Center for an Urban Future Examines Libraries’ Place in Tech Skills-Building

On Wednesday, February 20, the Center for an Urban Future held its latest symposium, Where Do Public Libraries Fit in NYC’s Tech Skills–Building Ecosystem? Funded by the Charles H. Revson Foundation and hosted at the Manhattan campus of technology educator General Assembly, the meeting convened library innovators, tech trainers, educators, city officials, and partners from a range of other fields to explore the role of libraries as a critical part of the pipeline to the technology job market.

panel in front of audience
Center for an Urban Future symposium panelists (l.-r.): Eli Dvorkin, Hicham Oudghiri, Luke Swarthout, Claire Cuno, Tara Lannen-Stanton, Evin Robinson, Tom Ogletree, and David Giles.
Photo courtesy of Center for an Urban Future

On Wednesday, February 20, the Center for an Urban Future (CUF) held its latest symposium, Where Do Public Libraries Fit in NYC’s Tech Skills–Building Ecosystem? Funded by the Charles H. Revson Foundation and hosted at the Manhattan campus of technology educator General Assembly (GA), the meeting convened library innovators, tech trainers, educators, city officials, and partners from a range of other fields to explore the role of libraries as a critical part of the pipeline to the technology job market.

With the Revson Foundation’s support, CUF has taken a number of deep dives over the years into the circumstances of New York City’s libraries, from potential (“Re-Envisioning New York’s Branch Libraries”) to challenges (“Branches of Opportunity”). Lately CUF has been looking at workforce development, and—as Revson president Julie Sandorf said in her opening remarks—where libraries fit in the surge of digital literacy programming happening throughout the city.

When it comes to meeting the growing demand for homegrown tech talent, added CUF executive director Jonathan Bowles, “What should the role of libraries be, and how do we get there?”

The answer, it turns out, is complicated; providing training for people entering the field and offering them a pipeline to jobs is only part of the equation of confronting the national diversity problem in the tech sector. According to 2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics employment data, only 14 percent of people with computer systems jobs in the United States are black or Latino, and 27 percent are women. But even those numbers do not necessarily get at the fact that nontraditional applicants are not landing the tech jobs they qualify for, nor are they staying in those jobs once hired—retention continues to be an issue.

While students are busy preparing themselves for job opportunities, asked David Giles, chief strategy officer at BPL (and a 2016 LJ Mover & Shaker), “What is it that the tech community can do to prepare themselves to welcome people who oftentimes don’t feel welcome in these industries?”

WHAT TECH EDUCATORS WANT

New York City has good tech training, but none of the organizations that provide it has the reach of the public library system, noted CUF editorial and policy director Eli Dvorkin, moderator of the symposium’s panel discussion. If the city is going to connect more of its residents to jobs in the technology sector, he asked the panel of tech educators, how can libraries be part of the solution?

Tom Ogletree, GA senior director of social impact and external affairs, noted that part of GA’s mission involved closing skills gaps—helping people who want to break into the digital economy from wherever they start out. “Talent is evenly distributed,” he said; “opportunity is not.” Creating place-based opportunities where new skill sets can be developed is key, as well as having a secure space to take risks. Not only can libraries fill those roles, they can also become pipelines for new talent. GA has recently had success at the Providence Public Library, RI, collaborating with local trainers such as Rhode Coders.

Claire Cuno is director of youth and support services at Per Scholas, a national nonprofit that offers free technology skills training for people over 25 in often-overlooked communities, and helps create on-ramps to build a more diverse workforce in tech companies. The organization often turns to the library to identify “folks who are passionate, resourceful, and lifelong learners,” she said, adding that people who engage with public libraries as learning sites are “epitomes of resourcefulness.” She would like to see libraries serve not only as recruiting sites, but as partners to ensure that Per Scholas students are supported, set up for success, and have access to the technology they need. In addition to building in that support structure, Cuno would like to see library staff trained to scout and perform outreach within their communities, helping tech organizations turn up nontraditional participants.

Evin Robinson is also interested in developing library staff partnerships to help identify candidates for New York on Tech (NYOT), which works with students, parents, schools, and community organizations to create pathways for underrepresented and underresourced high schoolers in New York’s five boroughs and Yonkers—and continues to support them after graduation, when they’re placed into internship opportunities in tech roles. NYOT has always used public libraries one of its pipelines for interested students, said Robinson, one of the organization’s cofounders. “As a New Yorker, that’s how you think about improving yourself—through the library.” When they’ve finished the program and want to continue their education, they turn to back to the library again. NYOT works with teachers, to help support its students, said Robinson—why not train librarians and library staff to offer some of the same services?

“Tech is a lot more than coding,” he added. It’s about identifying what a student is interested in, finding them the appropriate training, and then showing them what they can access at the library. One possible model, said Robinson, is the Girl/Boy Scouts badging system, where students can begin earning certification at the library in elementary school through 12th grade, focusing on particular areas of interest.

