A program in March at the Queens Library at Flushing over kids aged 6 to 12 the chance to help tell the story of Wali Dad, then make craft inspired by Islamic art.

Photo by: Adi Talwar

A program in March at the Queens Library at Flushing over kids aged 6 to 12 the chance to help tell the story of Wali Dad, then make craft inspired by Islamic art.

Kerwin Pilgrim recalls the days a decade ago, when, as a recent library school graduate, he waited on patrons at the New Lots branch in East New York, Brooklyn.

“I’m there ready to do my best reference work,” he remembers. “Are they going to come in and research the Great Depression, or other topics? No. Every other question at the desk is, ‘Hey, can you help me find a job?’”

Now, as director of Adult Learning for the Brooklyn Public Library, Pilgrim oversees a range of programs and services designed to address those questions. Adult Learning Centers at five locations offer users job-search and employment-related assistance, from basic literacy, English, and computer classes to job training workshops and support for developing small businesses. Passionate as he describes efforts to re-imagine the library’s potential, Pilgrim says he is simply a “mouthpiece” for users “who demand more from public libraries.”

“What they are really looking for at the local level is things to help them move their lives forward,” he says. “There’s a new focus on…the library as an institution that will help you progress.”

The city’s libraries have embraced new roles as community hubs, partners in education and lifelong learning, drivers of workforce development, even economic and cultural engines, providing vital services to tens of thousands of schoolchildren, job-seekers, immigrants, and older adults, officials with the city’s three public library systems say. Evidence of this orientation is on display every week in the growing number of classes, workshops, programs and services offered at the branches – more than 2,600 per week, or over 137,000, in the last fiscal year citywide.

Programming has expanded despite a half-decade of cuts in city library spending. The 2008 recession prompted heavy demand for programs and services, and many programs are funded by grants from private foundations, non-profits, and city, state or federal agencies. The rising demand has required branches to reshuffle and manage coveted space to accommodate multiple uses and clientele. And while the ebb and flow of outside contributions allows for innovation in programming, unsteady funding comes with a cost for patrons and staff when money for popular programs dries up. Unique relationships with donors also make for disparities in programming among the three systems, as the recent arrival of a $15 million gift to the New York Public Library and the loss of a Brooklyn Public Library grant demonstrate.

Meeting needs they see

There’s hope that programming for all three systems will continue to expand. The city’s FY’15 preliminary budget provides baseline funding for the libraries at last year’s levels (still much less than peak funding in 2008), but a push is on from the City Council and library officials to increase that by $65 million to enable six-day a week service at every branch. More hours mean more time, space and staff for programs and services.

Most programs are developed and led by librarians in the branches in response to perceived need or patron requests. Some exist in partnership with outside groups, while others are centrally planned through multi-level initiatives with their own infrastructure and staff to serve different demographics within the libraries’ overall constituencies, says Bridget Quinn-Carey, who oversees programming as chief operating officer of the Queens Public Library. With rare exceptions, all programs are free and open to the public.

“It’s a level playing field for everyone in the community,” Quinn-Carey says.

Libraries create programming with a wide range of groups in mind. In a given week, a visitor to the city’s libraries could, just for starters, get a blood glucose screening, attend a pre-GED class, learn to knit, apply for food stamps, build Lego robots, get information on how to cope after Sandy, take an Arabic calligraphy workshop, practice English conversation skills, train to be a home health aide, dance ballet, get homework help from a paid tutor, workshop a short story, conduct a mock job interview, create a hydroponic “window farm”, consult with an elder law attorney, listen to rhymes at infant story time, seek help from a case manager for domestic violence, and get assistance with email basics like how to send attachments.

While programs like yoga or movie screenings might not always seem directly linked to literacy, they do get patrons in the door, which can prompt them to check out materials or use other services, says Judy Zuckerman, Brooklyn Public Library’s Director of Youth and Family Services, “It’s all part of education and bringing people together.”

Libraries are also offering more in-depth programming, adding multi-week workshops to their slate of one-time sessions. They run summer camps and SAT prep classes, staff social workers to aide new immigrants, and loan books to people in jail and in nursing homes. In September, a handful of branches in Queens could become city pre-Kindergarten sites, although those applications are pending.

