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Libraries and Their Communities: Observations at the Washington Heights Library

By Clare Nolan

In December of 2013, the Pew Research Center released a study entitled “How Americans Value Public Libraries in Their Communities” that sought to explore the relationships between libraries and the communities they serve. Over six thousand Americans ages sixteen and over were surveyed over the course of two months via landlines and cell phones, both in English and in Spanish. 1

The study determined that while 48% of Americans visited the library within the past 12 months,  that in general women, African-Americans, Hispanics, low income adults, and adults with less education were more likely than other groups to say that the library and the services that it provides are “very important”. Services listed as important were “using the internet, computers, or printers”, “having a quiet and safe place to spend time, read, or study”, “assistance in applying for government programs, permits, or licenses”, “help finding or applying for a job”, and “getting help from a librarian finding information”. It is logical that these services are more valued by people who have less privilege. If you don’t have the money to purchase them, books and media may only be accessible through the library. If you can’t afford an after school program, it makes sense to attend free youth programs. If you don’t have the tools to find a better job in your own home, then finding them in the library is advantageous to you.

A chart showing the percentage of Americans 16+ who say that library sources are "very important" by race.

A chart showing the percentage of Americans 16+ who say that library sources are “very important” by race.

A chart showing the percentage of Americans 16+ who say that library sources are "very important" by income.

A chart showing the percentage of Americans 16+ who say that library sources are “very important” by income

Studies like this raise the question of “who is the library for?” in modern America. Before we can think of what we can do to improve the quality of public libraries, it is important to look at who is using public libraries, and what it is being used for. If the majority of Americans who use and value the library are people of color and low income individuals, shouldn’t we put effort into providing better service and funding to libraries that serve those individuals? André Cossette wrote in “Humanism and Libraries” that “the work of a librarianship is truly a human endeavor, that is to say an activity of humankind, that had as its end the well being of humankind.” 2 But humanity is not a homogenous group, and if librarians are going to seek to strive for the well being of humankind, it should examine the individual communities that rely the most on the library, and seek to address the specific needs of individual communities.

While writing this,  I sat in the Washington Heights Library, a branch of the New York Public Library, located at 1000 St. Nicholas Avenue, at the corner of 160th Street. Recently reopened, the Washington Heights Library is a library that was designed to serve the community that surrounds it. This is apparent just by sitting in the main reading room. Each shelf is labeled not only in English, but in Spanish, as a large percentage of the community is comprised of Spanish speakers. There is even an entire shelf dedicated to books in Spanish, which one might not find at a library in another neighborhood. There are large quantities of computers available, almost all of which are in use, and plenty of space available for anyone who might want to study, read, or simply spend some time in the quiet.

After a 12.4 million dollar renovation, the Washington Heights Library reopened in February 2014, prepped to serve its community, which is primarily made up of people of color and low income residents. Not only was the space renovated, but an emphasis was placed on providing increased technology to the community. The library reopened with twenty-five desktop PCs, sixteen laptops, and twenty-four Apple computers. 3 All told, the library possesses forty-nine more computers then when it closed for renovations in 2010. The library also boasts one of the largest children’s rooms, 3,300 square feet, in the entire New York Public Library system. However, not only children use the children’s section of the Library. According to library manager Vianela Rivas, adult patrons who are learning English often use it. 4

The  Washington Heights Library is a prime example of a library that focuses on the specific needs of its community. It is well used by the community as a whole. During my time there, I saw patron after patron walk through the library doors. There was a wide range of ages, from parents and their young children, to pre-teens and teenagers, to adults. The computers were in constant use, and for a wide variety of purposes. Patrons sat and browsed the internet and social media sites, did personal work and homework, and played computer games. A group of ever changing adolescents clustered around the computers in front of the reference desk, their volume always rising to the point where they needed to be shushed by the librarian behind the desk, albeit in a loving sort of way.