Not only can staff contribute to tech literacy, noted Cuno, but libraries are well positioned to help students verbalize what it is they do, a soft skill they’ll need entering the job market—“Not just ‘I completed this course’ but also ‘…and I can do X.’”

Libraries would also be a good location for tech companies to hold recruiting events, Robinson said. “How about you do a tabling opportunity at [Brooklyn Public Library’s] Grand Army Plaza library,” he suggested. “And you can have college students who are getting certifications come to library.”

Hicham Oudghiri, cofounder and CEO of Enigma Technologies, an operational data management and intelligence company, and his fellow cofounder built the first version of Enigma in libraries when they were both unemployed. That kind of open-ended access is lacking in New York, he noted, even among the many shared work spaces: “We have very little public space to just be.” Oudghiri would love to see more of a social element for tech learning and experimenting in libraries, he said—which would require a funding commitment, but a worthwhile one. “What would it take to go nuts in terms of investing in libraries as the coolest space to go to?”

This would also help encourage a needed lifelong learning mindset, panelists agreed. The notion that you get prepared for your economic and working life between the ages of 18 and 26 is disappearing, said Ogletree. The hard skills that make an employee relevant may not apply in two years. Tech readiness is about the ability to teach yourself, be resourceful, and ask for help—all opportunities for public libraries to contribute to and cultivate that mindset.

“It’s not going to be cheap,” he added. “If you really want to transform someone’s skills, give them set of tools to be flexible and agile, it’s not a single Saturday workshop. People need multiple touchpoints throughout their career, and there has to be real and intentional investment.”

Also, new tech hires are going to be working full time, noted Cuno, and will need access to tools after hours and on weekends in order to explore and innovate on their own—another case for extended open hours at libraries.

LIBRARIANS WEIGH IN

In response to the array of ideas from the tech sector’s side, librarians from New York’s three systems—New York Public Library (NYPL), Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), and Queens Library (QL)—weighed in on their own strengths and opportunities.

At QL, said Tara Lannen-Stanton, director of adult learning, digital literacy is a strong suit, spanning a range of capabilities from Microsoft Office instruction to Python, Adobe Creative Suite, and web development. The library’s Job and Business Academy includes tech training, and Microsoft Office certification is offered within an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) framework, with an eye toward success for new English speakers. Tech training is also a part of QL’s high school equivalency division. “I think those bridge training programs are where it’s at,” said Lannen-Stanton, “an entryway into technology and helping people along the way.” The library is strong on its tech exploration for children, she added, and she would like to see more offerings for adults and young adults.

As former CUF research director, Giles, unsurprisingly views public libraries as a part of the city’s social and capital infrastructure. What does leveraging that placement consist of? BPL has offered nearly 70,000 public programs with close to a million attendees, and has seen an uptick in funding over the last few years. But the system’s 60 branches still only average 49 open hours a week. “The scale is big, but are we funding this infrastructure enough?” Giles asked.

He would like to see open hours and number of programs grow, with an eye toward bringing more tech to reach all the library’s service areas. One current example is a partnership with NYC First, a STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) and robotics programming organization, on a middle school/YA robotics program. Currently BPL has 60 teams of students competing with each other across the borough. “It’s a good example of something we can do really well, which is to provide exposure to technology and excite kids,” said Giles.

Luke Swarthout, director of policy for NYPL Digital, brought up the concept of digital equity: that technology should be helping people’s lives, but too often it reproduces existing inequalities. He considers it a “wicked problem” because of the numerous factors involved: access, affordability, privacy, and the ever-changing skills that people will need for school and the workforce. “Libraries are the most important civil institutions for addressing digital equity,” he noted, and should be making significant investments in doing so.

NYPL has doubled its investment in tech training with the help of associate director of technology education and training Brandy McNeil (a 2017 LJ Mover & Shaker), who posed the question four years ago: What about the people you leave behind? One solution was to bring the Codeacademy curriculum into NYPL programming, said Swarthout. The library can be “the mouth of the funnel,” he added, giving people from a wide range of backgrounds the tools they’ll need to succeed. “A huge number of people will leave our classes understanding the world in a richer way than they did before.”

In turn, pointed out Giles, the tech community needs to work on developing a more welcoming and inclusive culture for nontraditional job applicants.

Given the limitations on space and personnel at even the largest library systems, all three librarians stressed that forming partnerships with a range of outside organizations is critical—starting with a rigorous assessment of internal resources to see where the gaps lie, noted Lannen-Stanton. Other strategies mentioned included social media outreach, assembling a diverse team of trainers, professional development for librarians, lining up mentors in advance, and information sharing among systems.

“Libraries are like emergency rooms for job skills,” said Swarthout. “We need to be smart enough, when we see people coming in in crisis, to direct them to the right place.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor, News for Library Journal.

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