Kids at the library (photo: John McCarten/City Council)
On Monday, the City Council’s Committee on Cultural Affairs and Libraries convened to hear updates from the city’s three library systems regarding their programming and COVID-19 recovery.
According to the committee’s report, Monday marked the second hearing on libraries since they reopened in July of this year after COVID-19 suspended in-person operations for 15 months. The three systems are Brooklyn Public Library, Queens Public Library, and the New York Public Library system, which includes Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island.
New York Public Library’s Brian Bannon was quoted in the committee report saying “public libraries during times of crisis are the first to raise their hands and find ways to help, so the closing of our physical doors caused us to be more creative and open our doors virtually.” The Presidents and CEOs of the three systems — Linda Johnson of Brooklyn, Anthony Marx of New York Public Library, and Dennis Walcott of Queens Library — testified about exactly how they’ve done that and detailed the work that remains to be done. The hearing was chaired by Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, a Queens Democrat.
“In the wake of the pandemic, Brooklyn Public Library is especially focused on ensuring our city rebuilds a more equitable economy,” Johnson said. “Even if we all manage to vaccinate every last eligible New Yorker, we know our city still faces unprecedented challenges: learning loss, high unemployment, and extreme economic inequity, the effects of social isolation and trauma. But libraries are not powerless in the face of these challenges. We have long known how to support students and job seekers, how to create more equitable and more cohesive communities. With the renewed support of this committee and the incoming City Council and [mayoral] administration, we know that public libraries can help our city rebuild. No other institution interacts with every neighbrohood on a human scale.”
Johnson and the other library leaders explained how their programming has shifted in response to the pandemic and what interventions they are able to implement to create a more equitable New York. She mentioned some library services that get at the heart of inequity.
In her testimony, Johnson said that BPL’s renovated Business and Career Center is offering small businesses finance and marketing workshops and providing seed money to budding entrepreneurs. BPL has also initiated the “Pathways to Leadership” scholarship program to help a more diverse generation of librarians enroll in master’s programs in library science, a field Johnson said had “long been dominated by white women.” The BPL has also partnered with No One Left Offline and Devices for Students to help low-income Brooklynites get access to hotspots so that they could continue adult education programming remotely.
“Nobody should be barred from improving their reading skills because they cannot afford broadband,” Johnson said.
In arguably the biggest change to come from the pandemic, all three library systems have permanently eliminated late fees. Across the board, patrons will only be charged for lost materials and those fines will be removed once the materials are returned.
“No one will be prevented from using their library because of unpaid late fees,” Johnson added.
Johnson said that the ways libraries serve New Yorkers has “changed dramatically” during the pandemic. Despite those changes, each library network boasted high engagement statistics.
Marx of NYPL reported that his system lent 10 million ebooks. Walcott of Queens said 1.4 million ebooks were loaned out in that borough between July 2020 and June 2021, a 68% increase compared to that timeframe one year prior. Johnson said that since BPL reopened, her system welcomed 900,000 in-person visitors to date.
Marx particularly wanted to celebrate NYPL’s performance on the digital front. “We are also running a digital library,” Marx said. “In many ways not just for New York but for the world. Because New York is the leader of the world, we should, we must.”
While each library system’s engagement with patrons is high, Marx expressed concern that residents of lower-income areas are not accessing books at the same rate as those in middle- and upper-income neighborhoods. He said that eliminating late fines was a “pretty clear statement” of NYPL’s commitment to invest more in communities in need, but that that’s just part of what the library needs to do to encourage people to use the library.
Wolcott celebrated how his network’s digital pandemic programming has “outpaced” in-person programming. The Queens Library hosted a 24-hour Black Health and Healing Virtual Summit in February, he noted, and said over 7,000 people attended the event in real time. Wolcott added that he was one of the viewers who tuned in at 3 a.m., aptly watching the session on insomnia. He said that “the beauty of the summit” was that it reached so far beyond Queens, with some attendees coming from South Africa.
Monday’s hearing was also a farewell of sorts, with Van Bramer chairing his 125th and final hearing of the committee he has chaired for his 12 years in the Council. Term-limited from seeking another term in this year’s elections, Van Bramer, who represents District 26 in Queens, is leaving the Council at the end of the year.
Van Bramer worked at Queens Public Library for 11 years before his time in the Council, and his love for libraries was given much appreciated by those who testified.
“We are grateful for your unmatched library enthusiasm,” Johnson said. “That’s not hyperbole, I’m sure it’s unmatched.”
Committee members including City Council Members Laurie Cumbo, James Gennaro, Mark Gjonaj, and Francisco Moya did not attend the hearing. Another committee member, City Council Member Darma Diaz, did attend and thanked Van Bramer and the library CEOs for their service.