Center for an Urban Future Report and Forum Call for NYC Libraries to Help City Recover

Center for an Urban Future released its most recent report, “Branches to Recovery: Tapping the Power of NYC’s Public Libraries to Rebuild a More Equitable City,” on November 30. The report, funded by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, was accompanied by a forum held at the New York Public Library’s Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library and virtually that invited city library leaders and policy makers to weigh in on how libraries can help ensure an inclusive recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, and what libraries need to accomplish those goals.

Center for Urban Future report cover with graphic map of NYCCenter for an Urban Future (CUF) released its most recent report, “Branches to Recovery: Tapping the Power of NYC’s Public Libraries to Rebuild a More Equitable City,” on November 30. The report, funded by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, was accompanied by a forum held at the New York Public Library’s (NYPL) Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library and virtually that invited city library leaders and policy makers to weigh in on how libraries can help ensure an inclusive recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, and what libraries need to accomplish those goals.

CUF, a New York City–based think tank that examines public policy, has highlighted the needs of New York’s three library systems—Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), NYPL, and Queens Public Library (QPL)—in past studies. In 2013, “Branches of Opportunity” made the case for libraries as critical elements of the city’s human capital system, and 2014’s “Re-Envisioning New York’s Branch Libraries” called for the city to increase its commitment to library infrastructure.

While much has changed over the past eight years in how city leaders perceive the work libraries do, thanks to increased understanding of the wide range of services they provide, and growing advocacy among city councilmembers, all three systems are still dependent on annual funding allocations. NYC’s 217 branch libraries provide many vital services for students, English learners, seniors, job seekers, small business owners, and entrepreneurs, among others. But they do so with limited resources and capacity. The city currently designates about $432 million annually (0.44 percent of the entire city budget) for public libraries—30 percent less than the Department of Parks and Recreation, 63 percent less than the Department of Corrections, and 92 percent less than the Police Department.

Now, as New York works to rebuild its economy and address inequities that have been thrown into sharp relief by the pandemic—and with Mayor-elect Eric Adams about to step into office—city officials and policymakers need to consider libraries as long-term investments for a more inclusive city that offers opportunities for all its residents.

“It would be really foolish not to make libraries a big piece of that,” CUF Executive Director Jonathan Bowles told LJ. “No other institution can help the city make progress toward being a more equitable city in so many areas.”

“This is an opportunity for Adams to have a very clear win and a very clear legacy,” said Revson Foundation President Julie Sandorf. “There's no downside, and the upside is unlimited.”

 

DEFINING OPPORTUNITIES

In many of the neighborhoods hit hardest by the pandemic, libraries have become the most trusted resources among immigrants, teens, older adults, and those on the wrong side of the digital divide. In over a third of the city’s neighborhoods, libraries are the only local, public providers of family literacy programs—and in nearly two-thirds of its neighborhoods, branch libraries are the sole public hub for career services and support for job seekers. However, libraries are not always open during the hours that people need them; currently most branches are open Monday through Saturday during working hours with a few open for evening hours. Many are short on staff and resources, and more than 100 buildings are smaller than 10,000 square feet and are thus unable to accommodate the growing needs of their service areas.

Branch libraries are often the only free place to borrow a laptop in many of the city’s lowest-income communities, but the three systems collectively have just 2,277 laptops available to loan. Libraries have become the city’s largest public provider of technology training in recent years, serving well over 160,000 patrons annually, but new seats in coding classes fill up within 10 minutes of registration opening. The waitlist for one sought-after course had to be suspended because it had grown to over 6,000 people.

QPL’s Kickoff to Kindergarten (K2K) program complements the city’s Universal Pre-K, providing early literacy programs on weekends, after school, and in the summer, but is available in only 15 of 63 branches. Dedicated teen spaces exist at only five branch libraries in Queens—geographically, the city’s largest borough. BPL’s innovative Today’s Teens Tomorrow’s Techies program can only accommodate 100 teenagers per year. NYPL is able to provide drop-in homework help at only about 20 of its 88 branches.

“The question is, how do we get government officials and policymakers to do more than just acknowledge that libraries are really good places and helpful civic institutions, to really embrace them for this moment and provide them with the support that the branches everywhere need to fully harness their potential at this time?" said Bowles.

The study defines 10 major policy challenges libraries must meet to help the city’s recovery, focusing on lifelong learning and overcoming COVID learning loss, workforce and small business development, access to technology, fostering economic and civic inclusion in immigrant communities, and supporting the older adult population. To realize these objectives, CUF’s report offers seven priority recommendations:

  1. Fund a major expansion of libraries’ hours of operation to extend access to far more working New Yorkers.
  2. Provide targeted funding for libraries to ramp up their most effective and promising programs and partnerships, reinvent underutilized spaces, and invest in expansion.
  3. Create a dedicated maintenance fund enabling libraries to make critical building fixes before problems can grow.
  4. Build the future of branch libraries into the city’s 10-year capital plan—and commit to expanding most of the city’s smallest branches by 2033.
  5. Integrate libraries into agency plans to tackle key challenges and ensure an inclusive recovery.
  6. Increase expense funding to support key staff roles that maximize impact.
  7. Help libraries take some of their vital resources on the road—to homeless shelters, laundromats, public housing complexes, senior centers, and playgrounds.

