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Libraries Empower People to Participate in a Civil Society

Gary E. Strong

On reflection, I should have perhaps titled my remarks this morning, “Librarians Empower People to Participate in a Civil Society.” It is the commitment and dedication of our staff at Queens Borough Public Library that have built our programs and engaged our very diverse population. We as librarians are often called upon to think about the future. But in the past few months, thinking about the future has become more difficult. As we concentrate on the drama played out before us each evening, the future seems uncertain. As we face shrinking resources for support of libraries, museums, schools, and communities, our resolve is stretched to the limits.

Urban public libraries in America today are helping shape the future of our cities. They provide the capital by which people can empower themselves, governments can govern, and communities can be peaceable. As the Library’s social role in this new century takes form, we are challenged to create and sustain services that bridge the past and the future.

A Fundamental Public Good

New York City is a unique urban center. It comprises five boroughs and is served by three separate public library systems. The Borough of Queens is considered the most racially and ethnically diverse county in the United States. Total population recorded in the 2000 U.S. Census topped 2.2 million people, a 14.2 percent increase over the past decade. Forty-six percent of the total population are foreign-born and speak a language other than English at home. Among the children in our public school districts, about 140 different languages are spoken in addition to English. Approximately 27 percent (some half-million people) of the population five years and older consider that they speak English less than “very well.” Such is the diversity of ethnic and immigrant communities living and working in Queens that a seven-mile subway line connecting Times Square and Flushing has been nicknamed “the International Express.” Each stop on this elevated line introduces passengers to a variety of ethnic communities within different neighborhoods, reflecting the multitude of nations from around the world.

Queens Library ended its fiscal year on June 30, 2002, having circulated 16.8 million items and welcomed more than 16.3 million visitors to its Central Library, 62 branches and 6 adult learning centers. Our collections have grown to more than 9.8 million items. More than 24,000 programs were attended by 529,000 library customers in that year, and staff answered 4.5 million reference and informational questions.

The library of the future is not a simple place; it is a multifaceted, multicultural organism. In Queens, this belief is supported by our mission: “to provide quality services, resources, and lifelong learning opportunities through books and a variety of other formats to meet the informational, educational, cultural and recreational needs and interests of the borough’s diverse and changing populations.” The mission further states that the library “is a forum for all points of view.”

Further, we believe in our vision. The Queens Library represents a fundamental public good in our democracy. It assures the right, the privilege, and the ability of individuals to choose and pursue any direction of thought, study, or action they wish. The Library provides the capital necessary for us to understand the past and plan for the future. It is also our collective memory, as history and human experience are best preserved in writing. The Library is dedicated to the needs of its diverse communities, its advocacy and support of appropriate technology, the excellence of its collections, the commitment of its staff to its customers, and the very highest ideals of library service.

We at the Queens Library believe deeply in equity and that libraries are fundamental in empowering people to take charge of their lives, their governments, and their communities. In this way, Queens Library has an essential role to play in the new millennium. The collections we build, the access we provide, and the technologies we embrace will carry the people of Queens into a productive and creative future.

Marketplace Techniques Meet Traditional Services

Our leadership team focuses on four strategic directions for the Queens Library: (1) state of the art libraries, (2) books and reading, (3) quality customer service, and (4) children and teens. Strategies within each area have been identified for further development by various work teams. This work drives our budget and resource allocation, particularly in these difficult budget times. We will continue to build both the collections and the connections that we have put in place.

Our challenge has been to merge the successful aspects of our traditional popular library services with those of the emerging electronic information marketplace. We will continue to provide a “sense of place” in each of our communities. People come to our libraries as a social and personal experience. We are seeing teens coming in record numbers, primarily for the technology. But they also come to find books to read, attend poetry slams or open-mike nights, participate in book discussion groups, and attend other programs. We will continue to celebrate the book and promote reading. We will support creativity and intellectual inquiry. We will continue to be a learning organization.

At the same time, we will use technology to connect to the world. As we develop our online presence, we will be aware that we are not an “e-business.” Libraries have always been about the selection of the best in books and quality in our collections from all over the world. Moving into the electronic arena, we must find ways to guide our customers to useful information and helpful sites in the electronic village. As we search to provide a safe environment for kids and their families, we work to support an individual’s freedom to pursue any direction of thought and study. We will develop methodologies to select quality Internet sites in the major languages spoken in the community and create navigation aids that move customers to information that serves their needs. Through video teleconferencing, we connect children in after-school programs to the world.

Speaking the Neighborhood’s Languages

In the traditional library, we build quality collections and place appropriate collections in the various neighborhoods of the borough. Each neighborhood has a different mix of nationalities and languages. Rather than make each branch a small version of the Central Library, Queens asks managers to assess their communities and build collections to meet their needs. Multilingual collections are not limited to special centers, but can be found in every branch that serves an international community. We maintain 152 collections in 24 languages across the system to meet the needs of our customers. Popular books, periodicals, newspapers, music CDs, videocassettes, and DVDs keep people connected with their homelands and languages. These collections are “merchandised” in bookstore fashion and encourage browsing. In addition, we offer extensive collections of materials to help immigrants learn English.

Special resource collections are built and maintained in the Central Library (70-plus languages) and at the International Resource Center (IRC) (44 languages) that supplement local branch holdings with more serious material. At the IRC, collections are limited to works about countries and cultures represented by the language of the collection. In the French collection, for example, all of the nonfiction is about France or francophone countries. And fiction and literature include only works written originally in French.