The Washington Heights Library was lucky that it was able to acquire the $12.4 million it needed to accomplish the renovation and turn the branch into a strong resource for the community.  Even so, there is still space in the library that could be utilized if the money was only there. The entire third floor still needs to be renovated 5, and until then the space is wasted. Imagine what could be there if there was more money. Study rooms? A technology lab? A maker space? Periodical storage?  These are things that patrons in libraries housed in more affluent neighborhoods may take for granted, or may even get less use than they would in a library that serves a low income population. There are patrons of the Washington Heights library who come to the branch because it provides them access to resources and information that they might not have at home, whether that’s computers, a high speed internet connection, books and DVDs, or even a quiet place to just sit for a moment.

For many, the library is not just a luxury, it is a necessary part of their lives, and this should be taken into account when it comes to funding, project development, and budgeting. The Washington Heights branch was given the resources it needed to better serve its community, and it is obvious just by being in the library that the community is benefiting from those resources. If we are truly trying to strive for the well being of humankind, then we need to evaluate where exactly our resources go, who is using them, and the level of impact it could have on the community.

  1. Zickhur, K., Raine L., Purcell K., and Duggan M. (2013). How Americans Value Public Libraries in Their Communities. Retrieved from

  2. Cossette, A. (1976). Humanism and Libraries.Duluth: Library Juice Press. Reprinted in 2009.
  3. Dunlap, D. W. (Feb.26, 2014). “After 4-Year Overhaul, Library is to Reopen in Washington Heights”. The New York Times. Retrieved from
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.

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In Observation of the Archive: A Specific Place with Specific Needs

By musing_lis

It all starts at the Georgia Institute of Technology Archive. I was fortunate enough to get an observation with Jody Lloyd Thompson, Dept. Head of Archives and Records Management at the Georgia Tech Library. The Archive department consists of 4 ladies, 2 of which are certified Archivists and the other 2 have an MLIS.

During the first hour of my observation, Jody Lloyd Thompson took me on a tour of the Archive and the Special Collections of Rare Books. As we walked down the compact shelves, I learned that the archive is organized by format – paper (manuscripts and photographs), film, and architectural drawings. With the school’s enormous focus on Architecture, it comes as no surprise that the library acquires 200-400 linear feet of architectural collections yearly. The librarians brought this to my attention, due to the fact that all of the architectural materials require flat and horizontal storage cabinets. During the tour I was made aware of the elaborate climate control system that in the event of fire, locks the doors and eliminates oxygen from the room.

When it came time to explore the Rare Book Collection, we put on archive gloves and went straight for Georgia Tech’s most prized book. The university’s rare book collection began in the 1950’s with the acquisition of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematicaenglish title: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy – published in 1687. The library owns a copy of each of the first three editions of the Principia Mathematica (1687, 1713, and 1726), all published during Newton’s lifetime. I was privileged to hold such an influential first edition rare book, and paid special attention to the publishers note by Edmund Halley (scientist / astronomer who discovered Halley’s Comet). I had the oportunity to handle all of Newton’s works featured in the university’s rare book archive. In addition to Principia, we thumbed through the first edition of Opticks: A Treatise of the Reflexions, Refractions, Inflexions, and Colours of Light (London, 1704), and A Treatise of Arithmetical Composition and Resolution (London, 1720). It makes sense that a university such as the Georgia Institute of Technology would be interested in the history of science and technology. As told from the archivist, the Institution has a “special strength in Newtoniana”. We briefly viewed other Newtoniana include works by such contemporaries of Newton as John Keill, Henry Pemberton, and Colin MacLaurin. Additionally we viewed the archives other treasures such as the nine-volume Dutch language edition of Joan Blaeu’s Grooten Atlas (or Grand Atlas), published in the 1660s.