“We’ve got all sorts of things you wouldn’t expect,” says Quinn-Carey. “We’re an organization that likes to say ‘Yes.’”

“We don’t do it in a vacuum,” she adds. These programs “come about because we really believe the role of the library in the community is to be responsive to the community.”

Driven by funding

The city’s three public library systems – New York Public Library, which serves the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island, the Brooklyn Public Library, and the Queens Public Library – together increased the number of program sessions they held between FY’09 and FY’13 by 19 percent, and saw attendance at programs rise by 13 percent during that period. All three library systems received grants from federal stimulus funding that greatly expanded workplace readiness programming. But different funding streams meant that NYPL increased its programming in much greater numbers, while Brooklyn experienced a decline in sessions and attendance during this period.

Attendance at NYPL programs rose 43 percent as the number of sessions grew by 37 percent, according to data from the Mayor’s Management Report. Much of that growth occurred in the last two years, coinciding with a new emphasis on free educational programs by Anthony Marx, who was appointed president and CEO of the library in 2011. In the last 18 months, Marx has helped to raise some $35 million for “out of school time” programs, expansion of the library’s adult learning centers, and adult literacy training, according to library spokesman Ken Weine. Pilot programs in 15 branches offering students services like daily homework help began in September.

Programming also expanded in the Queens system, where the number of sessions grew by 26 percent and attendance was up 11 percent from FY’09 to FY’13.

“It picked up during the recession because there was a need for more programs” in public health and job training, “so we scheduled more of them,” says Queens spokeswoman Joanne King.
Though city spending cuts meant the library stopped hiring new staff and reduced book acquisitions, “an awful lot of the programming that we do is really cost-negligible,” she says.

In Brooklyn, however, program sessions dropped by 12 percent and attendance by 9 percent during the same five years. Although city budget cuts prompted decreases in staffing levels and hours of operation which contributed to that decline, the biggest drop-off in both sessions held and attendance occurred in 2012, when the $350,000 annual grant for the library’s popular Reading Is Fundamental (RIF) program ended after 30 years, says Judy Zuckerman, BPL’s Director of Youth and Family Services.

Branch librarians attempted to replace the program, which was held once a week at every branch, with similar sessions, but they could not replicate its big draw – free books children could choose themselves and keep. Attendance fell by 20 percent that year. (The program still operates with library funding in some branches.)

Branches typically do not have funds set aside for programming – activities like story-time or a computer class are simply part of regular staff time, so determining what the libraries spend on programming is complicated. King says that in FY’13, Queens Public Library spent $490,000 on contracted program presenters,” such as “speakers, children’s magicians, flamenco dancers and the like.” That figure does not include regular staff hours or grant-funded spending, which for example supports teachers in the library’s English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) programs, nor does it include “some very expensive programming” such as partnerships with the Queens Symphony or Workforce1 “where the partner organization pays all the expenses and it never touches our accounting system at all,” King adds.

Zuckerman says after a nearly six-year hiring freeze, Brooklyn Public Library recently hired six youth services librarians and is in the process of hiring seven more.

“I am happy to say that the budget outlook for the immediate future looks good, so we expect that program sessions and attendance will begin to increase.”

Outside money can be volatile

Outside groups are eager to partner with the libraries, recognizing their role as a community centers and their reach to diverse demographics. The city-backed Workforce1 “realized job-seekers are in the library all the time,” Pilgrim says. BRIC, an arts and community media non-profit based in downtown Brooklyn, wanted to “extend our reach deeper into Brooklyn” when it began offering video production and other media education courses at several branches last year. But there are pros and cons to the constant ebb and flow of outside funding.

Grants allow the library to pilot new programs: in 2007 BPL got a two-year grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to launch the Skills Training Employment Program (STEP), which trains librarians and staff to provide one-on-one help to members of the public . The 30 to 45 minute sessions in a private room allow patrons to speak freely about issues they might not want to discuss with a line of people behind them at a reference desk, such as how to address an incarceration record on a resume, Pilgrim says.

