Report from Center for an Urban Future Defines Opportunity for New York City’s Library Systems


Even as New York City's public library systems continue to face an increase in demand for resources and programs, funding from the city continues to decline. A recent report from the Center for an Urban Future demonstrates that funding from the City of New York has dropped by 8% overall, a total of $68,000,000, while circulation has increased by 59% over the last decade.

Funded by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Branches of Opportunity illustrates that New York City's public libraries are falling behind peers in urban areas in open hours. Libraries across the five boroughs can be visited during an average of 43 hours per week; by comparison, libraries in Columbus, OH keep their doors open for an average of 72.1 hours each week. NYC falls immediately behind Detroit, whose libraries are open for 45.2 hours on average per week.

In spite of these reductions in funding and hours, library systems in Brooklyn, Queens, and the NYPL system ranked 2nd, 5th, and 7th in overall in the number of program sessions per 1,000 residents. Over the past decade, program attendance in the three systems has increased by more than 40%. The number of programs has also increased; by fiscal year 2011, 117,000 different programs were taking place at the city’s 206 branches.

With foot traffic increasing by to 40.5 million visitors per annum, the systems have stretched the cliched “doing more with less” to almost absurd lengths.

In spite of these stats, members of the public continue to regard library services highly. Illustrated by record numbers of patrons visiting the library each year, particularly immigrants, senior citizens, at-risk teens, and job hunters, opportunities abound for the library to prepare for a sustainable future.

The analysis presented in Branches of Opportunity suggests that the library system utilize its position as a trusted resource to foster improvements in spaces both physical and virtual. Creating advantageous relationships with partner organizations, including technology companies like Google and Apple, opens new possibilities for revenue and reallocation of currently shuttered spaces. For instance, libraries could focus on providing courses focused on technical skills to patrons in spaces that are currently closed due to an absence of adequate funding.

The report also recommends reworking libraries as physical spaces designed to allow patrons to settle in to spaces to suit their needs for collaborative workspace or quiet areas for reflection and study. As a bellwether for improvements of this kind, see the Corona Branch: program attendance jumped from 8,262 in 2004 from 22,000 in 2011 after renovations took place, according to the report.

While current political environs have created the depletion of library budgets, Branches of Opportunity presents new ideas for working within the political system. For example, libraries could petition for funding through the Employment Preparation Education fund, for which they are currently excluded. This would help increase their capacity to provide services to immigrant populations.

While the fiscal future of New York City’s public library systems is consistently in question, Branches of Opportunity serves as an important reminder of — and defense for — the critical roles libraries play in community and individual development. Additional coverage of the Branches of Opportunity report is available through the New York Times and New Tech City on WNYC.


Infographic courtesy of Center for an Urban Future.