New Report on Libraries Transforming in the Digital Age

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.

Challenges

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."