Bullish On Libraries?

07/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

These days the trends in the financial markets are on the mind of just about everyone. However the data that I monitor daily show how many items are circulating and how many visitors are coming to the ninety-one libraries that make up The New York Public Library system.

If the markets were performing in parallel with our libraries-- consistent growth--the nation's economy would be rosy indeed.

Over the past twelve months, there were 17.8 million visits to The New York Public Library, up 12 percent from the year before. Circulation is up by 14.5% overall and a striking 27% in the Bronx.

If you add in the visits to New York's other library systems--Brooklyn and Queens--for the most recent fiscal year (FY08), there were a staggering forty-five million visits to public libraries in New York City, up 9% from the previous year.

It wasn't so very long ago that many thought public libraries were on some endangered species list, akin to the US automotive industry today.

But now, that notion seems to have evanesced, made instantly obsolete by all the press coverage of how American public libraries have become the 'go-to' resource centers for those seeking jobs in tough times.

Front page stories in major newspapers and prime time national and local television broadcasts, have been announcing, with more than a little wonder, that public library staff were helping swelling numbers of patrons write resumes and post them online, look for jobs online, acquire basic computer literacy skills, and get coached on how to interview for a job.

But to those of us in the library business, what was surprising was the very fact that journalists and opinion makers were themselves surprised that libraries are highly relevant today.

Would it be newsworthy if busy hospitals became far busier during the flu season?

Of course not.

So why is it newsworthy that public libraries are busy during a recession?

Because of several untested assumptions that had been bought into by the uninformed.

First, it's been widely assumed that public libraries in the US had lost their audience to the for-profit sector: to mega-bookstores and Amazon; to Google and Yahoo, and even to Starbucks.

Next, high levels of disposable income in the upper reaches of US society led many to believe that the average American family had the resources to buy books, to have one or more computers at home, and to afford connectivity to the Internet.

Finally, given the increasing atomization of our society, it became easy to see the community building function of public libraries as irrelevant to the social welfare of our cities and towns.

The facts, however, tell a far different story.

Libraries still have a strong hold on the American public. As reported in a 2007 study by the Pew Charitable Foundation, 53% of Americans had used a library in the past twelve months. Especially significant is that fully 62% of those who make up Generation Y--those between 18 and 30--reported that they were library users.

Our experience in New York is that the more public libraries are open, the more heavily they are used. In 2006, when New York had recovered enough from September 11th to reopen its public libraries six days a week, visits moved up sharply and steadily, with overall growth of 10% in three years.

The present recession had the salutary effect of highlighting the value libraries represent to Americans. But we need to recognize that libraries were already very busy places, attracting record numbers of patrons. The recession simply brought many more people into our equivalent of emergency rooms.

This economic incentive to use public libraries is particularly clear in New York City. The median pre-tax family income in the US was $50,000 in 2007. In the Bronx, one of the New York City boroughs served by the New York Public Library, it was just $32,000.

Families in these economic circumstances would be hard pressed indeed to find disposal income to buy books, computers, and broad-band access. But they knew well before the economic downturn that public libraries exist for them as places with limitless numbers of books for children, with adult literacy classes, with not only free Internet access but free training in using information technology.

And they knew and appreciated that in our cities a public library is the last communal space left that is open to all. That it is a place that functions, daily, as democracy's living room, and furthers the convictions of both Jefferson and Carnegie that democracy flourishes when the people have access to information.

Libraries have been a central element in human culture for 5,000 years. They have remained relevant by continuously changing with the times, harnessing new technologies, and giving their patrons what they want and need.

If there's anything positive about this recession, it's that it triggered a new national recognition of how vibrant, responsive, relevant and essential public libraries are today. That's the way they've always been, I think, and that's the way they will continue to be.