What is a Library?

Quaint vestige of the Gutenberg era, or cutting-edge panacea for social needs? For a broad swath of the neediest New Yorkers, the humble public library is proving its business is about far more than just books.

What is a Library?

“Harlem Shake in a library? Yes!” cries the caption of a YouTube video uploaded this spring by the regulars of the Queens Library for Teens.

The Harlem Shake at the Queens Library for Teens.

While watching dozens of teenagers decked out in parrot masks and Bugs Bunny costumes dancing, jumping and spinning on rolling chairs across the frame, anyone is likely to wonder: This was allowed in a library? And upon entering the space where the clip was filmed, many people do ask: This is a library? Aside from a few small shelves of test-prep materials, this 3,000-square-foot room holds no books.

The teen library sits at the corner of Cornaga Avenue and Beach 20th Street in Far Rockaway. It opened in a former retail space in 2007 to resolve the mounting complaints from patrons at the Far Rockaway library branch a block away, who grumbled that the horde of teens descending on the facility every day after school was just too disruptive. The teen library is open from two-thirty p.m. to six p.m. Monday through Friday and admits only twelve- to nineteen-year-olds—not their younger siblings, and not even their parents.

Kim McNeil Capers, the teen library’s director, laughs when she says, “Kids don’t come in here to find books. They come here to find a girlfriend!” That’s only partially true. Capers is a certified mental health counselor, and before she joined the library she supervised mental health programs for teens and children. Her face straightens when she adds: “When they come in here, we’re going to get them the help they need.”

Kim McNeil Capers, director of the Queens Library for Teens.
Kim McNeil Capers, director of the Queens Library for Teens.

It’s a common refrain among those working in New York’s public libraries these days: Because it’s increasingly difficult to pin down exactly what kind of help they’re supposed to offer, librarians have tried to make their mission pliable, and to offer whatever help people need, in whatever realm it may be. They’re hardly limiting their offerings to intellectual pursuits.

In fact, no librarians work at the teen library—youth counselors run the place. And though it’s devoid of books, the room holds plenty else. After the orange-sherbet walls, the rows of forty computers are likely to be the first thing you notice. On the opposite wall, magazine racks house seventy subscriptions, and interspersed with those are salmon-and-green padded chairs. Upon entering one recent afternoon, a group of about ten boys immediately pulled them into a circle to facilitate their noisy Yu-Gi-Oh! trading card game.

When you get to the back of the room, you’ll come upon the teens’ most prized possession: a $70,000 recording studio, flanked by three editing stations. To one side of that is the gaming lounge, and to the other side a pool table, which will soon shift roles to serve as the foundation for a model town with a working model railroad. When the teens start to stream in, the air swells with friendly yelling, B.O. and the scent of fast food, but they aren’t chided for shouting or snacking. This is a place for hanging out.

Kim McNeil Capers (center), director of the Queens Library for Teens, is a certified mental health counselor.
Kim McNeil Capers (center), director of the Queens Library for Teens, is a certified mental health counselor.

However, what the teen library hopes to offer its young patrons is heftier than that. Far Rockaway struggles with high unemployment and the social issues common to areas with many low-income housing projects—problems that have only been compounded by the neighborhood’s isolated location on a remote barrier beach, not to mention Hurricane Sandy, which came through in 2012.

The teen library’s daily and monthly programs are tailored to this vulnerable population, hosting daily GED prep classes, an annual college fair, health classes, gang awareness programs, a chess club, CPR training, a Regents Exam prep club, a streaming radio station via the recording studio, an annual science fair, and scores of other activities.

The Queens Library for Teens is a reflection of what New York City’s libraries have come to believe about themselves: They are in a position to do more than just connect their patrons to books and content.

What is a library for?

