How The New York Public Library Is Bridging The Digital Divide

How The New York Public Library Is Bridging The Digital Divide
The magnificent Rose Main Reading Room at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building in New York City.

The magnificent Rose Main Reading Room at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building in New York City.

Credit: NYPL

The 11th annual Aspen Ideas Festival drew impressive crowds to the picturesque Colorado mountain town in late June, inspiring audiences to “indulge in their curiosity.” In a conversation with The Huffington Post's editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington, New York Public Library president and CEO Tony Marx spoke to the digital divide in America, where an estimated 60 million people are without personal access to Internet service, and the role of public libraries amid a changing landscape.

"Libraries have never been used more," Marx told Huffington, who noted that 90 percent of Americans believe that public libraries are a vital aspect of their communities. "People are shocked by this: the New York Public Libraries together get about 40 million physical visits a year," more than all the city's museums and professional sporting events combined, he said. "The life of the mind is not nearly as threatened as popular culture would have us believe."

Yet 27 percent of households in New York City lack a connection to broadband Internet. Marx told a story about a boy who was sitting outside a library branch in the South Bronx to use the Wi-Fi after it had closed. "There's a kid sitting on the stoop and he's got the oldest laptop I've ever seen. And I said, 'What are you doing?' And he said, 'I'm doing my math homework,'" Marx said. "It's New York, it's the 21st century, and the kid's sitting on the stoop to do his math homework."

Guarded by Patience and Fortitude, a pair of imposing marble lions, the main branch of the New York Public Library at East 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue is world-renowned and among the largest libraries in the world. Marx works to broaden the library's essential role as a provider of free educational opportunities for millions of New Yorkers.

Among Marx's initiatives since joining the NYPL, with $1 million in funding from Google and backing from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, the library began offering free Wi-Fi devices, with a goal to reach approximately 10,000 low-income families so they can access the system from home. The FCC passed last year a $5 billion plan for schools and libraries to follow suit in an effort to address the digital divide on a national scale.

Considering the dramatic socioeconomic split in accessibility to information, the public library plays an important role as it continues to adapt to digital technology.

"Libraries are called the 'third place,'" explained Huffington. "It's not home, it's not work, but it's a place of community and despite all the fears that the digital revolution would eliminate libraries, it's the exact opposite."

Marx served as president of Amherst College from 2003 to 2011, and presided over the largest unrestricted cash gift ever made to a liberal arts college ($100 million). He arrived at the New York Public Library in 2011, at a time when the institution was facing many questions about its place in an increasingly digital future.

"When I got to [NYPL], I realized that most of the commercial publishing industry wouldn't let libraries lend electronic books. So we found a way to make deals where we pay licensing fees, because authors should be paid for their work," Marx said. "We have seen a 300 percent increase in electronic book lending."

Aside from increasing accessibility, Marx's vision for the future of the public library system addresses the unique role it plays within the community, especially those with low-income residents. "We're human beings. We're social animals. Even if you don't need to come to the library to read a book, people come to the library to be together and to be in inspiring spaces," he said.

"You could watch all of this online," he said, referencing the Aspen Ideas Festival as an environment that fosters critical thinking. "But you want to be here talking to each other, learning together. That's amazing and we need to do more of that."

As a leading provider of basic and advanced computer-skills training in New York City, the NYPL helps New Yorkers keep up the pace with an accelerating tech industry. "The coding industry -- the tech industry -- is the fastest growing industry in New York," said Marx. "It's a, let's say, non-diverse industry, so we're trying to get them some of the diversity of talent by providing the coding instruction for free."

Arianna Huffington and Tony Marx at the 11th annual Aspen Ideas Festival in June 2015.

Arianna Huffington and Tony Marx at the 11th annual Aspen Ideas Festival in June 2015.

Credit: Ricky Savi/Aspen Institute

Examining extremes, Huffington and Marx discussed the downsides of an oversaturated Internet experience. From mass media to social media, they agreed that sometimes people just want ever-elusive "quiet and contemplation."

"I think we're at this moment when we all are so grateful for what the digital revolution has made possible, but we're beginning to recognize the dangers," said Huffington. "We're beginning to recognize the dangers in terms of our health, in terms of our creativity, because that quiet place -- I mean, every creator has said it's essential, you know, being able to clean your mind and not be constantly focused on notifications and alerts and bleeps."

On the same side of the divide, noting the importance of "preserving the library as an oasis," Huffington lamented the decreasing frequency with which humans disconnect from devices to engage with the world around them. "Even museums and galleries now are all digitized, and people walk around with their apps -- I mean, I'm sure you've been to museums where people are not looking at the paintings, they're looking at their apps, and you wonder why they left home," she said.

The crux of his vision, Marx concluded, relies upon a certain parity in access to information throughout the world. "I’m after two things that I’m not sure I will live to see, [but] I want a world in which the opportunities that we all have here in Aspen, that we all have at home, are shared by everyone. I want a world in which access to ideas and information, to learn from and to contribute to, is not constrained by economic opportunity or physical proximity," said Marx. "I want everyone in the game because I believe, going back to some early Greek thinkers, that intelligence and talent and wisdom and creativity are more widely spread in the community than we have yet to tap."

For all the wisdom of the Aspen Ideas Festival, said Marx, without engagement from two-thirds of the world's population, innovation stagnates. "So that's No. 1," he said. "And No. 2, more mundane. I want to go on the subway every morning, and instead of seeing people moving little balls around the screen, I want to see them working with the collections of the library on whatever they're fascinated by, contributing to a collective effort to understand the world better. Those are the two things I'm after."

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