The Same New Things From The New York Public Library (Part 1 of 2)

In this post, part of our series looking at educational change in nonformal settings, we speak with Anthony W. Marx, President and CEO of The New York Public Library. In previous posts, we’ve written about the Beam Center and CS for All.

 When Tony Marx traveled to The New York Public Library (NYPL) as a child, he found everything he could possibly imagine. The Library housed books, news, and all the information a future academic could desire. These days, Marx,  NYPL’s President and CEO, notes that almost every person walking around the city carries a library in their pocket. It would seem that in a world of smart phones, some might contend that brick and mortar libraries serve little purpose. Yet, Marx sees the rise of the internet and increased access to information as a unique opportunity for the NYPL. More than ever, he suggests, libraries can be active sites of learning.

Of course, NYPL has long been an institution devoted to education. From the time Andrew Carnegie’s donations helped build branches in communities throughout the city and across the U.S.,  NYPL has always been rooted in education. The Library welcomed kids learning to read and encouraging lifelong learning of New York City’s residents. Since Marx’s arrival in 2011, however, the library has undergone drastic changes in the shape and scope of their educational programming. In the last decade, the NYPL and its 88 branches scattered across the city have more actively focused their offerings to meet community needs and respond to the changing role of libraries. During this time, the NYPL as an organization has leveraged its status as a stalwart institution and its relative autonomy to greatly expand its role in the city’s educational landscape. Throughout these many changes, the Library has maintained its long history of providing space and learning opportunities for New York City residents.

“It’s Right There In The Name” 

Entwined with the notion that the Library has always been a place of and for education, it is also a place for the public. In Marx’s words, “We’ll take anyone who walks through our doors, without exams, without judgments.” As long as the Library is open, anyone that wants to can pass through its doors. For decades, this publicness allowed library branches to act as kind of educational safe haven. They could offer homework help after school or an air-conditioned space during summer breaks. At the same time though, the library largely played a passive role in education. While local branches did offer small classes or adult education programs, these were scarce and informally organized. Now there are 2 million visits to formal programs.

In a similar vein, the Library’s ongoing commitment to the public means that it is open, democratically available, but optional. “If we don’t offer what people want, they won’t come,” Marx suggests, “but they are coming in record numbers.” At the start of the 21st century, with the Library’s offerings increasingly accessible simply by logging onto a computer, what people used to have to do by traveling to the Library, they could suddenly accomplish in the comfort of their own home. One might think that in modern times, the library as a public site had become obsolete. NYPL certainly had to wrestle with the question of how to best serve New Yorkers and entice them to come to the Library. But, Marx and his colleagues never saw these issues as problems.

Among many other initiatives, upon Marx’s arrival, the library began new, targeted educational programming. Where in previous decades the library had been more of an implicit educational site with a hodgepodge of offerings, they took on a more active role in New York City’s educational landscape. This expansion began in earnest in 2013, when Maggie Jacobs joined the library as the Director of Educational Programs. Surveying different neighborhoods to understand needs and opportunities in local branches, the library began developing new “Outside of School Time” models for New York City’s youth. Though still evolving, the library now operates several main educational endeavors.

One such program provides homework help in several local branches for 1st through 8th grade students. Library visitors still identified help with schoolwork as a service they most wanted from the library. With a staff of tutors, this program supports diverse groups of students in structured learning time. A related program creates a direct link between the NYPL and local high schools. The program offers an apprenticeship, guiding 10th to 12th graders toward becoming reading tutors. During the fall semester, they attend classes and train to become tutors. Classes in this semester also carry credits that the DOE recognizes. In the spring semester, participants work as paid interns, teaching reading to 1st and 2nd grade students. Another program offers a place-based digital curriculum for middle school students. Here, students research different aspects of their community and undertake projects such as

digital photography, podcasting, and neighborhood mapping. Finally, the Library has developed a program from a 15 million dollar “magic grant” from the Helen Gurley Brown Trust to academically support high school students. Students who participate in this program receive academic resources to apply for and succeed in college. Students also design and pursue a passion project and are able to receive grants for participating in other enrichment programs.

These programs both filled an educational gap in the nonformal space. Along with more traditional programs such as ESL classes or computer skills classes, the library increased its annual visits almost tenfold (to around two million people a year). Much of this work focuses on working with youth in underserved communities. To help make these programs a reality, the Library both increased direct partnerships with the DOE and others

Next week, we will share the 2nd part of this post.


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