That question has never been as difficult to answer as it is today. Just as the Internet has given way to identity crises within journalism, publishing, and music, movie and television distribution, it has also confused what used to be libraries’ central purpose: providing a singular portal to content for whomever cared to access it. With the World Wide Web blowing in and demanding recognition as the more singular portal to the world’s content, libraries’ painstaking cataloguing of information that is now largely Google-able is looking a bit less critical.

It’s an upheaval that calls for a more existential grappling than can be addressed by digitizing library content or installing rows and rows of new computers. Librarians have had to delve deeper and ask themselves fundamental questions about their role, such as, what can they offer that the Internet can’t?

“Libraries are aggressively moving into a range of services that aren’t necessarily related to book lending,” says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project, a nonprofit research body that has published a series of reports about how technology is changing expectations of library offerings. “They are pretty radically rethinking their mission in the world,” he said.

Major cities like New York may be the most progressive incubators for the trend. Rainie adds, “There’s clearly something special that has happened in urban libraries, where they are thinking very seriously about the new services mix that they should offer to their patrons.”

Library employees from each of New York City’s three systems—New York Public Library (with branches in Manhattan, Staten Island and the Bronx), Queens Borough Public Library, and Brooklyn Public Library—maintain that their institutions are in the midst of a role reappraisal.

“We’re evolving our service model,” says Thomas Galante, president and C.E.O. of the Queens Borough Public Library. He points to shifting budget priorities to illustrate. For example, when the libraries suffered deep funding slashes in the early 1990s and again in 2001, Galante and his colleagues delegated cuts based on where they’d have the least impact on circulation. Library locations with the most in-and-out book traffic stayed open six days a week, while those with more anemic circulations only opened their doors two or three.

Case Manager Yasmin Lopez's office sits behind the stacks at the Far Rockaway library.
Case Manager Yasmin Lopez’s office sits behind the stacks at the Far Rockaway library.

But by the time libraries saw funding pull back again in 2008, priorities had reversed. The system’s directors wanted to ensure that each of its sixty-two branches would open at least five days a week, so the books budget bore the brunt of the cutbacks as it was snipped in half.

“We know there are all sorts of other reasons why people walk through our doors—for programs, for computer access, for a place to get out of the heat,” Galante says. “We thought that was more important than having twice as many new books on the shelves.”

Brooklyn Public Library chief librarian Richard Reyes-Gavilan notes similar changes pervading his system. “I’d love to say we’ve made this conscious decision to sort of reevaluate our role in people’s lives, but really all we’re doing is responding to community needs,” he says. “Our physical spaces are situated across the borough to deliver informal, nontraditional educational experiences, and that’s what we’re really moving into.”

Richard Reyes-Gavilan, chief libarian at the Brooklyn Public Library.
Richard Reyes-Gavilan, chief libarian at the Brooklyn Public Library.

Reyes-Gavilan explains that when making hiring decisions, “we’re not necessarily asking people anymore, ‘Tell us what experience you’ve had with reader advisory or cataloguing.’” Instead, he asserts, the system’s higher-ups are more apt to value experience in education or social services.

All three of New York City’s library systems are in the process of building out new departments and positions that more readily evoke a social worker’s job description than that of a traditional librarian. In September, BPL launched its new Outreach Services Department, which will eventually consist of five full-time staff members tasked with expanding services for immigrants, senior citizens and prison populations. In October, NYPL began hiring for the new role of “intake managers,” library employees who will help patrons sift through the growing number of programs, and who will maintain a hands-on role after doing so, contacting patrons when, for example, they miss classes for which they’ve registered. For its part, the Queens system has six full-time and two part-time case managers—all hired since 2009—who help visitors navigate the murky waters of government programs and services.

In the decade between 2002 and 2011, the number of programs offered across the city’s 206 branches jumped twenty-four percent, and the number of attendees at those programs shot up by forty percent, to 2.3 million, according to a Center for an Urban Future report.

These changes are making for an altogether different library experience. Galante says they have designated quiet rooms recently because “the rest of the library isn’t as quiet.”

