Nearly 30 years in the making, the building of the Central branch of Brooklyn Library that dominates a corner of Grand Army Plaza, went from ground first being broken for the building in 1912, to completed construction in 1941. In 1997 the Landmarks Preservation Commission declared it a landmark building and in 2013 the interior of the library, much like the concept of the Public Library itself, remains a work in progress. Walking into the Central branch is literally like walking into an open book, one that offers glimpses of how the public library of the past and present is actively repositioning itself for a future role as something much more than simply a repository of knowledge and information, accessible to all. On a recent visit, I decided to take myself on a tour of the two floors open to the public before settling into the Youth Wing for an afternoon of observation and a conversation with one of the library’s two children and young adult specialist librarians on duty that day. After the near complete silence in the adult/reference sections and the popular library upstairs, and the low buzz of the info-commons and the library café in the main lobby, the noise level goes up a notch or five as I opened the doors to the Youth Wing which is a world away from traditional notions of the public library as quiet space. And while there is certainly public debate and a lot of enthusiasm for having both types of environments, the palpable energy of the Youth Wing space certainly made for a lively library visit.
The first thing I’m told by Yesha, the Y.A. librarian, who is standing under a “Cats Against Cat Calls” banner (a visual medley of pink lettering and photos of cats in their best haughty feline pose) is that she herself was asked to be quiet recently by a young patron for talking too loudly – so much for the mythical figure of the shushing librarian! While the main focus of the Youth Wing is still reading and study, how that reading and studying is undertaken is changing rapidly. Books are still central to the space but laptops are also available for checking out and there are eight desktop computers for use in the Y.A. area. Color printing, either from a library computer or a patron’s own electronic device, is available for a small fee and Yesha handles queries and facilitates various printing requests during the course of our conversation.
In addition to the computers in the Youth Wing, teens also have exclusive access to all the computers every Tuesday afternoon between 4.30pm and 6pm in the Info-Commons as part of the Teen Tech Time program. However, by far the most popular teen tech offering is the Active Gaming Arcade program on Saturdays providing access to games such as Minecraft, which hones players creative gaming skills, encourages them to explore new environments, collect resources to use in these spaces and adapt and protect the space from attack.
A downside Yesha mentions in terms of having the availability of online games is that the teens rarely play against each other but tend to retreat into the games by themselves and so another aim of teen programming at the library is to try and balance things out and encourage more interaction between patrons. To this end there is an art club, writing clinic, poetry workshop, book club and a Game On! board game challenge, there’s even a monthly open mic. session as part of the teen program. Programs are planned to run with 2-15 teens taking part and having eight or more participants is considered a success.
Not all the programs are instant hits and Yesha explained that a recent self-portrait program required the librarian to order teens in the tech lab off the computers and point blank refuse them further access until they tried drawing “for at least 10 minutes”! While most did their 10 minutes and fled, eight teens stayed and returned to complete the program the following week, small steps perhaps along the path to what Durrani and Smallwood have called creating the people orientated library service:
As custodians of information, librarians everywhere have a role to play in eliminating the root causes of poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, and inequality. It is no longer acceptable for libraries and librarians to refuse to acknowledge this social responsibility. The choice is simple: if the information profession does not acknowledge its social responsibility and act upon it, it will no longer have a social role. People will then develop alternative models of information and knowledge communication, which do meet their needs. There will then be no libraries as we know them today. The choice is our to make – today.
The location of the Central branch means that it services teen patrons across a broad demographic spectrum, from the relatively high-income area of Park Slope to the lower income areas of Crown Heights and Brownsville, as well as patrons who travel from further away to use the facilities unique to the Central branch. In turn this means there is a real opportunity to level the playing field of access, and in terms of teen patrons, by far one of the most effective and popular programs is T4 – today’s teens, tomorrow’s techies.
Previously, I’d spoken to a former participant of the program, now a librarian himself who explained that for him the program had given him an opportunity to take a different path to the one he’d been heading down as young man. While currently only offered at the Central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, the program gives teens a chance to learn basic computer skills via an intensive summer workshop. This is then followed up with a minimum commitment of three hours per week for at least a 6-month period of volunteer work at the library, assisting librarians, and trouble shooting computer problems encountered by older patrons.
This intergenerational aspect and the social skills that are developed while carrying out a responsible volunteer role, as well as the varied practical skills that are learned, demonstrates the active way the library is fostering not just a community for its own future but make tangible what Dewey thought a “Great Community” might be.
Block quote: The Professional is Political: Redefining the Social Role of Public Libraries, Shiraz Durrani and Elizabeth Smallwood – first appeared in Progressive Librarians, No. 27, Summer 2006. Republished in Questioning Library Neutrality, Alison Lewis Ed. Library Juice Press 2008.