Posted by: bluesyemre | June 1, 2020

#Libraries must change

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Credit…Nina Westervelt for The New York Times

To stay true to their mission during the coronavirus pandemic, libraries should offer more digital services.

As we face tragedy, devastating economic turmoil and dislocation, public libraries will play a key part in the recovery of our country, cities and lives. Libraries offer all people — regardless of background or circumstance — free access to the tools and knowledge they need to open doors of opportunity and be productive members of society. To remain true to their mission, all libraries must undergo radical change. To serve the public in the face of unprecedented challenges, libraries will need to transition their services to the virtual space and explore new avenues to serve the public and bring people together, even while we are apart.

Since the New York Public Library has invested for years in digital offerings, we have been able to quickly transition and expand a wide variety of online services. Our goal has been to replicate, as best we can, the unique experience of being in a library while at home. We offer online story times, tutoring and other educational tools for parents coping with remote learning, virtual book clubs, author talks, a book discussion podcast, virtual consultations with reference librarians, interactive online book recommendations and small business and job search webinars that have attracted thousands of participants. We worked with vendors to provide at-home access to research databases, made available thousands of special collections and improved access to hundreds of thousands of free e-books to browse and borrow instantly via our e-reader. And that is only scratching the surface.

So far, our necessary experiment is going well. We have seen an 864 percent increase in digital library card sign-ups in our e-reader app SimplyE since our temporary closing began, and an approximate 200 percent increase in new users across all e-reading platforms. We have also seen a 236 percent increase in views of our educational resources.

This experience has made it clear to us that libraries must invest — or continue to invest — in digital and virtual technologies and expertise. There is so much more we can do. Every library should aspire to provide the broadest possible digital access to all books and the world’s accumulated knowledge, not just the snippets now available on the web. The digital public library is a piece of necessary public infrastructure that must be built with the same care, collaboration, and adherence to values — including privacy — that we have used to build and run our branches.

We also need to think creatively about ways to extend our mission beyond the walls of our physical branches. How can our librarians conduct virtual visits to schools, senior centers, prisons, day care centers and other similar organizations? How can we use the digital space to bring differing perspectives together around core issues in a safe, productive manner as we do in our physical locations? And how can we effectively replicate online the serendipitous experience of browsing through the library’s shelves?

But it would be irresponsible, and dare I say dangerous, to declare that the “library of the future” is here, and it’s only online.

Even in a digital world, physical libraries play a key role in our communities. Anyone can come inside to learn, grow, explore or just while away the hours without spending a nickel. If someone needs help, they get it. And they also get to interact with their communities — human interaction, as many of us are reminded in this crisis, is an essential need, and libraries provide it.

And let’s not forget the digital divide — a problem that exists across the country, in rural and urban communities alike. Here in New York City, about 1.5 million people are without broadband. Every day in the midst of this pandemic, New Yorkers who rely on the library’s Wi-Fi and computers now leave the safety of their homes and put their health at risk. They walk to one of our 92 temporarily closed library branches to sit outside and use the Wi-Fi leaking from our buildings to do schoolwork and research. We see around 500 of these Wi-Fi sessions per day.

We are considering ways we can play a role in helping communities escape the digital dark, whether it’s expanding our Wi-Fi hotspot lending program, training for computer literacy or ensuring we can safely deliver physical books to those who prefer them, knowing that e-books are underused in our high-need communities. We can’t solve this problem alone, but we must address it.

The New York Public Library is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year. It’s a moment to honor how we have served New Yorkers through tough times, but also a perfect moment to re-evaluate to ensure we can best serve our patrons now and 125 years from now. We are eager to open the library again, cautiously and with expert advice to ensure that it remains safe. Change is hard. But a new chapter is necessary.

In the Great Depression, New York’s mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, named our lions “Patience” and “Fortitude.” Those values, and our commitment to learning and opportunity, got us through those dark days, and they will again.

Anthony Marx is the president of the New York Public Library and the former president of Amherst College.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: letters@nytimes.com.


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