During my three hour observation, the department head invited me into the Archive weekly meeting. The meeting agenda:

  1. Introductions
  2. Student Assistants
  3. Spring Semester Classes
  4. Annual Reviews
  5. GT Design Archives
  6. ArchivesSpace
  7. Interview Questions for Users (BrightSpot)
  8. LSC/Renewal (Library Service Center)
  9. Weekly Reports

I was introduced to the three other ladies working in the Archive: Christine De Cantanzaro (MLIS, Certified Archivist, PhD Music History), Mandi Johnson (Visual Materials Archivist, M.A. Public History), Wendy Hagenmaier (Digital Archives Specialist, MLIS). The renovation, expected finish in 2016, poses mostly issues in Preservation. The archivists are concerned with storage short-term and temporary, especially with their high valued Rare Books

and providing proper climate control. The proposed temporary storage at the Georgia (Atlanta) Archive brings additional problems to the university. It was proposed that they store the most valuable collections with the city of Atlanta, making them only available by appointment (off-campus), bringing transportation issues with insurance riders on automobiles. Throughout the weekly reports, ongoing projects were discussed with major “highlights” and updates. Currently, the Archivists are working in the Voyageur System to update barcodes on their Science Fiction collection. Georgia Tech has an extensive collection of Science Fiction, from valuable first editions to almost rare “unknowns”. The collection includes 10,000 science fiction and fantasy novels, over 1,000 periodical issues, all dates ranging from the 1950s up to the 1990s. I was told that the collection was started by a Georgia Tech professor and later donated to the university Archive.

Overall, my observation was an enormous learning experience and am grateful to have been invited to observe the Archivists in such a highly regarded institution. The Archive at Georgia Tech has come a long way since the department was reorganized in the early 2000s. I heard many stories the librarians shared with me. Before the re-org, the dean of the university Library “banished” anyone in the library she didn’t favor to the library. For decades, the Archive was operated by Librarians who were “punished” and unqualified. Unfortunately, many documents were lost because of the messy system. When Christine De Cantanzaro arrived over ten years ago, her and Jody Lloyd Thompson, created a plan that shut down the Archive for more than two months to organize the mess. Now, they have outgrown their basement Archive and will be moving into a bigger and better space – big happy news for the Archivists. At the end of the meeting, Christine De Cantanzaro said this;

The Archive is simply just a specific place with specific needs.



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Building the Future – Brooklyn Public Library and Y.A. Services

By Rachel O'Neill

Nearly 30 years in the making, the building of the Central branch of Brooklyn Library that dominates a corner of Grand Army Plaza, went from ground first being broken for the building in 1912, to completed construction in 1941. In 1997 the Landmarks Preservation Commission declared it a landmark building and in 2013 the interior of the library, much like the concept of the Public Library itself, remains a work in progress. Walking into the Central branch is literally like walking into an open book, one that offers glimpses of how the public library of the past and present is actively repositioning itself for a future role as something much more than simply a repository of knowledge and information, accessible to all. On a recent visit, I decided to take myself on a tour of the two floors open to the public before settling into the Youth Wing for an afternoon of observation and a conversation with one of the library’s two children and young adult specialist librarians on duty that day. After the near complete silence in the adult/reference sections and the popular library upstairs, and the low buzz of the info-commons and the library café in the main lobby, the noise level goes up a notch or five as I opened the doors to the Youth Wing which is a world away from traditional notions of the public library as quiet space. And while there is certainly public debate and a lot of enthusiasm for having both types of environments, the palpable energy of the Youth Wing space certainly made for a lively library visit.

The first thing I’m told by Yesha, the Y.A. librarian, who is standing under a “Cats Against Cat Calls” banner (a visual medley of pink lettering and photos of cats in their best haughty feline pose) is that she herself was asked to be quiet recently  by a young patron for talking too loudly – so much for the mythical figure of the shushing librarian! While the main focus of the Youth Wing is still reading and study, how that reading and studying is undertaken is changing rapidly. Books are still central to the space but laptops are also available for checking out and there are eight desktop computers for use in the Y.A. area. Color printing, either from a library computer or a patron’s own electronic device, is available for a small fee and Yesha handles queries and facilitates various printing requests during the course of our conversation.

