Libraries and Local Government: How NYC’s Municipal ID Program Addresses Information Access

By katemeizner

In “A Political Economy of Librarianship?”, William F. Birdsall says that libraries are neither neutral nor airtight to the political climate of the outside world – that, in fact, a library environment is informed by the political and economic values of its surroundings (Birdsall 2). I often consider the many ways in which public libraries reflect the public policy initiatives of the nations, states, and cities in which they are located, especially in areas where elected officials invoke more ‘progressive’ ideologies that value public goods over privatization. In New York, where I live, City Hall’s policies have recently been driven by the populist left, which has paid special attention to the NYC’s breadth of public services, cultural institutions, and libraries. Unlike the fiscally conservative Michael Bloomberg, whose mayoral policies resulted in decreased operational subsidies for libraries, current Mayor Bill De Blasio is implementing programs and funding initiatives that will both improve the functionality and increase use of public libraries by all New Yorkers (Giles 36).

In addition to pumping $39 million into the city’s library budget, in January 2015 the mayor also rolled out the IDNYC, a municipal identification card issued by the city of New York which is also accepted as a library card at New York City’s three library systems. The IDNYC is the largest municipal ID program in history, made unique by offering up multi-uses and incentives crafted to benefit residents of New York City. According to the official website, one is able to apply for a card if they can provide proof of address and identity, although alternative options such as “care-of” forms are available for “…the most vulnerable communities—the homeless, youth, the elderly, undocumented immigrants, the formerly incarcerated and others who may have difficulty obtaining other government-issued ID” (IDNYC).

To summarize, IDNYC makes it possible for socially-excluded and otherwise undocumented residents to obtain valid forms of identification. Furthermore, its dual use as both an accepted ID and a library card is meant to incentivize New Yorkers to visit libraries and seek out the city’s many public services. The municipal ID card is truly a ‘one stop shop’ for access to many buildings in the city of New York. The IDNYC program’s popularity, with over 400,000 applicants and a 98% success rate as of August 2015, is a testament to power of libraries working with local governments to align goals and create programs that encourage more diverse patronage of public libraries.

I’m most interested in the idea of IDNYC as a tool of social inclusion; imperfect, of course, but also a real life example of John Gehner’s idea that libraries should work toward removing “barriers” that may further “…alienate socially excluded groups” from accessing public goods (Gehner 41). These barriers are rarely self-imposed and run the risk of flying under the radar, much to the detriment of the social-excluded peoples who likely need access public services the most. For example, Annette DeFaveri’s “Breaking Barriers” expresses dissatisfaction with library circulation policies that prohibit homeless individuals and those without proof of address and identification from procuring library cards (DeFaveri 5-6). While I understand promoting information access for socially-excluded groups is a pervasive, complex issue that requires reform at every level of the library’s functionality, I believe socially-excluded peoples must first be physically welcome through the library’s doors in order to access its resources and use its space. How would it be possible for the library’s internal mechanisms to reform and improve if socially excluded groups are barred from participating?

Annette DeFavari’s “Breaking Barriers” expresses a similar idea, saying that one way to create an inclusive place is to “emphasize the importance of the library’s initial contact with new patrons” (DeFaveri 2). This got me thinking about how important it is for library policy-makers to consider whether the library’s bureaucratic process of procuring a library card summons feelings of ‘otherness’ for certain groups. Some ideas to consider are whether the library card application is translated into multiple languages, whether patrons confined to online registration, whether circulation desk attendants are available to help, and if the application requires proof of US citizenship or proof of residence. These attributes of the application process, which may echo other ‘standard’ procedures such as filing taxes or employment applications, are placing an invisible blockade between the patron and the front doors of the library.

The IDNYC program, which folds in library card services, sends a concerted effort from City Hall to construct an accessible municipal ID procurement process by printing applications in 25 languages, offering registration in each borough and in public libraries, and creating positions for staff members to assist ID applicants. Proof of residence can be substantiated with a letter from “a City agency, nonprofit organization, religious institution, hospital, or health clinic in New York City” (IDNYC).

