on a steamer are sparsely decorated, they are still welcoming reading environments, with doors flung open to draw in a breeze and portholes to invite plenty of natural light rarely found in regular, enclosed libraries.

A diagram of the Floating Library (via floatinglibrary.org)

A diagram of the Floating Library (via floatinglibrary.org)

The library also presents ongoing art installations, including “Leading Lights” by Katarina Jerinic — a window map of constellations — and “The Line” by Amanda Thackray—a set of rope swings composed of twisted pages from the thirtieth chapter of “Moby Dick.” A Listening Room occupies the crew’s quarter, with personal headphones looping works by six sound artists who paired their art with specific literature to provoke more introspective reading experiences. Listen to cosmic beats by French producer Paulie Jan while reading “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” or drift away with MV Carbon’s sounds and a book on giant squids. Additionally, the library also offers free workshops and performances, including a bookmaking session, a modular furniture building workshop, and a sound performance by violinist Pauchi Sasaki.

Of course, it’s just fun to simply roam the Lilac, which carries decades of history within its rusty, creaking walls and is currently undergoing restoration. From the Bridge to the central engine room to the Chief Petty Officer’s room, each space awaits discovery; just wear comfortable shoes to navigate the steep steps and uneven flooring.


The Floating Library continues at Pier 25 on the Hudson River through October 3.

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...