Stereotypical library patrons range from fidgety schoolchildren to bookworms to seniors looking for a leisurely jaunt mixed with peace and quiet. But a new report shows the city’s libraries are being heavily used by a surprising constituency: immigrants seeking to bone up on the essential skills needed to survive in a knowledge-based economy.
The report by the Center for an Urban Future, titled “Branches of Opportunity,” showed the city’s three public library systems had a 40 percent increase in attendance at programs held within branches, as well as a 59 percent increase in circulation.
Queens residents are a particularly bookish bunch, according to report, with the borough having the highest circulation in the city.
“New York’s public libraries are the most under-appreciated part of the city’s human capital system,” said Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, in a release. “No other institution reaches as many people in as many ways, from immigrants and seniors to teenagers and those who are the wrong side of the digital divide. They have become the second chance human capital institution.”
The report comes at a time when funding for libraries is a contentious issue, with monies being cut 8 percent over the last decade and leading to some of the lowest hours of operation, averaging 43 a week. The budgetary scalpel is out, and politicos like Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) have been trying to keep the Queens Library from experiencing deep cuts.
The councilman has suggested creating a baseline for library funding to ensure the fight for money does not become an annual event.
“We have to have the will to say this will be in the budget and not go below that, because these services are too important,” he said.
According to the report, the Queens Library enjoys a significantly greater largesse than its smaller siblings in Manhattan and Brooklyn (the Queens Library is one of the largest systems in the world). From 2003 to 2012, it has received $68.79 per capita in funding, ahead of the New York Public Library’s $62.41 and $40.50 in Brooklyn.
“Queens Library enriches the lives of 45,000 people every day,” said President and CEO Thomas Galante. “In a world in which information is power, we provide people with the tools and assistance they need to succeed, and access to the technology that makes it all possible. The value of the services Queens Library provides is incalculable.”
But the budgetary ax for 2013 is unforgiving, with over $100 million in proposed cuts slated, according to Van Bramer, with much the same anticipated for 2014.
“If we keep up at this rate of cuts being proposed, we’ll never be able to fund libraries adequately, and the solution is simple — to baseline library funding, making sure that it doesn’t fall below what we all think is an adequate level of funding,” he said, adding cuts for consulting work could make room for library spending.
The Flushing Library is far and away the city’s busiest. Saddled in a largely Chinese and Korean community, its circulation ranks top in the city, but also top five in the nation. Five of the city’s 10 largest libraries by circulation are in our borough, with the Flushing Library leading the pack with over 3 million. Six of the 10 branches are in high-immigrant neighborhoods, including Elmhurst and Fresh Meadows.
The report also lauds the Queens Library’s “huge repertoire of immigrant programs and resources,” which “stands out and may well be unequaled anywhere in the world.” The system’s focus on immigrants is so key, it even has its own demographer who coordinates resources for even small immigrant groups in the borough. As a policy, the library accumulates a collection for any language that has over 3,000 speakers in Queens. The numbers pile up in a county with over 190 languages, and explain why uncommon Nepali books line some shelves.
Despite growing demand from immigrant groups, lackluster funding means some programs at libraries fall short, especially in educational fields such as English as a Second Language, GED prep and other services. The results can even be felt in the busy Flushing Library, where the demand for ESOL classes is so high, long waiting lists mean only 20 percent of applicants actually get a spot.
The money to fulfill the potential of the libraries must be found, and soon, according to Van Bramer.
“I think that would allow us to fully fund what is an essential and critical service that no democracy, that no civilized society would ever turn its back on and go without — and that is the neighborhood public library.”