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

This post is the second part of a piece on the nonformal education work at The New York Public Library. In the first post, we reported on NYPL president Tony Marx’s work in implementing new educational programs.

Some Things Don’t Change

Since Tony Marx’s arrival in 2011, NYPL has undergone dramatic changes, particularly in its educational programming. Despite these changes, the Library’s work continues a long tradition embedded in its founding. “We’ve always been there, helping kids read, before they start school, once they’re in school,” Marx says. The Library has always been a place to explore learning as a lifelong pursuit. From its founding, Marx suggests that since its inception, learning has always been foundational to NYPL’s identity. Combining these goals and the Library’s already-present infrastructure, NYPL has been able to dramatically increase its presence in the nonformal education sector in the city. In this way, the library is the same place it has always been. It sits outside of schools, but it is a recognizable place of learning. If anything, these programs act to solidify NYPL’s mission.

In fact, the library has committed almost a billion dollars to improving its branches. Specifically, they are focusing on improving branches in outer boroughs, helping to work toward all New Yorkers having a civic space that could act as a learning center for the community.

A Unique Place In the Landscape

Though the Library aims to continue this mission, it is undeniably changing in more radical ways than it had in its first 100 years. As the library shifted from a passive to a more proactive role in nonformal education in OST spaces, the question was not only what to do or how to do it. Marx joined the NYPL at a moment when people questioned the very role of a Library in a city. At this time, Marx saw an almost-unique opportunity built into what many viewed as an existential threat to the Library. Large scale institutions with an established legacy almost never innovate at scale. Yet, when Marx took over as president of the NYPL, he recognized an opening.

NYPL is equipped with the resources of buildings and is known as a learning institution. It also sits outside the standard educational bureaucracy. Marx suggests that in the library there are “no judgements, no exams, no expectations other than we want to help.” Without the common constraints and regulations of other educational institutions, NYPL found the freedom to pursue the programs they have developed in the last decade. Of course, this freedom also comes with risks. The Library may not be beholden to much other than its patrons’ interests and needs, but many of these programs rely on funding sources such as grants or gifts rather than the more permanent, sustainable structure of public funding.  The Library may be less vulnerable to political shifts, but it is still exploring how to continue innovating without losing its position.

Marx offers a detailed story that illustrates this point:

 Two to three million New Yorkers live in the digital dark. They don’t have broadband at home. I discovered this for myself by meeting this kid. I’m leaving a branch in the Bronx, it’s after hours, a beautiful evening. There’s a kid sitting on the stoop and he has an ancient laptop and I say “what are you doing?” And he says “my math homework. It’s online, it’s assigned.” I say, “that’s great. Why are you sitting here?” He tells me it’s because he can’t afford broadband at home. “So,” the kid says, “I sit here after the library kicks me out and get bleed through the door.” I thought “oh my god, he’s trying to do his math homework. We want him to do his math homework. That’s crazy”. So, I come back [to the office]. I discover that there are millions of people in his situation, which is shocking to me. Maybe it’s shocking that I was shocked. And then I think, ok, let’s do something. We’re going to lend people broadband at home. We can play, at scale. So we raised millions of dollars from Google. We started lending to 10,000 families at a time Wi-Fi hotspots that they could take home for a year. Then, we said, ok, so this depends on soft money. At the time, with the Obama administration, we had the FCC interested in what we were doing. It was a national problem. But of course, things changed…

Additionally, the library may largely operate free of restraints, but it is not an island. The NYPL seeks connections with other institutional bodies in the city. Notably, Marx comments on how strange it seemed that when he arrived the largest library system and the largest school system did not often talk. He began meeting regularly with Chancellors of schools to explore how to increase learning. More, connections and this work in general helps reach more New Yorkers and directly responds to some of the systemic inequities youth encounter in the education system and beyond. For instance, as Marx sought funds to continue the broadband program, he found that in 2017, there was still a federal program offering broadband to kids who qualify for a free or reduced lunch. The Chancellor at the time told him that they could not do the program. The problem here was that the government would pay for the subscription, but they would not pay for the “little $50 box that makes it work,” as Marx puts it. Once more, the relative autonomy of the Library allowed them to pay for the devices and allowed the DOE to take advantage of the free subscriptions. The connection allowed the library to uncover a more sustainable model and provided a way for both the DOE and the NYPL to better serve New York City children.

The Library clearly fills a gap between school and OST education. Conversely, as many of these programs suggest, the Library is also pushing at the bounds of what nonformal learning can be at a large, institutional scale. As Marx and others in the Library continue searching, they aim to find new programs, new ways of connecting, and reach more families throughout New York City.

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