Libraries across U.S. Turn a Whisper into a Roar ; Book Repositories Add Classes and Services for New Focus in Digital Era

By Hu, Winnie | International New York Times, July 6, 2016 | Go to article overview

Libraries across U.S. Turn a Whisper into a Roar ; Book Repositories Add Classes and Services for New Focus in Digital Era


Hu, Winnie, International New York Times


No longer just repositories for books, public libraries around America have reinvented themselves as one-stop community centers.

Matthew Carter's summer hideaway is not in the Hamptons, or the Catskills or on the Jersey Shore. It does not require a car ride or a small fortune to keep up.

Mr. Carter, 32, an adjunct professor of music at the City College of New York, simply holes up at the Inwood Library in northern Manhattan with his research books. It is quiet, air-conditioned and open every day.

"I'm a total leech of public libraries," he said. "It's my summer hangout. It's where I spend the majority of my time, and where I'm most productive."

It is also a place where he has a lot of company.

Far from becoming irrelevant in the digital age, libraries in New York City and around the nation are thriving: adding weekend and evening hours; hiring more librarians and staff; and expanding their catalog of classes and services to include things like job counseling, coding classes and knitting groups.

No longer just repositories for books, public libraries have reinvented themselves as one-stop community centers that aim to offer something for everyone. In so doing, they are reaffirming their role as an essential part of civic life in America by making themselves indispensable to new generations of patrons.

Story time at libraries in Manhattan and the borough of the Bronx is now so popular that ticket lines must be formed, while coding classes have waiting lists in the thousands. A library in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, runs a fully equipped recording studio that can be reserved at no cost; many libraries in the borough lend laptops and portable wireless devices to those without internet access at home.

In the borough of Queens, which has a large South Asian population, a library in Jamaica offers sewing classes in Bengali for Bangladeshi women, some of whom now earn a living as seamstresses.

Across America, public libraries are redefining their mission at a time when access to technology, and the ability to use it, is said to deepen class stratification, leaving many poor and disadvantaged communities behind. Sari Feldman, president of the American Library Association, said that library workers had shown people how to file online for welfare benefits and taught classes in science, technology, engineering and math to children who could not afford to go to summer camps.

"All libraries are having a renaissance," Ms. Feldman said. "We're seeing that libraries have really stepped up to take on roles that are needed in a community."

New York City's 217 public libraries have rebounded in the past two years amid an infusion of city dollars, after years of budget and service cuts. An outpouring of support from library lovers has served as a reminder that the institutions are a crucial part of many lives.

A recent contest to recognize neighborhood libraries in New York underscored their vitality: 18,766 online and paper nominations were submitted in one month, up from about 4,300 when the yearly competition was started in 2013. Nearly every library was nominated at least once. Some received hundreds of nods.

In the past two years, more than 250,000 people, including the author Judy Blume and the musician Patti Smith, have signed on to a letter campaign in support of the New York libraries.

In the 2016 fiscal year, the libraries received $360 million for operating costs, $33 million more than the year before -- the largest increase in recent times. …

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