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ALA in NYC (Part 2): ‘More than a collection of books’

How many times have you heard that phrase? A visit to the Central Library of the Brooklyn Public Library system proved to make that statement undoubtedly true. I work for ALA, I am a librarian, I worked for a library, I go to my branch library every week, so I know something about libraries. But this visit to this library was the kind of experience when you want to point, jump and exclaim, “See what is going on here!”

Photo credit: Carrie Russell

Indeed, much more than a collection of books. And more than shiny digital things. And more than an information commons. All are welcome here because the library is our community.

A visit to Brooklyn Public was first on the agenda of ALA’s Digital Content Working Group (DCWG), the leadership contingent that meets periodically with publishers in New York City. (Read more about the publisher meetings here.)

On arrival, several FBI agents were assembled outside of the building, which gave us momentary pause until we learned that they were cast members of the television series Homeland, one of the many film crews that use the Central Library for scenic backdrop. Look at the front of the building. Someone said “it’s like walking into a church.” Very cool if you can call this your library home.

Brooklyn is making a difference in its community. Heck, in 2016 it won the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ National Medal, the nation’s highest honor for museums and libraries. Brooklyn was recognized in part for its Outreach Services Department, which provides numerous social services, including a creative aging program, oral history project for veterans, free legal services in multi-languages and a reading program called TeleStory. (TeleStory connects families to loved ones in prison via video conference so they can read books together. Who knew a public library did that?!) All people are welcome here.

The Adult Learning Center, operating at Central and five Brooklyn Library branches under the direction of Kerwin Pilgrim, provides adult literacy training for new immigrants, digital literacy, citizenship classes, job search assistance and an extensive arts program that takes students to cultural centers where some see their first live dance performance! The active program depends on volunteer tutors. “Our tutors are the backbone of our adult basic education program serving students reading below the fifth grade reading level. Without our trained and dedicated volunteers, our program would suffer,” said Pilgrim.

Dozens of baby strollers lined up in a library corridor
Photo credit: Jim Neal

“Our volunteers are also strong advocates for our students and ambassadors of literacy because many of them share their experiences tutoring and inspire others to join as well. In many of our receptions over the years when we’ve asked tutors to provide reflections on their experiences we’ve heard that volunteering with BPL’s adult literacy programs not only opened their eyes, but also informed their perspective about what it means to be illiterate in a digital world. They empathize and empower our students to go beyond their comfort zones. Tutors have helped students progress to higher level groups and even to our Pre-HSE program. Students have achieved personal and professional goals like passing the citizenship and driver’s license exams, and completing applications for various city agencies. We help students with their stated goals as well as other aspects of their development and growth.”

During our tour of the library, we caught the tail end of story time, and I have never seen so many baby carriages lined up in the hallway. Another crowd scene when we were leaving the building – a huge line of people waiting to apply for their passports. Yes, the library has a passport office. Brooklyn also partners with the City of New York by providing space for the municipal ID program called IDNYC. All New Yorkers are eligible for a free New York City Identification Card, regardless of citizenship status. Already, 10 percent of the city’s population has an IDNYC Card! This proof of identity card provides one with access to city services. With the ID, people can apply for a bank or credit union account, get health insurance from the NY State Health Insurance Marketplace and more.

In the Business and Career Center, Brooklyn provides numerous online databases and other resources, many helpful for entrepreneurs looking to start their own business. The biggest barrier to starting a new business is inadequate start-up funds. Brooklyn Public tries to mitigate this problem with their “Power Up” program. Funded by Citibank, budding entrepreneurs take library training to write a business plan. After classes on business plan writing, marketing, and discovering sources for financing, participants enter a “best business plan” competition with a first prize of $15,000. Nearly one-third of Brooklyn residents do not have sufficient access to the Internet, so the information commons and dedicated staff available to help—open to all residents—is critical.

I know this is just the tip of the iceberg of all the work that Brooklyn Public does. The library—more than a collection of books—is certainly home to Brooklyn’s 2.5 million residents. And all people are welcome here.

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Carrie Russell

Carrie Russell is the director of the Program on Public Access to Information in the Washington Office. Her portfolio includes copyright, international copyright, accessibility, e-books, and other public policy issues. She has an MLIS from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an MA in media arts from the University of Arizona.

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