Make New York City's Libraries a Higher Priority

New York City's neighborhood libraries play crucial roles in the life of our city -- ones that often go unrecognized. Yet their need to improve their facilities grows greater, even as the public's reliance on them increases as well.
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New York City's neighborhood libraries play crucial roles in the life of our city -- ones that often go unrecognized. Yet their need to improve their facilities grows greater, even as the public's reliance on them increases as well. That's true for all three of the city's library systems -- the Brooklyn Public Library, the New York Public Library (serving the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island), and the Queens Library.

A recent report by the Center for an Urban Future revealed that New York City's 207 branch libraries have $1.1 billion in capital needs. The study, titled "Re-Envisioning New York's Branch Libraries," found that the average branch library is 61 years old, and 59 branches need $5 million or more in basic repairs. In addition, the study found that the vast majority of libraries are poorly configured to meet the demands of the digital age.

A previous report -- titled "Branches of Opportunity" -- published by the Center for an Urban Future last year found that over the past decade circulation at New York City libraries has increased by 59 percent, program attendance by 40 percent, and program sessions by 27 percent while City funding has declined by 8 percent. Perhaps surprisingly in a digital age, the need for libraries has only expanded.

That's in part because the roles of libraries have increased as well -- far beyond the traditional one of making books and other materials available and providing a quiet place to read. Today, libraries play far greater roles, as evidenced by the thousands of nominations that have already been received in the second annual NYC Neighborhood Library Awards, co-funded by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, which I lead, and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

Those nominations, still being accepted from the public through Dec. 12th at, highlight a wide range of roles: helping a homeless mother search for jobs online and providing her children with a safe haven during the day; assisting a domestic violence survivor to adjust to a new life and continue her career search; helping an unemployed mother cope with the challenges of raising her daughter; providing a GED class that inspired a teenage boy to become confident in his studies; assisting an unemployed New Yorker update his resume and learn techniques for successful interviews; offering a place of welcome for seniors living alone.

Yet even as the public turns more and more to libraries for ever greater needs, the city's libraries were open only an average of 43 hours a week in 2013. That's far fewer than in such other cities as Boston, Chicago, Columbus, San Antonio, San Francisco, and Seattle.

It's also far short of the six-day/72-hour week promised by the City of New York when it accepted funding in 1901 for 100 libraries in all five boroughs from Andrew Carnegie. The so-called "Carnegie Compact," which enabled the funding, required the City to keep the branches open six days a week -- from at least nine in the morning until nine at night -- and to keep the branches in good physical condition.

A lot has changed since 1901, but the City's willingness to stand by its commitment should not have. New York City's branch libraries play as crucial a role as they ever have -- providing a safe and welcoming place in 207 locations throughout the city, reflecting the languages and cultures of those neighborhoods, and helping New Yorkers to better themselves and overcome life challenges.

One can make a compelling case that no institution in New York City plays a more vital role in addressing income inequality than our libraries, which provide all New Yorkers with access to materials and services -- including literacy itself -- that they can use to improve their lives. Increasingly, they also provide advice and assistance in finding a job, becoming an entrepreneur, and starting a business.

New Yorkers need the longer library hours and improved facilities that the City promised to Andrew Carnegie, when he wisely made possible the addition of libraries to so many neighborhoods. It's time for City leaders to live up to that commitment -- for the sake of the growing number of New Yorkers who depend on libraries in so many ways today.

The author is President of the Charles H. Revson Foundation.