“The idea is to help understand the person and the barriers they face, and provide an action plan for next steps,” he says. At first, full-time staff members were paid through the grant, but after it ended, the library used its own operating budget to train some 50 librarians who asked to be able to provide the service.

“We get grant funds to try something and then we try to sustain it ourselves,” Pilgrim says.

But sometimes the end of a grant can leave a big hole, as with Reading Is Fundamental.
“People cried over the loss of that program,” Zuckerman says.

The dozen or so members of a writer’s group for older adults at Brooklyn’s Kings Highway branch continue to meet each week, even though the grant that paid its facilitator ended in 2012. The group is open to newcomers; one stopped by but did not return, which members attribute to the lack of a formal leader. The library expects a new grant to restart that program within the year, says Judy Kamilhor, BPL’s coordinator of older adult services.

Quinn-Carey of Queens says the fluctuations require flexibility. As city and state funding for the Ravenswood family literacy center dried up and staff left over time, the library began using elements of the literacy program in a new afterschool program, and maintains adult and family ESOL classes there, she says. “You have to make adjustments but still be serving the community and bringing them services they are using.” The library now hopes to get approval for a pre-kindergarten program at the site.

“We aren’t looking to replace schools, but with UPK space is a challenge,” Quinn-Carey says—a challenge for the city that she thinks the library can help solve. “It’s an expansion of our services but it’s right in line with what we do already.”

Life in the branches

“How many cookies did you take?” Far Rockaway librarian Sharon Anderson asks a girl whose palm holds a stack from her wrist to her fingertips. (“We’re like everybody’s mother,” Anderson says as an aside, noting that the girl visits the library daily.) Anderson urges a fellow staffer to usher kids away from the table where the cookies are “so the adults can get there,” and then starts calling incoming visitors over to speak with Captain Paul Valerga, executive officer of the nearby 101st precinct, who is seated at the table for a two-hour session entitled “Coffee with a Cop.”

Just a month old, the weekly meeting, which is also held at the nearby Arverne branch, is among QPL’s newest programs, like many done in partnership and at little cost. Anderson, who sits on the precinct’s community council, says the precinct’s Community Affairs Officer Kevin Campbell approached her with his idea for a program to “build better relationships between local police and the community,” which Anderson says are “very bad.” Officers of different ranks come each week to answer questions, listen and sign people up for email notifications or ride-alongs with on-duty police.

One of the patrons to speak with Valerga was Alexis Smallwood, who headed straight for the library after witnessing a police officer ticket yet another dollar-van driver outside. “I’m here to have coffee with a cop,” she said. “Why do you guys keep ticketing?” she asked the captain, voicing her frustration with the crackdown on what is to her an essential – if often unlicensed – mode of transportation. Valerga said he planned to meet with the head of the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission to attempt to work out a compromise that would recognize the need the vans meet but also protect riders from uninsured drivers. Smallwood said she hoped van drivers would be part of any talks.

“This is a good way to get the pulse of the community,” says Valerga. “In my job we unfortunately see one side of the public…Here it’s a non-adversarial environment.”

The same day at the Far Rockaway branch a trio of young singers in plaid flannel shirts and tight jeans gave a short concert in the children’s room. Two outside partners were also busy providing services: Workforce1, a city-funded job placement service, and Single Stop, which offers free case management services and provides information on programs, benefits, and social services people may be eligible for; it is backed by the anti-poverty non-profit the Robin Hood Foundation. On other days, a sewing group meets to use a donated sewing machine; one member sewed her wedding dress there, Anderson says. The branch holds computer classes and book discussions – a recent one concerned a book about rival gangs in the Rockaways by local author Jaqueline Pitts. In the summer, the branch provides free meals to minors through a city lunch program.

“We’ve got big shoulders,” Anderson says. “It’s never too much.”

