Rich in tradition, it counts among the most important scientific libraries in the world: the New York Public Library’s Stephan A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. The two lions flanking the entrance serve not just as architectural decoration, but as an expression of supreme self-confidence. Opened in 1911, the New York Public Library (NYPL) today has a collection numbering more than seven million books. The system consists of four specialized research libraries as well as 87 branches in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island, with more than 400 employees. The prestigious main reading room at the Fifth Avenue building spans two city blocks and as of 2009 is open seven days a week. Besides the books and a large collection of historical documents, which may be used exclusively in the large reading hall and in special, smaller reading rooms, the NYPL also offers laptops for working at the library. About one million of its approximately 52 million documents have been digitalized and are now available online through the NYPL website. The annual budget amounts to around 200 million dollars. The city of New York picks up the lion’s share of 68 % for the branches, and New York State and the federal government contribute 8%. For the research libraries, public institutions provide only 25% of the budget while private donations make up 23%. Income from rentals and services come to another 23%, and an additional 21% is covered by gains from investments.
In spite of the great reputation the NYPL enjoys in the city and in New York State as well as in the United States and, in fact, the entire world, it has to fight the same political battles for funding as do other libraries. Because of the current economic crisis, the budged proposal for New York City saw municipal contributions cut by 22% for this fiscal year. In the framework of a large campaign - which demonstrated the important role the library plays in the city’s identity and scientific research as well as in improving education and providing information for large segments of the population – the cuts could eventually be reduced to just 5 %. This great success in rolling back the cuts stems from unity - the joint efforts of the three large library systems (besides the NYPL these are the Brooklyn and Queens public libraries) and the use of multi-media communication tools. On the NYPL website, for example, a pop-up enticed visitors to send e-mail messages to politicians and public administrators protesting the planned budget cuts. A total of 14,654 such protest e-mails arrived at Manhattan and Brooklyn administrations. The press, radio and local television stations supported the campaign. The NYPL was able to refer to a marked increase in the last year in numbers of loans as well as in active users – up 30% alone at the Bronx Library Center. As it turns out, the financial crisis and increased unemployment have resulted in an especially strong demand for online access and the wide range of information the web offers - available at public libraries free of charge (!) – in the search for new jobs. Moreover, the contacts that leading NYPL employees have cultivated and maintained to local politicians over the years have also paid off. George Mihaltses, NYPL’s Vice President for Government and Community Affairs for eight months now, previously worked for the city council for seven years. From those years he knows many politicians personally and has learned how to convince them of the benefits libraries provide. Still, that’s not an easy task, because politicians want to see the value of libraries verified by facts and numbers, and they need to find themselves reflected in the libraries’ work if they pay for it. Just as important as persuasive statistics and personal ties is a sensitivity to not overwhelming the politicians and for conveying in a timely fashion the information they need to make their decisions.
Anne L. Coriston, Vice President for Public Services, also came to the NYPL from the policy sphere of the New York municipal administration. Upon obtaining a masters degree in library sciences, she filled a variety of positions within the NYPL. Today she is responsible for the network of media and services offered at the Schwarzman Building; the Mid-Manhattan Library across Fifth Avenue; the Bronx Library Center; and other branches. Constantly improving what the NYPL offers for the benefit of its clients is especially dear to her heart. In November of 2008, for instance, she reopened a children’s library at the Schwarzman Building that had existed at the founding of the NYPL but was closed in the 1960’s. She believes that those who want to fill future generations with enthusiasm for reading should have the advantage of such a prestigious building as the one on Fifth Avenue. With the slogan “You can never have too much library”, opening hours were markedly extended this year: the six largest libraries are now open seven days a week, and all others are open six days, with one exception. All this was made possible without hiring more staff. Instead, work procedures in the “back office” were restructured to the benefit of services at the “front office.” The recent standardization of the catalogues of all the NYPL libraries, never before achieved, is one of this year’s milestones. And a complete re-launch of all websites, also with the aim of standardizing the online presence, is currently in the works and should be completed at the beginning of 2010. All these activities are an expression of a new philosophy: the NYPL no longer defines the library’s structures and offerings from the viewpoint of the librarian but from the perspective of its clients and their needs in a constantly changing urban society. It is important to Anne Coriston that libraries observe and understand what is currently going on in society; and she doesn’t want to find herself trying to catch up with new developments. She desires instead to turn libraries into innovative elements within and for society: their work should be proactive instead of reactive. Network managers and an in-house strategic development department as well as external advisors support this process. In order to move from theory to practice, pilot libraries are then chosen. Their experiences provide an important groundwork for further education seminars to accompany the processes of change. In the framework of her “road show” Anne Coriston engages in personal conversations onsite with occasionally rather skeptical employees. “Let’s try it!” is the motto she hopes will raise enthusiasm for innovative concepts among her colleagues.
This is the point where Georg Mihaltses’ and Ann L. Coristan’s respective fields meet, because good and efficient political lobbying for libraries can only be achieved with a convincing product. In the end it’s the politicians who will decide about the use of public funds. But they will, of course, be more easily convinced if the libraries are utilized by as many people as possible. The number of satisfied customers which can be deduced from visitor and loan numbers provides library leaders with the essential arguments for daily survival in New York.
Thursday, 24. September 2009
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