Op-Ed: To Address Income Inequality, Start With Libraries From Harlem To Hollis

December 29, 2015

schomburg library in harlemBy Edwin Maxwell

This week, New York City’s three library systems testified before the City Council about how they are spending the significant increase in operating funds granted in the current budget.The underlying question is: Was this a wise investment?

I am a librarian in East New York, one of the highest-crime neighborhoods in New York City. Improving the quality of life in this community can seem like an impossible feat. Yet in less than a year, the infusion of city and private funds into our library branch has done just that. The past year has shown that funding for libraries is a down payment on fighting income inequality—a small investment with a major return, and one that we must continue to make.

Here in my end of Brooklyn:

  • Nearly 40% of children live in poverty.
  • About three-quarters of households don’t earn enough to feed their families without food stamps.
  • Our seniors struggle as well, with 39% living at or below the poverty level.
  • There are no fewer than seven homeless shelters in our neighborhood.

When we look at these statistics, it’s clear that addressing poverty in our community is not simple. But public libraries have the ability to truly transform lives by serving people at all stages of their lives, in a variety of ways, for free.

At the New Lots branch in East New York, I see this every day. We lend books that open people’s minds and hearts. We help new immigrants become citizens and learn English. We assist people in finding jobs, getting health care, learning new technology skills, or simply connecting to the Internet if they can’t afford it at home. Seniors come here to find community, and children to read their first words. For teens, it’s not just a place to get homework help—it’s a safe space to escape the sometimes dangerous world outside our doors.

We are our community’s extended family. When a mother had to escape domestic violence and enter a homeless shelter last year, our library was there to help. We watch out for her kids while she’s at work. They are all engaged in age-appropriate programming at the library after school. She can be confident her children are in a safe, learning environment while she works to improve their situation.

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Libraries are our city’s unsung heroes. We do a lot with a little—but we can do a lot more when given the resources we need, whether from the city budget or private benefactors. That’s why the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and Charles H. Revson Foundation launched the NYC Neighborhood Library Awards, to recognize and reward public libraries for all they do to uplift their communities. Through December 18, New Yorkers can nominate their library for exceptional service, and the winning branches will each receive $20,000 to put back into library programs and upgrades.

I’m proud to say that our branch was one of last year’s winners—and even prouder to say that, with our $20,000, we provided much-needed resources to support our community. We turned our auditorium into a full-fledged community room, with a new screen, projector, speakers and chairs. Building off our successful investment and financial-literacy courses, we created an entrepreneurship series to empower teens.

We brought in more authors for free lectures, added programs to our adult-learning center, and offered more Storytime sessions to toddlers. We purchased shelves for the mini-collections that we set up in homeless shelters, schools and even barbershops around the neighborhood, so people have more access to our resources and another reason to stop by the branch.

What about the mayor and City Council’s increased investment in public libraries? Well, New Yorkers have already seen that investment pay off. At New Lots, we can now stay open seven days a week, meaning there is a safe, educational space available to our community every day. Libraries across the city are now open longer, so parents, students, and working people can visit on weekends and evenings. Libraries used the extra funding to hire more children’s librarians and other key staff. As a result, additional educational programming is now being offered to those who need it most.

But our work is never done—as crucial as this funding has been, we still have more demand for our services than we can meet.

There’s no single investment that city government or private philanthropies can make to address all the ills that plague our poorest communities. But the evidence clearly shows that funding public libraries is one of the smartest ways to tackle income inequality and create more opportunity for struggling New Yorkers. Let’s celebrate our public libraries by nominating the best of the best to win this year’s $20,000 award—and let’s continue to increase funding for these vital institutions as they work hard to serve our communities.

Via Crains NY

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