Space challenges

One of the biggest challenges expanded programming presents is finding the space to accommodate it, librarians and others say. At the Far Rockaway branch, some bookshelves were cleared in a corner of the main room for the Workforce1 office, and a section of the staff room there was partitioned off to make an office for the Single Stop case-management services. More space is available at many branches because books now arrive at branches labeled and ready for the shelves, not in need of back-room processing as they once were, and libraries no longer carry encyclopedia volumes and thick dictionaries in multiples, says Anne Coriston, NYPL’s Vice President for Public Services, who oversees programming at the branches. Before embarking on new school-age programming, NYPL did a space analysis to determine when and for what community rooms were being used.

Still, says Steven Lamonea, a children’s librarian at Brooklyn’s Kings Highway, “there’s a lot of jockeying for space,” especially since that branch made room for a U.S. Passport office last year and is host to the BRIC media programs. As the deadline to enroll in health insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act approached last month, a line of people with appointments waited for in-person enrollment assistance with a state health department Navigator, whose table and laptop were set up beside the doors to the branch’s main room, a few feet from the DVD collection and the always-occupied computer terminals.

“We do not have enough space for all the demands, because the public likes to do things here and we do accommodate them,” says Kings Highway library manager Shirley Hall. Occasionally programs don’t fit well at a particular branch, as when a one-time Zumba fitness session was held in the room adjacent to the library’s quiet reading space. “We couldn’t really have that going on right next door,” Hall says. “Just for peace, it was really distracting.”

Going deeper

Libraries are adding depth to the varied programming. Goodbye, glitter and glue; BPL now calls arts and crafts “Explore and Create,” which “sounds less passive and allows us to do more STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) activities,” says Zuckerman.

Children’s librarian Lamonea says story times are beefed up with practices supported by early child development research and instruction for parents. He teaches the importance of unstructured play, and how playing with blocks builds pre-literacy skills (“essentially letters are shapes.”) In a nod to early science learning, he includes a non-fiction picture book on butterflies after reading “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” In-depth programming at BPL also includes “Today’s Teens, Tomorrow’s Techies,” in which teenagers learn new computer skills at a two-week summer institute, then help patrons and staff with computers as library volunteers. After six months, participants can earn a stipend.

Along with drop-in programs, NYPL now offers extended workshops, says Maggie Jacobs, Director of Educational Programs. “We bring kids back six or eight times to make it more educational.” Last fall, NYPL began piloting four year-round “out of school time” programs; this year 2,000 kids at 15 branches will participate. One pilot offers grade-schoolers small-group homework tutoring. Another trains high school students in danger of not graduating in “the habits of successful readers,” then pays them to tutor first and second graders in reading. A third teaches students how to do research and create digital work like podcasts. The most intensive is “BridgeUP,” funded by a $15 million gift from the Helen Gurley Brown Trust, which provides five years of year-round “massive academic intervention” and social support to help a group of eighth graders get to college. Coriston says, “We thought, hey, we have community rooms—what more could we do in those spaces to offer more to kids?”

At the Queens system’s Teen Library in Far Rockaway, daily programs are part of the draw, says Andera “Amy” Morales, 18, who calls the library “my sanctuary from the streets.” “I like all the events,” she says, from recent college information sessions to a dentist who discussed oral care.

Judy Kamilhor, BPL’s Coordinator of Older Adult Services, says creative programs for older adults, like a six-week storytelling class by the public radio program The Moth, are “where community is really formed.”

At a recent meeting of the Kings Highway writer’s group, Esther Poretsky, whose husband of 43 years died in December, read a passage about discovering he’d invested in dozens of stocks, not modest mutual funds as she’d assumed. She was shocked she hadn’t known and overwhelmed at the prospect of dealing with them.

“It came across as a very, kind of, loving thing,” member Sarah Stark commented.

“Oh yes, it was,” Poretsky responded, teary. “I feel he’s looking down on me.”

Older adults comprise 35 to 50 percent of daytime computer classes, Kamilhor says. One 70-something student learned how to Skype with her sisters in Israel and later used Skype to be present for her sister’s funeral.

“These are life-enhancing services,” Kamilhor says.

This story continues an ongoing project looking at the potential for New York’s libraries to fill a critical gap in our civic infrastructure, as well as the challenges and difficult choices the library systems face. It is supported by the Charles H. Revson Foundation.