In addition to the computers in the Youth Wing, teens also have exclusive access to all the computers every Tuesday afternoon between 4.30pm and 6pm in the Info-Commons as part of the Teen Tech Time program. However, by far the most popular teen tech offering is the Active Gaming Arcade program on Saturdays providing access to games such as Minecraft, which hones players creative gaming skills, encourages them to explore new environments, collect resources to use in these spaces and adapt and protect the space from attack.

A downside Yesha mentions in terms of having the availability of online games is that the teens rarely play against each other but tend to retreat into the games by themselves and so another aim of teen programming at the library is to try and balance things out and encourage more interaction between patrons. To this end there is an art club, writing clinic, poetry workshop, book club and a Game On! board game challenge, there’s even a monthly open mic. session as part of the teen program. Programs are planned to run with 2-15 teens taking part and having eight or more participants is considered a success.

Not all the programs are instant hits and Yesha explained that a recent self-portrait program required the librarian to order teens in the tech lab off the computers and point blank refuse them further access until they tried drawing “for at least 10 minutes”! While most did their 10 minutes and fled, eight teens stayed and returned to complete the program the following week, small steps perhaps along the path to what Durrani and Smallwood have called creating the people orientated library service:

As custodians of information, librarians everywhere have a role to play in eliminating the root causes of poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, and inequality. It is no longer acceptable for libraries and librarians to refuse to acknowledge this social responsibility. The choice is simple: if the information profession does not acknowledge its social responsibility and act upon it, it will no longer have a social role. People will then develop alternative models of information and knowledge communication, which do meet their needs. There will then be no libraries as we know them today. The choice is our to make – today.

The location of the Central branch means that it services teen patrons across a broad demographic spectrum, from the relatively high-income area of Park Slope to the lower income areas of Crown Heights and Brownsville, as well as patrons who travel from further away to use the facilities unique to the Central branch. In turn this means there is a real opportunity to level the playing field of access, and in terms of teen patrons, by far one of the most effective and popular programs is T4 – today’s teens, tomorrow’s techies.

Previously, I’d spoken to a former participant of the program, now a librarian himself who explained that for him the program had given him an opportunity to take a different path to the one he’d been heading down as young man. While currently only offered at the Central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, the program gives teens a chance to learn basic computer skills via an intensive summer workshop. This is then followed up with a minimum commitment of three hours per week for at least a 6-month period of volunteer work at the library, assisting librarians, and trouble shooting computer problems encountered by older patrons.

This intergenerational aspect and the social skills that are developed while carrying out a responsible volunteer role, as well as the varied practical skills that are learned, demonstrates the active way the library is fostering not just a community for its own future but make tangible what Dewey thought a “Great Community” might be.

Block quote: The Professional is Political: Redefining the Social Role of Public Libraries, Shiraz Durrani and Elizabeth Smallwood  – first appeared in Progressive Librarians, No. 27, Summer 2006. Republished in Questioning Library Neutrality, Alison Lewis Ed. Library Juice Press 2008.

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Responsibilities of a Reference Archivist

By Katie


The New York Public Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division, pictured above, “holds over 29,000 linear feet of archival material in over 3,000 collections.” Records include “paper documents, photographs, sound recordings, films, videotapes, artifacts, and electronic records,” and are found in collections pertaining to the American Revolution, Civil War, and literary figures such as Washington Irving, Truman Capote, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and James Joyce, to name but a few. The Division especially prides itself on its collection of “the papers of individuals, families, and organizations, primarily from the New York region, dating from the 18th through the 20th centuries.”1

With so much information available to study, it can be overwhelming trying to figure out where to start. Enter Tal Nadan, the Manuscripts and Archives Division’s reference archivist. On a recent visit to the Division, Ms. Nadan walked me through her daily responsibilities and shared some interesting stories about the department.

