November 24, 2014

NYC Libraries Consider Common Card

This story was updated to correct Queens’ handling of fines.

Distribution of new “common” library cards to more than a million school children in New York City this summer is viewed as tangible progress toward the more far-reaching goal of creating the first unified, seamless library experience for residents in all five boroughs. That goal, officials told Library Journal, has no opposition, and could go a long way toward fruition in the coming months, provided some budgetary roadblocks can be surmounted.

New York, with more than 200 libraries serving its eight million residents, has long grappled with a troublesome quirk: three separate library systems, each honoring only its particular card. Brooklyn Public Library cardholders, for example, cannot check out a volume while visiting a Queens Library branch.

The Brooklyn Public Library, the Queens Library and the New York Public Library (which encompasses the Bronx and Staten Island) were each founded before all five boroughs consolidated into New York City’s present configuration in 1898. The three library networks never merged, and officials stress that is not the intention now. The aim is a “common” library card keyed into an integrated system that facilitates an integrated experience for all New Yorkers.

“People throughout the New York City metro region are mobile,” Thomas W. Galante, president and CEO of the Queens Library, said in an email to Library Journal. “Many live in one part of the city, work in another and go to school somewhere else entirely. We want to encourage everyone in all five boroughs to benefit from what their public libraries have to offer. We want to make it easy for them to do so.”

Right now, a librarian in Queens can request a book from, say, a Manhattan branch, but delivery on interlibrary loans can take up to a week, unacceptable to the hurried pace of many New Yorkers. Beyond that problem, checkout, return and late-fee policies vary among the three systems, and there is no common database to search.

Ending these headaches, library officials say, is an idea whose time has certainly come.

“Everybody’s behind it,” said Linda Johnson, president of the Brooklyn Public Library. “Everybody’s for it. The trick is making enough people understand how important this is.”

Kids’ summer pilot tests concept

Common library cards for students, part of a broader summer reading initiative, are seen as an important first step in the wider goal of integrating the three systems, although they hardly address every pitfall. About 1.1 million cards were distributed through schools, said Jeff Roth, vice president strategic planning for the New York Public Library. “That’s a pretty neat way to get started,” Roth told LJ. “This is kind of step one, to have a single card that each system will accept.”

Students can keep whatever library card they currently hold, but Roth said the new card gives them “better access to their public libraries than they’ve ever had.” There’s one extra incentive: Just by using the common card once, any late fees currently owed by its holder to NYPL or Brooklyn will be reduced or eliminated entirely.  Queens does not automatically clear fees, spokesperson Joanne King told LJ, but children can clear them via the Read Down Your Fees program.

“We’ll learn a lot from this pilot,” Johnson said. And when the school year resumes this fall, the common cards will remain valid.

Making tech match

Technology, more than simple policy, is seen as the key to integrating the three NYC library systems. “We some need some work on the database side to make the systems talk to each other,” said Roth. A new catalog interface and a single “account layer” will be necessary.

Galante, for his part, noted that Queens libraries use a RFID-based check-in and check-out system, while the NYPL and Brooklyn Public Library both use bar-code readers. “That is a big bridge to gap,” he said.

This work will be expensive, officials agree, although everyone interviewed declined to estimate a price tag. Roth said that’s mainly because a single strategy has not been agreed upon, although the concept has been widely discussed of late.

Roth said there are some strategies for integrating the libraries, but those concepts shouldn’t and won’t be explored until the budget picture clears up. “It’s a little premature on the cost side,” he said on Monday, before the city’s budget agreement was announced.

But they don’t want their exploration tabled merely as a matter of dollars and cents.

“Some of these budget restrictions have forced us to find ways to do better,” Johnson said. “One way we can do better is access.”

“It’s a priority,” she added. “We’re still going to push forward.”

The five boroughs united to join New York City in 1898, so why has it taken this long to get library officials motivated to create seamless access to all three systems?

“I think we had to wait for technology to evolve to a point where joint library cards became practical,” Galante said. “Today, so much of our catalog and circulation systems are web-based, it is a much simpler matter to update information quickly and easily across the board.”

Galante added, “Creating a truly seamless NYC library card will take two things: manpower and tech power. We have all the tools we need. But all three NYC libraries have experienced several years of steadily declining budgets. Our collections have suffered. Our staffing is thin.”

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