April 19, 2018

De Blasio’s Opportunity: It’s time to reinvest in NYC’s branch libraries | Editorial

Rebecca T. MillerNew York City’s libraries get a fair amount of attention, but all too rarely is it directed to the branches. Those neighborhood hubs arguably have the greatest impact and potential, cultivating the essential connection to the community at the most local levels in more than 207 buildings. Unfortunately, according to the Center for an Urban Future, they are also at risk. The time has arrived to embrace a new citywide strategy to deliver excellent library services to all New Yorkers.

The center’s recent report, “Re-envisioning New York’s Branch Libraries,” should be read by anyone interested in bolstering a stronger city infrastructure (in any city, not just New York). It evaluates the current state of affairs for the branches that serve our five boroughs across the three library systems—New York Public Library (NYPL), Queens Library, and Brooklyn Public Library (BPL). It describes the situation as dire, “on the verge of a maintenance crisis,” after years of inadequate funding. Where branches are not in need of serious repair, they are too small to meet community needs and out-of-date, compromising their ability to deliver basics such as power outlets and public programming.

Perhaps more important, the libraries are not being seen, embraced, and developed as the key city resource that they already are, let alone what they could become if adequately supported. In short, reads the report, “New York isn’t coming close to fulfilling the promise of its community libraries.”

This is not owing to a lack of library leadership (challenges notwithstanding). All three systems deliver excellence, drive innovation, and stretch dollars to meet rising and changing demand—many such initiatives have been covered by LJ—and collaborative initiatives such as BookOps for collection development between NYPL and BPL illustrate their ability to work beyond silos. The report argues convincingly that the potential has been hampered by a “broken” approach to funding, one that is heavily dependent on discretionary dollars and buy-in from local representatives; fails to fund the libraries as a citywide network; and enables inequity across the city.

Thankfully, the Center for an Urban Future frames this moment as a possible turning point, offering concrete ideas and a road map to a more resilient future. In December, the center envisioned what the city’s branches could look like via a showcase that offered compelling design solutions worth investigating.

Recognizing the problem is just the first step, however. Grappling with the reality of solving it will take a lot of passion and care, and it will need attention and engagement from city hall and from Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has already increased library funding in his first year in office. “With these tools,” the report argues, “we believe the de Blasio administration has a golden opportunity to not only transform libraries across the five boroughs, but to put them on a more sustainable path for the growing number of residents who depend on them.”

Luckily, there are significant citywide initiatives by which to be inspired. Other municipalities have seen the potential of their libraries and acted—think Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle—transforming library service and buildings through investment and with deep commitment and hands-on help from their mayors. They offer models and lessons. Perhaps the most telling is that if every city needs a great library, a great library needs great branches strategically managed with sustained support from local government. The sooner the city starts that transformation, the less damage it will have to undo. In Philadelphia, LJ’s 2015 Librarian of the Year, Siobhan Reardon, is still in the process of turning the ship to create the library the city deserves after a rocky period of lost support. In the UK, we see the cautionary tale of what happens when libraries are left to slide into disuse and the unmet requisites they leave in their wake.

What is now a neglected infrastructure is a potentially vibrant network ready to be ignited with the right strategy and an infusion of capital, not merely for its own sake but for the well-being of the city itself. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it for the many who are enriched by library services. As Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, told the audience at the design showcase, “No other institution is as well positioned to help the city address its issues.”

There is no time like the present.


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Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller (miller@mediasourceinc.com) is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.