“People tend to think of the libraries they grew up in,” he adds. “But those are very different than walking into a public library today.”

Over the past five years, Madlyn Schneider has helped transform Mail-A-Book—a library program based in the Queens Village branch that delivers books and other materials to New Yorkers unable to leave their homes because of age or disability—from a straightforward delivery service into the teleconferenced social life of dozens of Queens’ homebound residents.

Bonnie Sue Pokorny was just looking for something to read when she first contacted Mail-A-Book in the early 1990s. At that time, Pokorny, now sixty-eight, had recently been diagnosed with a rare neurological autoimmune disorder that came on quickly and brought with it frequent bouts of dizziness, fainting and overheating. She had always been active and independent; she’d raised three children by herself, worked full time managing the claims department of an insurance brokerage house in Nassau County, and ran a large late-summer street festival in Queens for thirteen years. But when her illness hit, it cost her almost more effort than she could bear just to sit up. Her doctors told her she’d never work or drive again.

But she had always been an avid reader, and at least that was something she wouldn’t have to relinquish. She learned that Mail-A-Book could help with that, and for the majority of the intervening twenty-three years she’s been bound to her Forest Hills apartment, it has.

But things started to change for Pokorny when Schneider took over Mail-A-Book in 2008. Schneider had previously worked in an administrative role at the library, which required her to spend hours sitting in boardrooms on conference calls and staring at Polycom teleconferencing technology in the center of the room. In her new role, she started to wonder: What else might the library be able to do for the roughly four hundred socially isolated patrons receiving book deliveries from her staff? She applied for a small grant from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation and used it to purchase teleconferencing equipment. The library system agreed to foot the monthly bills for an 800 number.

At first, the Mail-A-Book teleconference chats happened only on Friday mornings, and were strictly book-related. Mail-A-Book users could call the 800 number to chat with other patrons about the books they’d read that week. As demand grew, the library added a Tuesday afternoon session. As New Year’s Eve approached, a woman on one of the calls complained that she dreaded the holiday for how lonely it made her feel—a sentiment shared by many on the call. So Schneider convened a telephonic New Year’s Eve gathering from home that year, and another the next day.

Schneider kept coming up with new possibilities for the library teleconferences: art lectures from docents at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art; collaborating on crossword puzzles via Skype; performances over the phone from musicians and comedians; emailed newsletters with patrons’ own art, poetry, recipes and book reviews; and, eventually, occasional in-person lunches in Queens diners for those Mail-A-Book members who could venture out.

The Far Rockaway library provides visitors with a host of services apart from book lending, including free Internet access.
The Far Rockaway library provides visitors with a host of services apart from book lending, including free Internet access.

Over the past few years, Pokorny’s phone-based social world has ratcheted to a level that might be more normal for a patron of the teen library—her Mail-A-Book commitments generally call for her several times a day. “Before, I was always trying to make sure I had a lot of projects in the house to keep busy, so the four walls weren’t climbing on me,” she says. “Now I don’t have time for my own projects. There’s always something going on.”

Pokorny got something else out of Mail-A-Book she hadn’t expected the program could provide: a new friend. She was introduced to Margo during a Mail-A-Book teleconference, and although they never met in person, the two of them were soon calling each other up three or four times a day. They took online classes together that they’d learned about through Mail-A-Book, and helped one another with the homework. “We had the same sense of humor, the same interests,” Pokorny says. “A lot of our experiences were similar.”

Margo passed away last December at seventy-seven.

“We became very, very close,” Pokorny says. “I had Margo in my life for maybe a year and a half before she died. I consider that year and a half very lucky, because you don’t make friends when you’re homebound. You might have acquaintances, but Margo and I were fast friends.”

Today, Pokorny is more tied up than ever in Mail-A-Book, and at this point, most of the services she receives from the library have little to do with books.

“With all the activities in Mail-A-Book,” she says, “I don’t have time to read.”