While the goal is inclusivity, I will note that there are still many facets of the program that may deter certain groups of New Yorkers from applying for municipal IDs. For example, a resident’s ability to access online letterheads could be limited, or maybe the resident simply feels uncomfortable approaching institutions for proof of residence letters. It is also possible that interacting with city officials may, as DeFaveri says, “…engender suspicion of authority, isolation, and non-participation” (DaFaveri 2). To quell these disinclinations, the installation of registration centers at community gathering spots such as parks, YMCAs and non-profits was introduced to make registration friendlier and more community-oriented. An inviting process of procuring library cards is one step toward opening the library to all, and thus, a step toward improving literacy within communities.

Critics of IDNYC have detailed concerns about the program’s policies surrounding security and privacy, and have expressed apprehension about ID holders being stigmatized when seeking out public services. I thought one of the most interesting aspects of this campaign was the care taken to camouflage ID holders without citizenship or permanent residencies, making their IDs indistinguishable from card holders who do have citizenship and residences. The ID holder’s personal information from their application is stored in a database which is only accessible to the HRA and is not connected to any other government authorities or law enforcement (IDNYC). To further protect the privacy of ID holder, addresses on not stored in the database at all, further diminishing an unlikely scenario in which an ID holder’s card information would be used national security tracking (IDNYC).

Beyond the actual privacy measures meant to protect IDNYC carriers, City Hall made inroads with NYC’s cultural institutions, health care providers, libraries, and public agencies, creating incentives attractive to all New Yorkers, as opposed to just socially-excluded groups. The idea that all types of New York residents find use and purpose in the municipal ID is settling – in a way, it further camouflages the ID holder and prevents conflation between IDNYC cards and criminality, underprivileged backgrounds, immigrant status, and disability. The IDNYC does not simply address the issue of socially-excluded peoples being refused library cards, but instead quells to the age-old myth that a municipality’s public services are most sought after by socially-excluded peoples.

I want to reiterate that the IDNYC is still imperfect: it does not address the issue of library fines prohibiting participation in the public library systems, it does not address internal library policies, and it certainly does not set any guidelines about accessible organizational methods within libraries, or staff behavior toward patrons. This article is also not an endorsement of government structures as they exist today – only an endorsement one government program’s potential. While New York City’s political climate has certainly assumed more of a leftist stance under De Blasio, broken windows still exists, real estate zoning laws are still influenced by corruption, and many socially-excluded groups feel insecure navigating the city-sponsored services. I only highlighted aspects of the IDNYC program that remove some of the barriers that prevent patrons from viewing libraries as a local resource – aspects that attempt to undo some of the damage created by a hegemonic system. When local governments and public libraries find common ground, and create programs to reflect their respective goals, I believe immense improvements can be made in the areas of access and literacy. This is why, Birdsall says, “…librarians need to devote more effort researching the political and economic dynamic that define the past and current environment of libraries” (Birdsall, p. 3). Thus, librarians must be tuned in to the political climate of their city, and engage themselves in local politics to enact necessary changes to public library systems.

References:

Birdsall, William F. (2001). “A political economy of librarianship?” Progressive Librarian 18: 1-8.

DeFaveri, Annette. (2005). “Breaking Barriers: Libraries and Socially Excluded Communities.”

Information for Social Change. 21: Summer. http://libr.org/isc/articles/21/9.pdf (Accessed September 28, 2015)

Gehner (2010). “Libraries, low-income people, and social exclusion.” Public Libraries Quarterly 29: 39–47.

Giles, David, Jeanette Estima, and Noelle Francois. Re-envisioning New York’s Branch Libraries. Rep. New York, NY: Center for An Urban Future, 2014. https://nycfuture.org/pdf/Re-Envisioning-New-Yorks-Branch-Libraries.pdf (Accessed September 28, 2015)

IDNYC. (2015). “IDNYC”. http://www1.nyc.gov/site/idnyc/index.page. (Accessed September 28, 2015).

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