This article is part of our ongoing series on Libraries In Crisis.
On a recent afternoon Anthony W. Marx walked slowly around a bank of computers at the Columbus Library in midtown Manhattan. In an act of questionable library etiquette, he peered over the shoulders of patrons to see what they were up to.
“If you look at people’s screens, what do you see?” he said. “Facebook. People paying bills. Wikipedia. Somebody’s watching a movie.”
This was not a criticism from Marx, who is nearly five months into his new job as president of the New York Public Library, but an observation from the field. He is conducting an informal study of how and why New Yorkers use the library, not only the iconic Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, where Marx’s second floor office overlooks Fifth Avenue, but the system’s 86 branches throughout Manhattan, Staten Island and the Bronx. Marx is in the midst of visiting them all, and he spoke to The Huffington Post on a recent, rainy afternoon swing through two Manhattan branches, introducing himself to employees, surveying the buildings and chatting with visitors. Making his way around the libraries, he was a cheery, casual presence: no tie, sleeves rolled up, introducing himself to everyone and calling out a “bless you” to every sneeze.
Marx, 52, is a personable, deep-voiced native New Yorker with a handful of Ivy League credentials – he studied at Yale and Princeton and served on the Columbia faculty – and made his career as a scholar of nation building and racial discrimination, with an emphasis on South Africa. His visits to the branch libraries are anthropological excursions of sorts, with Marx hoping to learn, by direct questioning and detached observation, the answers to two questions: who is using the library and what do they want?
Marx, who goes by Tony and has two teenage children with his wife Karen Barkey, a Columbia professor, was offered the job last year after eight years as president of Amherst College, in Massachusetts. When he was contemplating the offer, he stopped by the library in Inwood, in Upper Manhattan, where he grew up. He asked people what they were doing. The answers he got were a revealing and occasionally bewildering introduction to an institution that is many things to many people. A public school teacher said she was trying to determine which 3rd grade reading level book to assign to her 5th graders. Another visitor lived in a two-room apartment with seven other people, and told Marx, “This is the only quiet place in my life. If I want to think or read, this is where I have to go.” Marx recalled that one man told him, “I don’t have any books at home, and I want to see pictures of angels. This is where I come to see angels.”
Marx’s job, working with the Library’s trustees, is to steer the institution into an increasingly digital world where access to information does not always mean access to physical books. Amazon’s September announcement that library books can now be downloaded to the Kindle has led a spike in downloads from the New York Public Library system; Kindle users have so far downloaded more than 30,000 titles, according to a Library spokeswoman. Last month, the Library revamped its online catalogue in a nod to popular sites like Amazon and goodreads.com, allowing users to rate, recommend and tag books, and share reading lists with others. The online catalogue, which gets 12 million viewers a year and serves as the library’s digital entryway, further reflects the Library’s acknowledgement of cultural and technological changes that have made reading as much an interactive experience as solitary pursuit.
Considering these shifts, Marx speaks with awareness of inhabiting a historical moment: “the greatest transformation that libraries have seen since Gutenberg,” he says, “a moment when what a library means is fundamentally up for grabs.” To Marx, the challenge of ensuring access to all people is given urgency not only by changing technologies but by a broader social measure: the widening gap between rich and poor. “If the poorer half of the population doesn’t have access to ideas,” he said, “they will be locked out from all opportunities as well, given the way our economy works.”
During his tours, employees showed him the rooms that host community programs: films, readings, Internet instruction, free English classes, and personal finance advice sessions. It’s these services, often taken for granted, Marx said, that are lifelines to those who could not otherwise afford them.
Late in the afternoon, Marx stepped inside the Muhlenberg branch, in Chelsea, and found it crowded with visitors. Old men spread their newspapers on the tables, beside younger people hunched over laptops. A homeless man’s large cart, filled with bags and belongings, blocked one of the narrow aisles. Marx made a point to smile at everyone. “A lot of people come to the library because they don’t have a computer at home, or they don’t have quiet space, or they want a book,” he said. “But a lot of people come just to be in a place where other people are reading and writing and thinking. Because it’s lonely to do that by yourself.”
[Editor's note: Earlier this month, Marx was arrested on drunk driving charges in Manhattan. He is scheduled to appear in court next month. In a statement, Marx said, "I deeply regret embarrassment caused to my family and to The New York Public Library. My focus now is on moving forward and assuring that this incident does not detract from the important work and goals shared by all my colleagues."]