Invigorate our Public Libraries

David Giles

As New York City continues to adapt to the needs of an information-based economy, the demand for life-long learning resources has never been greater. At all ages and educational levels, New Yorkers are looking to upgrade their skills in order to make use of new technologies and market themselves more effectively to employers. Public libraries are the city’s most important resource for non-institutional learning, whether it be English language workshops for immigrants, after school programs for kids, or computer classes for seniors. 

With 206 branches across the five boroughs, New York City has a tremendous physical legacy to build on, but the vast majority of branches are in desperate need of upgrades. Many Carnegie buildings were designed for solitary readers rather than classes and group work. Dozens of old branches have underutilized floors, many with shuttered custodial apartments, that could be tapped for new uses, including small business incubators, co-working spaces, community rooms and classrooms. 

In partnership with New York’s three library systems — New York (Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island), Brooklyn, and Queens — the city should increase the general capital allocation for libraries and issue a $500 million bond to fund capital projects across the city. The libraries could aim to raise another $250 million through private donations and philanthropy to underwrite the city’s first comprehensive capital plan for libraries since Andrew Carnegie’s initial bequest over 100 years ago. 

With community input, a citywide plan could help all three systems realize efficiencies through branch consolidations, storefront expansions (so-called flex spaces with lower overhead) and mixed-use developments that incorporate affordable housing.

David Giles is the Research Director at the Center for an Urban Future, where he has written extensively on a variety of public policy issues including transportation, technology and the arts.

giles.jpg