“The main tasks of the Reading Room archivists are conducting reference interviews, coordinating visits, enforcing policy, and answering remote reference requests,” Nadan explained.

The purpose of the reference interview is to allow Nadan to understand the researcher’s questions, aims, and needs. Armed with this information, she is able to direct the visitor to the most useful and appropriate records. The division usually sees about 15 to 20 researchers a week, with a bump on Saturdays and during holidays. Said Nadan, “We tend to get busy right after Thanksgiving, though we are quiet from Christmas to New Year’s Eve.” Many visitors plan extra stays, and Nadan quickly becomes acquainted with those conducting month-long research. “I get a feel for what they are studying, and sometimes I am able to suggest documents that might supplement their research.” She is quick to point out, however, that she is not a proxy researcher. She will gladly retrieve requested information, but “I can’t be expected to go through boxes and boxes of information looking for appropriate material. I’ll pull up requested documents, and I’ll scan to remote locations, but they must decide what is pertinent. Meaning is created from what you get out of the archives.” A bookcase in the Manuscripts and Archives Division holds the published works of those who conducted research there. “It encourages researchers to stay in contact with us. It also strengthens our relevance within the community,” she explained.

Every morning at 10:00, Nadan retrieves material that had been requested in advance. On the day of my visit, 15 large boxes were sitting on a desktop, brought up just a few days before. Most of them contained documents relating to the New York World’s Fairs of 1939/40 and 1964/65.

Said Nadan, “It’s always a popular topic of research because it’s interdisciplinary, but with the [50th and 75th] anniversaries coming up next year, research is really amping up.”

Because the Manuscripts and Archives Division shares a room with the Rare Books Division, and because there’s no way 29,000 linear feet of archives could possibly fit in a small reading room, the records are kept under Bryant Park in the Bryant Park Stack Extension. Built between 1988-91, the extension adds about 40 miles of shelf space and is reached via the elevator in the Rose Main Reading Room and through a 120-foot tunnel. The extension is temperature-controlled and includes “conveyor systems, a microfilm storage vault, and fire suppression systems.” Boxes are organized by size, a trend the whole library follows, and are accessed one range at a time due to compact shelving. It takes about twenty to thirty minutes to retrieve a collection. The entire New York World’s Fair collections take up 1,007 feet alone. 2.

Drawing of the Bryant Park Stack Extension

Even with the stack extension, Nadal laments the lack of space. “We don’t have enough room, enough funding, or a big enough staff.” With only two full-time archivists, two library technical assistants, and one person to process (who only rotates in one week out of five), the staff is kept quite busy. Nadan, who always wanted to be a librarian, enjoys working with the public and facilitating their research. The stresses brought on by a small staff and little funding haven’t manifested in “burn-out” or “alienation;” in fact, she looks forward to the challenges and rather finds a kind of “escape” in talking to visitors, even leading them on tours of the library. “Some people can find the library intimidating; I’m here to show them how accessible it is,” Nadan said.

An on-going project within the archives division is the digitalization of records. Currently, “more than 4,000 entries for archival collections and other materials held throughout NYPL have been made available for online browsing.” 3. During my visit, Nadan spoke of recent meetings she attended concerning MPLP (more product, less process) and search optimization with the goal of making online collections easier to find and access. Right now, many collections within the Manuscripts and Archives Division are not digitized. This is due to the labor-intensive nature of the work, no staff on-hand to do the work, and no funding to support the work. The only collection that has been fully digitized is the LGBT collection, made possible by a grant from Time Warner. For now, thousands of documents and records remain in their analog state only. Hopefully this will change over time.

To anyone conducting research, it’s plain to see how crucial Nadan’s role is. Without reference archivists like her, it would be nearly impossible to find all the appropriate records needed. Luckily, Nadan is happy to lend her services. “My job is very rewarding,” she said. “I’m happy anytime I can help further someone’s research.”

  1. Collection Description of the Manuscripts and Archives Division,
  2. Quick History Facts,
  3. See note 1

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