Why Libraries May Be an Essential Part of Cities of the Future

1.16.13 | In today’s knowledge and information economy, libraries are becoming more important, not less. That’s the conclusion of a new report, “Branches of Opportunity,” from New York’s Center for an Urban Future (CUF).

The report finds that the library is playing a key role in the city’s human capital system, reaching groups like seniors, immigrants, and young adults who may need help upgrading skills, finding jobs, learning English, and accessing technology.

The report found that people are using New York City’s libraries more than ever.   In 2011, library patrons checked 69 million items out, a 59 percent increase from 10 years before, and 2.3 million people attended public programs at libraries, a 40 percent increase.

The report finds that libraries are a key part of the city’s infrastructure:

“Libraries are uniquely positioned to help the city address several economic, demographic, and social challenges that will impact New York in the decades ahead, from the rapid aging of the city’s population (libraries are a go-to resource for seniors) and the continued growth in the number of foreign-born (libraries are the most trusted institution for immigrants) to the rise of the freelance economy (libraries are the original co-working spaces) and troubling increase in the number of disconnected youth (libraries are a safe haven for many teens and young adults).”

These findings are similar to those of a Pew Charitable Trusts study last year. The Pew study compares library systems in 15 cities nationwide and also found an increase in library use over time. In “The Library in the City: Changing Demands and A Challenging Future,” Pew found that the number of library visits rose on average 6 percent from 2005 to 2011, while circulation of print and CD/DVD materials increased by 18 percent. Visits grew during that period by more than 20 percent in Detroit, Baltimore, Seattle, and Atlanta. Circulation of materials increased by 50 percent in Seattle and more than 30 percent in San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, and Brooklyn.

It is the ability of libraries to perform so many functions in response to people’s needs that makes city residents value them so highly,” said Larry Eichel, project director of Pew’s Philadelphia Research Initiative. “The question is whether libraries will have the resources and the flexibility to keep adapting to changing circumstances and technologies in the years ahead.”

In New York City, despite their growing importance, public libraries have been “undervalued by policymakers and are absent from most policy and planning discussions about the future of the city,” according to the CUF report.

They also find that budget cuts have had a significant impact on services and maintenance in many branches.

“If one had to choose the most underappreciated thing libraries do, skills-building and career development would top the list,” David Giles, CUF research director, wrote at Next City. “In the city budget, libraries get grouped with cultural institutions, not education providers or workforce development organizations, and most people—at least if they are middle-class and well educated—seem to associate public libraries with children’s books and story time and little more. But for literally millions of New Yorkers libraries are the first place to go to pick up marketable skills, polish a resume or search for job openings online.”

In addition to holding computer literacy and citizenship classes in a variety of foreign languages such as Spanish, Chinese, and Urdu, many branches have bilingual librarians who field questions about and help immigrants learn computer skills.

“There have been many immigrant waves in America’s history and many different institutions that helped them assimilate. In this age, I think libraries are the leading institution playing this role,” Madhulika Khandelwal, director of the Asian/American Center at Queens College, told researchers at CUF.

Libraries often offer the only free access to digital resources in low-income communities. In these same communities, libraries can be among the only safe places young people can go after school hours, to improve their skills, do research and pursue their own interests. Elsewhere around the country some libraries are working to set up teen centers that emphasize use of new technologies so teens can build skills and pursue interest-driven learning outside of traditional classroom settings, such as the new Institute of Museum and Library Services–supported YOUMedia centers.

The authors of the CUF report say that the libraries’ physical presence in neighborhoods is important and helps make them uniquely positioned to provide support going into the future.

The Center for an Urban Future calls for increasing support for libraries to enable branches to increase hours. Their report reveals that most branches are open a paltry 40 hours a week or less, which is a significant waste of a valuable piece of the urban infrastructure that is providing crucial training and information access. It calls for libraries’ reduced dependence on individual elected officials for capital funding. They suggest that New York City follow Seattle’s lead, for example, and issue a $500 million bond to fund projects across all five boroughs. CUF urges that libraries forge partnerships with city agencies to deliver key services and reach out to new populations.

“Libraries are without question at a crossroads” CUF authors write.

The business of making and distributing books is undergoing a tremendous upheaval as the Internet matures. At the same time libraries are experiencing an historic resurgence as community centers at exactly the same time that government support for them is waning. Circulation is at historic highs despite dwindling book budgets, and the number of programs on offer is greater and more diverse than ever before, even as staff levels have plateaued. This is a huge lost opportunity for New York. If libraries are going to fulfill their potential as engines of upward mobility and take advantage of opportunities afforded by the Internet, they will need far greater financial and institutional support than they have received so far.

Download the full report at the Center for an Urban Future.

Photo/ Dory Kornfeld.

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