Role of New York Public Libraries Grows, yet Remains Undervalued, Report Finds

Even as New York City's public libraries have emerged as a key component of the city's human capital system, government support for the system has eroded and investment in digital technology is sorely lacking, a report from the Center for an Urban Future finds.

The report, Branches of Opportunity (52 pages, PDF), found that between 2002 and 2011 the city's three public library systems — Brooklyn, Queens, and New York (which encompasses branches in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island) — saw a circulation increase of 59 percent and a 40 percent rise in program attendance, with notable spikes in high-poverty areas, even as city funding fell some 8 percent. In 2011, the two hundred and six branches in the three systems served more than forty million visitors, playing a critical role in helping adults upgrade their skills and find jobs, immigrants assimilate, and children strengthen their reading skills. The report also noted that the city's public libraries are a critical technology resource for those without a computer or an Internet connection at home.

Despite the growing demand for library services among seniors, job seekers, students, immigrants, and entrepreneurs, the library systems remain undervalued by policy makers, social service leaders, and city officials, the report notes, and the library systems themselves have only begun to make the investments needed for them to remain relevant in the digital age. Since 2008, city funding for NYPL has been cut some $28 million, while funding for the Brooklyn and Queens systems has been cut by $18.1 million and $17.5 million, respectively. In comparison with public library systems in Columbus, San Antonio, Jacksonville, and other metropolitan areas, the report notes, the New York City systems lag in terms of average hours of operation, and they trail San Francisco, Seattle, Columbus, and other cities in local government support per capita.

Funded by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, the report calls for setting and increasing baseline library budgets in the city's financial plan; providing funding to allow libraries to extend their hours; encouraging partnerships with city agencies, nonprofits, and for-profits; facilitating capital investments; and developing workshare and incubator spaces at branches throughout the city.

"Branches of Opportunity." Center for an Urban Future Report 01/08/2013.