Where the Edge and the Center Meet— Driving Innovation in New York City’s Public Libraries

THE ASPEN INSTITUTE DIALOGUE ON PUBLIC LIBRARIES  —  April 12, 2016  —  Over a century ago, Andrew Carnegie endowed the City of New York with an extraordinary and everlasting gift—the construction of 100 neighborhood public libraries across all five of the City’s boroughs. There are now 207 branches, serving over 40.5 million visitors annually—more people than all the City’s cultural institutions and sports arenas combined!

Much like the growth experienced during Carnegie’s time, New York has again become a magnet and adopted home for millions of ‘strivers’—immigrants seeking better lives for themselves and their families, young families attracted to the city’s opportunities and vibrancy, and older residents who want to remain active members of community life. In a city undergoing unprecedented population growth with rapidly transitioning neighborhoods, newcomers and old timers alike look to their neighborhood libraries as centers of community life and front-line library staff as among the most trusted community resources.

For a 21st century New York City, with 41% of its population foreign born, 2.9 million residents without high speed internet access at home and an increasingly competitive knowledge economy, neighborhood libraries are the ideal ‘labs’ for innovation and experimentation to meet 21st Century needs. Neighborhood libraries are well-positioned to serve residents who are longing to connect to community life through cradle-to-grave lifelong learning and through social, cultural, intellectual and multi-generational activities.

Who better to serve as change agents than the front line library staff? These dedicated individuals interact with New Yorkers every day and, through these interactions, are acutely sensitive to local needs. Design expert Michelle Ha Tucker, speaking at the Aspen Institute’s August 2015 Leadership Roundtable on Library Innovation, advised: “Think big-act small. Change happens by empowering people at the front-line level, and then creating lots of small experiments that eventually bubble up to a large scale movement”.

Among the key challenges in library innovation is this: How to empower, both financially and administratively, these local change agents and move the breakthroughs that occur at the edges into the whole organization. Over the past year, the Charles H. Revson Foundation has funded the New York Public Library’s Ideas Fund and the Brooklyn Public Library’s BKLN Incubator to drive innovation at the branch level while connecting these efforts to making change across the entire system.

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