The Role of Libraries in NYC Communities

By Victor Marinez

On a rainy day in New York, droplets ricochet off rooftops and dance along the tree branches, crashing onto the glass panes of a library—a haven most times, especially during drizzly days. Inside, the aroma of freshly opened books naturally overwhelms the senses as every wall is covered with novels and textbooks. It’s a minimal space, but the lining of the books makes it feel very dense. The halls of this library are filled with all different types of people: kids, teenagers, college students, adults, and even the elderly.

Every person has individual needs, from studying, free Covid-19 tests, or reading circles. Silvia Garcia, a librarian at the Fordham library branch in the Bronx navigates these multifaceted halls with a sense of urgency whenever one of these different tasks is presented to her. Librarians like Garcia constantly swap hats and job titles to help the community.

Becoming a librarian is far from easy. From how they are represented in media, one would think a basic knowledge of literature would do. However, becoming a certified librarian requires education, testing, and experience. According to the American Library Association (ALA), someone needs a Master’s in Library and Information Science and, “six graduate credit hours from an ALA-accredited school.”

Librarians also must hold a New York State Public Librarian conditional certificate and have two years of professional experience at a U.S. library. This education requirement may surprise some, but the most crucial element here is the required work experience. At the end of the day, librarians, no matter what role they are serving at a given moment, are educators themselves. The number one way to hone that skill is through experience and practice.

Garcia has been a librarian in New York for the last 10 years and has witnessed the transformation of the field firsthand. What was once seen as a book depository and a study area has now transformed into a community center with a large number of activities to engage residents. This evolution will continue as librarians progressively find new ways to change, adapt and benefit the people in their communities.

Working in Fordham, Garcia is a part of the New York Public Library system which has locations in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island. The other two boroughs of New York City have their own library systems. This allows them a little bit of independence as they can pursue their own programs and activities outside of NYPL. However, there is some connectivity as they all share the same budget.

In 2015, the Center for an Urban Future (CUF) a New York-based research aggregate, reported on the growth libraries have had between the years 2000-2014. In that span, there was a 67% increase in all attendees across all events and locations. In that same amount of time, there was a 30% increase in all physical and digital materials checked out of the library. In 2021, the NYPL released a report called “Year in Impact” showing the continued trend of growth. Its fiscal year during the Covid-19 pandemic had many spikes in activity with a “227% one-day increase in SimplyE sign-ups” and a “240% rise in online program attendance from April into May.”

There is constant activity in the library. According to Towards Data Science, an independent investigative outlet, the busiest time for a library is around 4 pm. From observation in the Fordham branch, that is also when all the kids that don’t go home or don’t have after-school activities flock to the library. On a typical day, you would see librarian Garcia giving out laptops to do work, checking out books for assignments, and helping patrons print whatever they need.

Most of the kids are regulars and you can often see Garcia talking to them, calling them by their names, and giving book recommendations. One of the most spectacular moments of the library is when younger students flock around her closely listening to reading circle. “It’s one of my favorite responsibilities,” Garcia said. “It’s oddly soothing because I know everyone loves it so much.” The sense of involvement is much more evident when Garcia interacts with teens, not only because they are older but because they are much more active in the library.

Libraries aren’t quiet anymore,” says Fritzi Bodenheimer, a spokeswoman for the NYPL. “You can hear loud noises coming from a room at any moment.,” She’s right. Once Garcia opens up a room of video games to those kids, it can get loud. It’s their time to be free and enjoy themselves. This is the one time it’s okay to be boisterous at the public library.

A version of this on a more micro scale is the small teen area that is surrounded by manga, graphic novels, and middle-grade, and young-adult books. It is pretty common for Garcia to discuss new arrivals and other titles with the teens. “It can feel like a mini book club for any recurring guest,” said Garcia, “Manga and comics have been really big for us.” You could tell this is true just by how large the offerings for those books are. While novels still dominate most of the library’s catalog, a large section is dedicated to these books, especially in the teen area. This is the result of the shifted opinion on those stories, once stigmatized for having drawings, they are now seen as books with worthwhile stories.

Libraries are dominated by the sense of community within their walls. It’s one of the reasons they progressively have grown in size.  “New Yorkers really care about their libraries,” said Fritzi Bodenheimer. Across the calendar year, libraries offer resume-building workshops to help residents find work. Tax preparation is a big thing, especially since it’s easy to forget a form and miss deadlines. The help doesn’t end there, The NYPL event listings are packed with in-person and online events that assist people in need. There are career coaches, workshops to learn English and even Youtube for beginners in different languages.

“We moved a lot of events online and made sure we were a safe area to be in after we opened back up,” said Garcia. The library’s online initiative was started to ensure the community was not missing out on important information just because the library was closed down. The move online allowed patrons to check out books in an ebook format when none of the physical books could be borrowed. This has proven to be highly successful as it has become popular with the younger demographic and those who love the convenience of reading on their phones and tablets. The online presence of a library has been at the forefront since Covid-19. “It was our way of still being active in the community while our doors were closed,” said Fritzi Bodenheimer

Covid-19 consolidated movement toward community health and making sure those in need have the tools they require. Libraries started to hand out free Covid-19 tests on request, something that the government has stopped doing. A few across the city have also partnered with tests and advertised things like blood donations and HIV/AIDS tests.

When it comes to community health many worry about homelessness which does have a somewhat prominent role in libraries. Often time you see people without homes reading books or using the computers just like any other patron. NYPL doesn’t name homelessness as a problem for its branches. It only says on its website that it offers library orientations, “read to me” programs as well as speaking with shelters.


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