Book Desert in Bronx Transformed by NYPL


What is it like to live in a neighborhood without a bookstore? Ask a resident of the Bronx. The Bronx’s only bookstore, Barnes and Noble, will close in January 2017. Like a grocery store, this store has fed the community, but with ideas and creativity, just as important as fruits and vegetables to residents’ health and well-being. The Bronx is a historically underserved borough and the poorest county in New York State. In the New York Times, Bronx residents bemoaned the loss of access to books and expressed frustration that the bookstore was closing despite public interest.

But public interest will never trump profit. Barnes and Noble will close no matter how loud the public outcry. Luckily there is a hero waiting in the wings; The New York Public Library (NYPL). NYPL operates 34 branches throughout the borough. Its crown jewel is the Bronx Library Center (BLC), which functions both as a literary resource and community center providing essential needs and services. This library adjusts to neighborhood need, with languages and services that are relevant to their changing clientele.

BLC is the largest public library in the borough, offering special programs, story hours, and English classes, and holds the Latino and Puerto Rican Cultural Collection. Opened in 2006, BLC replaced the 80 year-old Fordham Library Center, maintaining a century-old tradition of literacy support and library services to the community. The library provides the following free programs:

  • Financial, citizenship, career, and educational counseling
  • Computer, ESOL, literacy, reading, and writing classes
  • BridgeUp afterschool programs
  • An auditorium with weekly entertainment programs

Knowing how important libraries are to communities like the Bronx, the Equality Indicators Annual Report 2016 include an indicator, location and library access, to assess inequality in access to public libraries. We compared the New York Public Library (NYPL) system in Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx, to the two non-NYPL public library systems, Queens Borough Public Library and Brooklyn Public Library. What we found was overwhelmingly positive, this score increased +36 to a score of 100. This means all public libraries city-wide are now open at least six days per week. This is a huge improvement from last year, when just under half of non-NYPL branches, 65% of Brooklyn branches and only 33% of Queens branches, were open six days a week. Queens and Brooklyn caught up to the NYPL standard.

Standardization of the six day a week schedule city-wide is a large leap forward for everyone. The next hurdle that needs to be tackled is disparities in library services within the three boroughs NYPL serves. In the Bronx, the loss of the prominent and only general bookstore will make the borough’s NYPL branches even more essential.

While there is much talk about the irrelevancy of libraries, the public LOVES their libraries. The proof is in the funding. Thanks to an increase in public funding this year, NYPL was able to create new jobs and expand programs. Some highlights from their 2015 Annual Report include:

  • Hiring of new children’s librarians to oversee story times and early literacy programs
  • English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes and conversation time
  • Creating the middle school Innovation Lab connecting robotics and technology education with community issues and homework help at 20 locations, including West Farms Library in the Bronx
  • Teaching office readiness skills through TechConnect programs for adults can learn Microsoft Office and improve their job prospects
  • Widening access both educational programs and Library HotSpot, a free home internet program that lends out portable Wi-Fi hot-spot devices

The reports of libraries’ deaths have been greatly exaggerated.