The consensus among New York City library employees about what exactly has happened within their institutions over the past decade starts to crumble when they acknowledge that the library is no longer the book-and-reading-centered body it used to be.

What, then, is the library becoming? QPL’s Galante rejects the suggestion that his libraries are becoming indistinguishable from social service agencies.

“People come to the library today to find a new job, learn a skill, take a GED class. These are all things that someone could dub as social services, but they’re not,” Galante says. “A public library today has information to improve people’s lives. We are an enabler; we are a connector. When it comes to social services, a lot of what we do is help people by referring them to places they can go.”

Sandra Michele Echols, interim manager for QPL’s adult literacy program, is of another opinion. She’s in the midst of writing an article about the direction public libraries are headed, and its working title aptly summarizes where she stands: “I Could Tell You Stories: Am I a Librarian or a Social Services Manager?”

Echols joined QPL in 2009 as the system’s first case manager, screening and referring library patrons to nonprofits and government organizations that could help meet their needs. She says the role of a designated case manager had been made necessary by the passage of the E-Government Act of 2002, a federal law that sought to allow citizens access to a wide range of government information and services via the Internet. The act was widely hailed as a boon to the working class, who’d now be less likely to have to miss a day of work for a visit to the DMV. But others, including Echols, complain that an unintended consequence of the act was that it put significant pressure on public libraries—particularly in a place like New York City, where, as a report from Comptroller John Liu’s office noted in April, nearly a quarter of households don’t have a computer.

“Now that the E-Government Act has been passed, it helps the working class do things really easily, but it alienated the poor and furthered the digital divide,” Echols says. “And now, social service agencies are telling individuals, ‘Go to your public library and have them help you print out your child support, or the application for housing.’ So that’s becoming a real specialty for librarians.”

Far Rockaway library volunteer Lawrence McBride sets up a game of oragami chess.
Far Rockaway library volunteer Lawrence McBride sets up a game of oragami chess.

The Far Rockaway branch brought in a case manager who set up her own office in the library building in early November. Sharon Anderson, the branch manager since 2008, says she had become so overwhelmed with requests for help filling out government forms, assisting with job applications, calling battered women’s shelters, and, in one case, finding a rape hotline, that it became necessary to situate a case manager in the building.

Anderson’s branch doesn’t exactly greet its visitors with the enforced hush most expect of a library, but it doesn’t shriek with chaos, either. The buzz of activity falls somewhere in between—it’s the sound of a space being utilized in layers. Bookshelves line the perimeter of the 6,300-square-foot library, allowing ample room for about twenty computers (all in use on a recent weekday afternoon); a set of gleaming white cubicles that house the Workforce1 Career Center, a job placement service run by the NYC Department of Small Business Services; a kiosk with information about the branch’s new Google Tablet lending program; and several tables where dozens of students cluster each afternoon for an after-school tutoring program funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative.

“People walk in here and say, ‘This isn’t a library anymore!’ Well, you know what’s funny?” Anderson says, pausing to laugh. “It’s really not!”

She says that sometimes people complain about the level of activity in the building, but she hasn’t been surprised to discover that much of her job description requires her to raise her voice above a whisper.

When Anderson earned her master’s degree in library science from Queens College in 2004, she presented her thesis on what she saw to be a blurring line between librarians and social workers. “I started to see an evolution where librarians were getting away from sitting at a desk and checking out books,” she says. “I knew I was going to be taking on more of a social services role.”

Listening to music at the DJ station in the Queens Library for Teens.
Listening to music at the DJ station in the Queens Library for Teens.

As we talk, a woman in a red sweater and Iris Apfel glasses approaches Anderson’s desk and, pointing her cane in the direction of the street, complains that she’s been wrongfully stuck with a parking ticket. Anderson listens, then explains how the woman can contest the ticket by mail.

