More people than ever using New York’s public libraries
by Ellie Robins
Start spreading the news: use of New York City’s libraries has increased dramatically in the past decade. A study conducted by the Center for an Urban Future and published yesterday found that libraries in Brooklyn, Queens and New York have experienced a 40% spike in the number of people attending programs and a 59% increase in circulation since 2002.
The really helpful thing about this study is that it goes some way towards breaking a well-intentioned but ultimately misleading representation of the work libraries do. In campaigning against closures and cutbacks, leading cultural figures often go straight to the ‘value of reading’ argument. It’s an important point to make — you don’t have to convince us of that — but what these new stats show beyond all doubt is that at least as important a part of libraries’ work is in providing information, training and resources to local communities, often to their most vulnerable people. The study focuses on some of the heaviest users of libraries — immigrants, seniors, jobseekers and students/schoolkids — who rely on the institutions now more than ever for help with English-language learning, computer skills, internet access, internet literacy training and job research, and as a community hub. Some highlights of the study’s findings:
- Of the ten branches in the city with the highest circulation, six are in neighborhoods in which immigrants make up a disproportionate share of the population: Flushing, Queens Central (in Jamaica), Kings Highway, Elmhurst, McKinley Park and Fresh Meadows.
- 37 percent of the city’s population is foreign born, around 60 percent of residents are either immigrants or children of immigrants and nearly a quarter of the population is less than totally fluent in English.
- 2.9 million city residents don’t have broadband Internet access at home.
- Since 2002, the city’s three library systems have increased their total number of public access computers by 89 percent, with number of users rising just as fast or even faster. In the last five years alone, the number of computer sessions logged at public computers in the city’s libraries has grown by 62 percent, going from 5.8 million sessions in 2007 to over 9.3 million in 2011. At NYPL alone, attendance at technology programs nearly doubled from 2003 to 2012, going from 30,000 to 58,541.
- At least 250 small businesses have been launched by clients that were advised at the Science and Business Library by mentors from SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives).
- The intensive literacy and pre-GED courses that the libraries offer—along with the many informal educational opportunities they provide—are critical in a city where nearly 30 percent of the working age population, or 1.6 million people, currently lack a high school diploma and which has one of the lowest GED attainment rates in the country.
Yes, libraries are important because they champion and enable reading, but the danger of focusing solely on that and not on these public services is that it (very, very wrongly, but really) makes it easier for morons like this to dismiss them as non-essential, the preserve of the educated and well-to-do. It’s arguments like that that have enabled the authorities to cut New York’s library funding by 8% in a decade that’s seen usage of branches increase by 50%. New York’s libraries have expanded services even in the face of such ludicrous belt-tightening, but the combination of an information and communication revolution, an economic crisis and an aging population is only going to put more pressure on an already over-burdened system. It’s high time policy-makers and those holding the pursestrings reassessed their attitudes to libraries and recognised them as some of the most necessary institutions in our communities.
Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.