January 21, 2022

New Report: “Branches to Recovery: Tapping the Power of NYC’s Public Libraries to Rebuild a More Equitable City”

From the Center for an Urban Future:

In the months and years ahead, New York City’s leaders will be tasked with helping hard-hit communities across all five boroughs recover fully from the social and economic devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic—and chart a course toward a more equitable future. Fortunately, elected officials and policymakers have an incomparable asset and ally in nearly every New York neighborhood: the city’s 217 public branch libraries.

Although many other entities will be pivotal to creating a fairer city—including hundreds of community-based nonprofit organizations—no institution is better equipped than the public libraries to make progress toward a more equitable city in so many critical areas, from expanding access to early education and closing the digital divide to strengthening minority-owned businesses and bolstering the language, literacy, and technology skills needed to access the good jobs of tomorrow.

Libraries aren’t just on the ground in nearly every community across the city. In many of the neighborhoods hit hardest by the pandemic, libraries are among the only trusted resources for immigrants, teens, older adults, and those on the wrong side of the digital divide. For example, in 64 percent of the city’s neighborhoods, branch libraries are the sole public hub for career services and support for jobseekers. Libraries are the only local, public resource for small business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs in 67 percent of the city—including many neighborhoods where minority- and immigrant-owned businesses are still reeling from the pandemic—at a time when thousands of lower-income New Yorkers are turning to entrepreneurship out of necessity. And as the city faces the consequences of widespread learning loss, libraries are the only local, public provider of family literacy programs in over one-third of city neighborhoods—and among the only options for free, drop-in homework help.

While libraries have long served as a go-to resource for New Yorkers seeking opportunity, with more resources and deliberate planning from City Hall, they could be doing so much more. Today, the city’s public libraries serve over 35 million visitors annually, with program attendance increasing 178 percent over the past decade and WiFi usage more than tripling.3 But libraries accomplish all this with less than 0.44 percent of the city budget. The city currently allocates about $432 million annually for public libraries—30 percent less than the Department of Parks and Recreation, 63 percent less than the Department of Corrections, and 92 percent less than the Police Department.

One effect of this underinvestment is that many of the libraries’ most popular and successful programs have long waiting lists or have only been rolled out to a small portion of branch locations. For instance, libraries have become the city’s largest public provider of technology training in recent years, serving well over 160,000 patrons annually. But new seats in coding classes are filled up within ten minutes of registration opening, and the waitlist for one sought-after course had to be suspended because it had grown to over 6,000 people. A branch library is the only free place to use a computer, borrow a laptop, or access the Internet in many of the city’s lowest-income communities, from Soundview to Canarsie. But the city’s libraries collectively have just 2,277 laptops available to loan. Similar opportunities exist throughout the system to expand high-demand services in hard-hit communities—for older adults and immigrants, jobseekers and entrepreneurs, families with young children, and teens facing an uncertain future.

It’s time to fully harness New York’s branch libraries—and make them a centerpiece of the social infrastructure needed to cultivate an inclusive recovery and build a more equitable city.

This study provides a detailed vision for how policymakers can harness the full potential of New York’s 217 branch libraries—operated by the city’s three library systems, Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), New York Public Library (NYPL), and Queens Public Library (QPL)—to ensure an inclusive recovery and build a more equitable city for the long term. It was informed by an extensive data analysis and more than 100 interviews with national and local experts on issues ranging from early childhood education and technology training to support for jobseekers and older adult services; library officials and front-line library staff; and leaders in philanthropy, government, and the private sector. Funded by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, the report expands on CUF’s previous research examining the critical role of New York City’s branch libraries as engines of economic mobility and social cohesion, including the 2013 report Branches of Opportunity and 2014 report Re-Envisioning New York’s Branch Libraries.

Report Resources

Direct to Full Text Report
54 pages; PDF.

Direct to Excerpts From the Report

Direct to Recommendations

About Gary Price

Gary Price (gprice@mediasourceinc.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.