The CUF report calls for $1 billion to be allocated for the city’s libraries—about 1 percent of the city’s annual budget. As many of the policy forum participants noted, however, there are many incremental strategies that can be put into place while waiting for that to become a reality.

 

IDEAS FROM ALL CORNERS

CUF’s forum brought together library leaders and staff, elected officials and city council representatives, entrepreneurs, organizers, and advocates offering concrete suggestions for harnessing the power of NYC libraries. Ideas included expanded drop-in homework help, dedicated teen spaces, reimagined community spaces, extra professional development for library employees, outreach librarians hired from the neighborhoods they serve, and colocated affordable housing. Henry Garrido, executive director of District Council 37, the city’s largest municipal employee union, called for 2 percent of city property taxes to be dedicated to library funding. BPL Chief Librarian Nick Higgins suggested community-operated library newsrooms to help battle dis- and misinformation.

A panel discussion moderated by CUF Editorial and Policy Director Eli Dvorkin included participants from outside libraries—Eric Klinenberg, professor of sociology at NYU and author of Palaces for the People; Katy Knight, executive director and president of Siegel Family Endowment; Bitta Mostofi, former commissioner of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs; and New York City Council member Carlina Rivera—to brainstorm more options.

“We have this extraordinary resource in every neighborhood in the city,” said Klinenberg. The levels of trust in the library within immigrant communities that don’t extend to other government services, the degree of tech knowledge in libraries, and their centrality are all critical assets that can be leveraged, panelists pointed out. But, said Rivera, the city needs to invest in libraries as it would any other city infrastructure.

Accessible internet service for all is a deeply pressing need, noted Knight—what in rural areas is termed a “last mile problem” is “a last 400 foot problem” in New York—but it needs to be funded, rather than just talked about. And it needs to be connected to the missions of other city agencies.

That sentiment was affirmed by the second panel, which featured the directors of all three systems: BPL’s Linda Johnson, NYPL’s Tony Marx, and QPL’s Dennis Walcott. Their priorities were straightforward: funding first to provide more open hours, staff, and capital improvements to aging facilities. “We have lots of great programmatic ideas, but we need to have buildings to put them in,” noted Walcott.

The current budget process, where libraries have to testify for funding every year, “is the definition of a broken system,” said Marx. Libraries need a seat at the city’s table, all agreed—a benefit that would go both ways. “We can help city agencies do a better job,” Johnson pointed out. “We have access to a lot of data—we know things well in advance of most city agencies about where people are moving, what languages they’re reading in,” and more.

The combined efforts of the three systems, not to mention their “collegiality and camaraderie and clear, close working relationships,” will be an asset to their advocacy efforts, Sandorf told LJ. Compared to 10 or 15 years ago, she said, “We are in a much stronger position to take the next great leap for the libraries in New York.”

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, in a recorded interview, offered an example of what can be accomplished by a city leader who prioritizes libraries and a city government that considers itself their trusted partner. In a city that is 63 percent immigrants or children of immigrants, said Garcetti, “libraries are the ultimate civic stop.”

 

OPPORTUNITIES FOR ADAMS

A major theme running through the forum conversations was that this is an opportune moment for incoming Mayor Adams to make a strong statement about his commitment to the city’s residents that does not need to be an elaborate initiative or one that needs buy-in. At BPL’s 125th anniversary event, said Johnson, Adams—currently Brooklyn borough president—stated that every dollar contributed to library was money well spent.

“I think it's a safe bet that both the Adams administration and the incoming City Council will absolutely look to develop new strategies for building a more equitable city,” said Bowles. “It really is the defining moment of our time, and we heard so much about it during campaign season. I certainly would expect a number of policies and announcements around trying to get there.”

To get those well-spent dollars in place, New York City needs to make library funding permanent. The city’s capital construction process, which results in new buildings and renovations taking at least twice as long as they would in other urban areas, needs to be reformed as well—another area that a new administration is well positioned to tackle.

“This is an opportunity for Adams to have a very clear win and a very clear legacy,” Sandorf told LJ. “The branches could easily serve as the anchor institutions for what he has been saying must happen in this recovery, which is to build strong communities by making available opportunities for growth.”

While Bowles acknowledges that more than doubling the city’s existing library funding may be a hard sell now, the ideas floated at the forum are “something that libraries should pay close attention to, because that may be a way to get more resources,” he told LJ. City government “may look more closely at proposals to scale up specific programs that resonate with local elected officials.”

And as he pointed out, New York is not the only urban area working to enable its libraries as key players in the recovery process.

“Whatever growth and economic prosperity happened in the last decade or two, there were huge segments of the population that weren’t benefiting, weren’t getting ahead, in the same way. Going forward, as we look to recover from the devastation of the last couple years, we’ve got to bring on more people,” Bowles noted. “I think that any city wrestling with these issues has got to make libraries part of the discussion about how to build a more equitable city.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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