A July article in the New York Times (Adding Classes and Content, Resurgent Libraries Turn a Whisper Into a Roar) told of the resurgence of libraries in New York City. Many readers might focus on the following paragraph:
In the 2016 fiscal year [New York City] libraries received $360 million for operating costs, $33 million more than the year before — the largest increase in recent times. For the 2017 fiscal year, which began on Friday, city financing for the libraries increased slightly to $365 million. But in a more significant victory, city leaders agreed to preserve past increases in future budgets, the difference, say, between getting a one-year bonus or a permanent raise.
But my question was about what magic conjured public officials into approving such a thing, a major turnaround for library funding in the City. Public funding does not happen miraculously. It follows, in large measure, public will. These are the quotes from the article that suggest what’s happening:
- “We’re seeing that libraries have really stepped up to take on roles that are needed in a community.”
- No longer just repositories for books, public libraries have reinvented themselves as one-stop community centers . . . . [They] are reaffirming their role as an essential part of civic life in America by making themselves indispensable to new generations of patrons.
- [They] 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.
- “We are energized and serving the needs of the people who come through our doors.”
The transition from books to information as the core mission was something libraries had to address over the last generation. Today, the relevance transformation expands to provision of services and resources. Nationally, “library workers [are showing] people how to file online for welfare benefits and [they teach] classes in science, technology, engineering and math to children who could not afford to go to summer camps.”
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 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. Libraries in Flushing and South Jamaica teach social media skills to small-business owners.
The result was that over the last two years, through a highly coordinated advocacy program, more than 250,000 people have signed on to a letter campaign in support of the libraries. (Many other elements were included as well.) However, a quarter of a million people do not write letters on a whim. They do so because they have seen that the libraries are vitally important to them.
Public support follows demonstrations of relevance. The advocacy must be intentional but it will not be successful if there is not meat on the bones. As I have said almost ad nauseam, the key to indispensability is being indispensable.