When the woman walks away, Anderson says she believes the changes in her library have been driven by “too many social issues and not enough social agencies,” combined with her institution’s broad mandate and its eagerness to adapt. “Part of our mission is to help people,” she says. “We’re just responding to the environment, and continuing to say, ‘Whatever your needs are, we’ll help you.’”

Of course, changes within libraries aren’t met with blanket acceptance. In a Pew Research Center survey of Americans’ expectations of libraries in the coming years, respondents were generally supportive of new technologies, apps and lending programs, but they weren’t sold on the idea that “libraries should move some printed books and stacks out of public locations to free up space for tech centers, reading rooms, meeting rooms, and cultural events.” Thirty-six percent of respondents said libraries should “definitely not” push books aside for these other types of programs, while thirty-nine percent answered that “maybe” they should. Only twenty percent were “definitely” on board with such changes.

Little surprise, then, that NYPL kicked up such fervent controversy when it announced its plans to renovate its flagship research library, the lion-guarded Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Forty-Second Street. The plans are Pew’s hypothetical made literal: in order to combine services from the Mid-Manhattan Library and the Science, Industry and Business Library into the building, books and other research materials will be shipped to a storage facility in Princeton, N.J., to make way for not only a new circulating library, but additional computers, group work spaces, an expanded children’s room with new programming, and the building’s first-ever teen room.

Ann Marie Warren holds up a certificate she received for completing a computer literacy course at the Queens Library for Teens.
Ann Marie Warren holds up a certificate she received for completing a computer literacy course at the Queens Library for Teens.

“Will Forty-Second Street remain a serene environment for scholars, serious readers, intellectuals and book lovers, or will it be converted into a noisy, tumultuous branch library?” Scott Sherman wondered in The Nation, in one of a series of articles that criticized the renovation plans.

John Lundquist, a former chief librarian of the NYPL’s Asian and Middle Eastern Division, was forced to retire in 2009, a year after the division was closed. Lundquist is concerned about the main branch’s renovation plans, but he stresses that he draws a strong distinction between the mandate of the city’s research libraries and its branch libraries.

“I feel that the branch libraries, and public libraries in general, are totally right to go in directions [in which they assume a] much broader social mandate,” he says. But the changes shouldn’t extend to research libraries, he says. The relocating of research collections to make way for other types of library spaces constitutes, he believes, “the tragedy of the dumbing-down of the research collections of NYPL.”

It’s the Monday evening before Thanksgiving, and the Far Rockaway branch is throwing a party. The tables that would have otherwise been host to after-school tutoring are pushed out of the way to make room for a few dozen chairs facing a makeshift stage where one-man-band Peter J. LaRosa regales the crowd of roughly fifty with big-band classics.

Behind the chairs where concertgoers sit, a line of volunteers scoop steamed vegetables, mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing, and turkey out of tinfoil pans onto the line of plates moving past.

Two middle-age women in the audience, Shirley and Debbie (both declined to share their last names), have come to the library to see LaRosa, whom they once saw perform at a nursing home. They marvel that such a noisy event would be held in a library.

“I’m surprised they’d allow food in here with the books!” Shirley says.

Debbie nods in the direction of a group of youngsters jump-dancing to a Tony Bennett tune and chortles. “These kids don’t look like they’ll be looking at books after this.”

A woman shrouded in long dark hair, sunglasses, and wine-colored lipstick chimes in, telling me about the free jewelry classes she took at this library branch the week before. “And it’s not with the plastic stuff—they give you nice stones,” she says. “And you get to keep it.” She adds that the library’s programs are good for Far Rockaway. “Thank goodness they think of this stuff, because there’s not a whole lot else out here.”

But, she adds—and now she’s shouting to be heard over a tangle of teenagers wrestling over a cell phone—she misses having a quiet library where she can just go to read.

So what’s more important, I ask: A library that excels in the programs, or one that has mastered the quiet?

“Both,” she says, without missing a beat. “A library should be both.”