The Crucial Role of New York City's Branch Libraries

In this Monday, July 22, 2013 photo, patrons use the Rose Reading Room at the main branch of the New York Public Library in N
In this Monday, July 22, 2013 photo, patrons use the Rose Reading Room at the main branch of the New York Public Library in New York. Plans for a major change within the New York Public Library?s landmark main building have kindled an intellectual culture clash over its direction and the future of libraries themselves. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

On Wednesday evening, May 20, New York City celebrated what New York magazine calls "the Oscars for Libraries." The 2nd annual NYC Neighborhood Library Awards recognized the crucial role that New York City's branch libraries play in serving the city's diverse communities. Five branch libraries received $20,000 each and another five received $10,000 each, after being selected by a distinguished panel of independent judges from more than 13,400 nominations submitted by New Yorkers.

The winning libraries underscore the extraordinary role that New York City's 207 branch libraries play as our most trusted and welcoming equalizers of economic opportunity. Those libraries are part of the city's three library systems: the Brooklyn Public Library; Queens Library; and the New York Public Library, which operates branches in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island. They serve every community in the city, and every branch library in the city was nominated.

The remarkable work of those branch libraries is best reflected in the words of nominators for the five branch libraries that won $20,000 each:

• Langston Hughes Library - Corona (Queens) - Carol, a neighborhood resident, retiree, parent, and community group member, said: "In an era of so much ethnic and cultural strife, this is one of the beacons that unites people across ethnic and cultural lines and allow us to see just how much we really do have in common. Through its cultural and educational programs...this institution can continue to bridge and even close the gaps caused by ignorance and misunderstanding."

• Mott Haven Library - Mott Haven (the Bronx) - A neighborhood resident and parent wrote: "As a new mother, the library became a haven and a refuge to go to with my baby specially during the harsh winter months. Its second level is one of the most elegant and spacious kid-friendly spaces I have encountered from all the public libraries. Its welcoming atmosphere has instilled in my daughter an instinctual love for books."

• New Lots Library - East New York (Brooklyn) - Takora, a neighborhood resident, parent, and job-seeker, stated: "I live in a very impoverished neighborhood. Every day is a struggle for everyone but because of this place, we have access to the Internet and books and classes. This library helps people in our community better themselves and become a contributing part of society. Without this branch giving us the tools to do so, a lot of us would have no other way to get help or find things available to us."

• Parkchester Library - Parkchester (the Bronx) - Lawrence, a neighborhood resident and parent, noted: "As an at-home father, I am always looking for activities and programs in the neighborhood for my son who started Pre-K this September. With the help of the Parkchester Library, he went into the school year academically and culturally prepared... When I pick him up from school, he often asks if we can spend some time at the library before we go home."

• Stapleton Library - Stapleton (Staten Island) - Samantha, a neighborhood resident and parent, said: "I live in the projects down the block from this library. Most of the kids I know are on their own after school and don't always have somewhere to go or something to do... Stapleton Library is a safe place but most importantly a friendly place for them to go after school or on weekends. They organize movie nights, board games day, separate video game time for kids and teens, toddler and baby groups with songs, stories and art."

In addition to these libraries, the five libraries that received $10,000 each are: Cambria Heights Library in Cambria Heights, Queens; Clinton Hill Library in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn; Jefferson Market Library in Greenwich Village, Manhattan; Sunnyside Library in Sunnyside, Queens; and, Windsor Terrace Library in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn. All 10 of these libraries also received a unique two-minute video - each crafted to reflect the impact of the particular branch - created by acclaimed filmmakers Juliane Dressner and Jesse Hicks. The videos can be viewed on vimeo here.

At the Awards celebration at the Hearst Tower in Manhattan, presenters included Master of Ceremonies Brian Lehrer, host of The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC, the media partner of the NYC Neighborhood Library Awards; several of the judges who selected the highest Awards winners: acclaimed authors Maira Kalman and Jacqueline Woodson; Dutton Children's Books publisher Julie Strauss-Gabel, and Maya Wiley, Counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio; and, numerous City Council members whose districts include library finalists. Those City Council members present were Laurie Cumbo, Julissa Ferreras, Corey Johnson, Brad Lander, I. Daneek Miller, Annabel Palma, and Jimmy Van Bramer.

Also present to honor the recipients were the heads of the three library systems - Linda Johnson, President of the Brooklyn Public Library; Anthony Marx, President of the New York Public Library, and Bridget Quinn-Carey, Interim President of the Queens Library - as well as representatives of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and the Charles H. Revson Foundation, the two funders of the Awards.

The Awards, the winning libraries, and the videos of the 10 Award recipients highlight the essential role that the city's branch libraries play. As the city's elected officials debate the level of library funding in the upcoming New York City budget, they would do well to watch the videos of these outstanding branches. The demand for library services has increased in a digital age, and the three library systems have requested an increase of $65 million in city operating funds for FY 2016. That would just bring library budgets back to pre-2008 levels.

New York City's libraries deserve the resources they need to create opportunity for all. As the 2nd annual NYC Neighborhood Library Awards reveal, branch libraries are one of the most powerful tools we have for addressing the inequality in our midst.

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