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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