Programs of ethnic and performing arts are presented in communities across the system, including free readings, concerts, and workshops. Free lectures and workshops in the most widely spoken immigrant languages of Queens are presented on topics essential to new immigrants’ acculturation, such as citizenship and job training information, advice on helping children learn, and information on social services. Our Directory of Immigrant Serving Agencies assists the library staff and other organizations and governments in identifying useful and helpful services for those newly arrived in the city.

Our programs attract very diverse audiences. Typically two-thirds of the audience will reflect the target community; the rest come to learn about their new neighbors. We see new immigrants regularly in our traditional programs to learn about living in America and their new community. The family is very important in Queens, and we focus many of our efforts on providing an experience for the whole family. For example, in celebrating the Lunar New Year, we will have programming for the whole family, and families often come and spend the whole day with us. Recently children in one of our branches engaged in a Web chat with children in Zagreb, Croatia, part of an ongoing dialogue with one of our sister libraries.

The IRC also presents programs in the performing arts. In fact, we have presented some of the finest Chinese opera companies, direct from Shanghai and Taipei, as well as Taiwan’s Tsou Aboriginal Dance Troupe. But our emphasis, which is unique in Queens Library, is lectures and seminars that address social, political, medical, philosophical, and religious issues. Geographically, East Asia has been a constant focus of these programs. Last October, a panel of distinguished speakers from Beijing, Shanghai, Taiwan, and the United States-including Wang Dan, a former student leader of the Tiananmen demonstrations-spoke about the future of China. And last month, Cao Siyuan, a Beijing-based economist who led a successful campaign to institute a bankruptcy law in China, gave his views on China’s future.

With Korea in the news, former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Donald Gregg spoke on U.S. foreign policy toward the two Koreas. Next month, James Seymour of Columbia University’s East Asian Institute will speak on the North Korean refugee community in China.

The Library also sponsors a Chinese book discussion group that meets regularly in both the Flushing branch and the IRC. Branch and IRC staff members select the Chinese-language books for the groups, and discussion is conducted in Chinese.

The Library’s adult learning centers provide opportunities to learn English as a second language, to improve English language skills, and (for native-born Americans) to gain basic skills. Small conversation groups and computer-assisted instruction greatly expand these opportunities for learning. Classes are often oversubscribed, and there are long waiting lists for services.

Our galleries are often host to prestigious exhibitions from other libraries and countries, including the National Library of China, Shanghai Library, Korea, Iran, and Russia. The current exhibitions focus on fine art from Russia, and a wonderful photographic exhibit sponsored with the Chinese American Museum of New York City spotlights scenes from the Flushing community.

Access to all Queens Library collections is through the Library’s OPAC, InfoLinQTM. Terminals are available to customers in all public service areas of the library. Readers of Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and Russian have the option of clicking on bibliographic instruction pages displaying Roman and vernacular character sets. All public access terminals have Internet access, and terminals are used system-wide by customers to access Chinese-Japanese-Korean (CJK) publications, online news services, and other databases. Customers can manage their own accounts, place holds, or ask reference questions using the Library’s Web site.

The Queens Library introduced WorldLinQTM in 1996. WorldLinQTM is a multilingual Web-based information system providing location of information through appropriate Web links around the world of interest to our customers. There are currently modules in Chinese (including Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Mainland China), Korean, French, Spanish, Russian, Romanian, and Ukrainian. Sites in Arabic, Croatian, and Urdu are in development.

Our International Relations Office coordinates relations with libraries around the globe. The office negotiates and manages cooperative agreements with libraries and library organizations nationally and internationally. Currently we have partnership agreements with libraries in Asia, Europe, and Latin America, including the National Library of China and the Shanghai Library. Staff members from these libraries have worked in Queens as part of an exchange program, and members of our staff have worked in their libraries. Members of our staff have participated in a variety of visitors programs sponsored by the U.S. State Department, most recently visiting American Corners libraries in Russia.

Our International Center for Public Librarianship advocates the North American model of public libraries and creates on-the-job-training opportunities for library professionals. Under this program, a number of librarians and graduate library students from around the world have worked as interns and fellows in the Queens Library, 30 in this year alone. They spend between one and six months experiencing tailored curricula to meet their individual interests and needs. These activities engage our staff to learn about libraries in other countries and to gain an understanding of the newly arrived customers that we serve.

Building Partnerships within the Community

As a major community resource, we build partnerships with others serving our borough’s populations, most significantly the Queens Health Network. We are both concerned about the condition of health services in Queens. Together we make a significant impact on getting information on immunization, asthma, and cancer. We have just finished a basic literacy class for workers at the hospitals who needed to improve their English language skills. We are also working closely with the Department of Labor and manage the resource center at the Jamaica One-Stop, helping people find new employment. With the Justice Department, we are piloting new library services for at-risk youth in two communities.

Public libraries are not dead and are not dying. We see more people today than ever before. They come to enjoy our collections, to meet in our spaces, to experience public dialogue, to read books, and to use the new technologies that we are making available. We often see people within days of their arrival in America. I often ask, “How did you hear about the Queens Library?” and hear the answer, “Someone told me to come to the Queens Library when you arrive, and they will help you there.”

One thing is certain: We may not be facing an easy future, but we will be engaged in one that is exciting and challenging. Most important, we will need librarians who can rise to the challenge of merging the traditional print-based library services with those of a virtual nature. We will need librarians who understand human behavior and value public service.

We are particularly challenged today by our diverse communities. Libraries can play an instrumental role in the development of a civil society by providing broad-based access to traditional and electronic resources. Creating a level playing field for all in our communities will ensure that our democracy thrives.

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