New Report on Libraries Transforming in the Digital Age

Tuesday, January 08, 2013 - 11:00 PM

E-books have not spelled the demise of the local library in New York. In fact, according to a new report from the Center for an Urban Future, 40.5 million people visited the city’s public libraries, more than all of the city’s professional sports teams and major cultural institutions combined.

The report released on Tuesday, "Branches of Opportunity," looks at the changing role of the city’s libraries in the digital age. It finds that while public libraries are serving more New Yorkers than ever, they are "undervalued by policymakers and face growing threats."

New York City’s library system is a unique hybrid. Three organizations — the New York Public Library, along with the Brooklyn and Queens libraries— operate 206 local branches throughout the five boroughs.

Serving New Roles in Communities

The report says public libraries in New York are most popular with seniors, foreign-born New Yorkers, at-risk teens and freelance workers and that they serve visitors in four key areas:

  • Helping adults upgrade work skills and find jobs.
  • Assisting immigrants with assimilation.
  • Fostering reading skills in young people.
  • Providing technology access for those without a computer or Internet connection at home — an estimated 36 percent of New York City’s population does not have broadband.

Borough Examples

In the borough with the highest poverty and unemployment rate, the Bronx, 19 of the 35 branches have at least doubled their attendance since 2002.

"The libraries are of critical importance to under-served youth and adults," says Denise Scott, the managing director of the New York City program for the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), according to the report.

The Science and Business Library in Manhattan provides entrepreneurs with free access to research databases and operates a mentoring program with SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives. It claims to have helped launch at least 250 small businesses.

Brooklyn’s Central Library is being renovated to accommodate more computers, conference rooms, a 36-seat classroom and a digital recording studio. The goal is to provide more access to education and create a work environment.

"People are using Starbucks in much the same we want them to use the library," Linda Johnson, President of the Brooklyn Public Library, told WNYC.

Financial Instability

But the report says that the city’s libraries have spent the last four years fighting off budget cuts.  "New York policymakers, social service leaders and economic officials have largely failed to see the public libraries as the critical 21st century resource that they are."

While many proposed budget reductions have eventually been restored, financial instability has limited library executives’ ability to plan and invest in future infrastructure or services. Library officials estimate that an additional $50 million a year in city operating funds would allow all three systems to stay open an average of 50 hours a week, more than the current average opening hours of 43 hours per week.


Among other recommendations, the report’s authors suggest that New York libraries:

  • Partner with tech companies and government agencies to create new learning and career centers.
  • Pursue new sources of revenue, like soliciting wealthy donors.
  • Consider new ways of building virtual lending platforms for ebooks, videos and audio files.

While libraries have become de facto community centers, they are still working on becoming digital lenders. According to Overdrive CEO Steve Potash, e-book distributors are more "committed to working with libraries to build a better online user experience for their patrons…if the websites facilitated book purchases as well as checkouts." 


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Comments [6]


Since few last years, I'm buying ebooks only

Jul. 08 2013 01:30 PM

jkurland from Rockland county, NY

I am lucky to live in Rockland county and our libraries are always heavily used - computers, DVDs, magazines, newspapers, and expensive programs of music, dance, films, cultural and food lectures and demostrations, health issues, slide shows in history, environment and of course books. And any book you would lke, they will get it for your from a wide system including upstate. And you can return your books you borrow to any library in the system (except for Finklestein which is no longer part) I especially love Suffern Library, New city Library, and Kings Daughter Library. I spoke to my son in San Carlos, CA and their library has nothing but books - but could be a much greater resource. With the exception of Finklestein Library in East Ramapo, all the library budgets have passed. But very little budgets pass in East Ramapo - huge Hasidic population don't want to pay for anything though they use it greatly!!

Jan. 10 2013 09:51 AM
Bobbie from NYC

Libraries are the "welcoming arms" of the future for all New Yorkers who want access to knowledge, in whatever media they prefer. Our politicians should wake up to that reality. People use your voting power! Very few learning opportunites are free in this city, let's keep our libraries open for the people.

Jan. 08 2013 03:49 PM
myron blumenfeld

As a library trustee in our 5 star rated Port washington library with a budget voted on by our patrons WE HAVE BEGUN TO ENTER A 21 CENTURY library.

Installed a solar roof and so much more . We found not only starbucks as a model but Musems including MOMA and the new children's library in the Historcal Sociey Museum.

Jan. 08 2013 03:25 PM
Jess G. from Brooklyn, NY

The photo shown is not of the Dekalb Library, but of the Grand Army Plaza library in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn.

Jan. 08 2013 02:51 PM

Very interesting story.
Truth be told: it took me FOREVER, like until the end of the piece, to realize they were talking about LITERAL menus, not drop-down menus!
I was listening raptly nonetheless.

Jan. 08 2013 08:00 AM

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