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Partly-cipating or fully participating?

Beyond Books: How libraries can serve the public

Curated & Moderated by:
Anna-Kynthia Bousdoukou
From “partly-cipation” to participation: Join the conversation on civic engagement and civil discourse
Tuesday 30 April 2024, at 6pm EDT
Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library (SNFL) in New York
In collaboration with The New York Public Library

The SNF Dialogues launched a series of open discussions on Civic Engagement and Civil Discourse in the US, on April 30th, at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library (SNFL) in New York. "Beyond Books: how libraries can serve the public”, underscored libraries' pivotal role as safe spaces that serve the public, focusing on community participation, the advent of technology and fundraising issues .

The discussion was moderated by Anna-Kynthia Bousdoukou, Managing Director of the SNF Dialogues. She kicked off the discussion by highlighting:

It is no coincidence that we are starting this conversation in a library. Because libraries are much more than book repositories; they are community centers, safe havens during crises, bastions of knowledge and equality, and at the same time shining examples of democracy.
Anna Kynthia Bousdoukou, iMEdD Managing Director, SNF Dialogues Executive Director, Journalist

The ideas of civic engagement and civil discourse resonate with the mission of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation as a whole, as pointed out by its co-President Andreas Dracopoulos:

In a way we shouldn’t even be talking about civic engagement and civil discourse. We are humans, we are supposed to be engaged and we are supposed to be civil. But we have to talk about it. We don’t have to agree on everything, but we should have a dialogue.
Andreas Dracopoulos, SNF Co-President

The main speakers were Dr. Tony W. Marx, President and CEO of the New York Public Library (NYPL), and Dr. Ares Kalandides, Urban scholar and Academic Advisor at New York University, Berlin. From his part, Dr. Tony W. Marx pointed out:

It is the symbolic power that people experience, of being welcome, without any papers, without any credentials, respected, in a space that is majestic. When I started this job, somebody said to me: ‘Oh that’s where the homeless go’. We should be proud of that, that’s where everyone can go: the Nobel laureates, the homeless, and everyone in between.

Tony Marx SNF Dialoguer Profile

Tony Marx, President of The New York Public Library

Dr. Tony W. Marx further added that “books are powerful. Librarians are powerful. Knowledge is power. Access, engagement, opportunity are what make democracy real, and people are coming after us." Dr. Ares Kalandides stressed:

We need to understand libraries, books and knowledge as a public good. Public goods are under a very serious threat. And as an urban planner, I also see libraries as a public space. A public space does not need to be an open space. It can be, but that’s not the idea. The library has two characteristics; it’s open for everybody and it’s free, you don’t have to consume.

Ares Kalantidis SNF Dialoguer Profile

Ares Kalantides, Urban scholar and Academic Advisor at New York University, Berlin

Dr. Ares Kalandides also pointed out the very crucial role of librarians, who can serve as mediators and facilitators of the dialogue taking place in the library.

Kathleen Carrasco, Borough Director at the Bronx Neighborhood Library Networks in the NYPL, made an intervention on the community-building library of the Bronx library. “An important part of working in the Bronx is seeing folks within my own community using the library and what the library is able to offer. Part of this is enriching the life of everyone around you. What I love about what we were able to do in the Bronx libraries is giving everyone, that walks through our doors, the opportunity of information. That ([sic] opportunity) can be to learn English as a second language [...] trying to become a business owner...”.

Ricci Yuhico, Managing Librarian for Young Adult Services at SNFL, talked about the services offered by the Teen Center. “I am incredibly proud of my team downstairs who work every day at making sure that the teen center is a welcome and inclusive space for them. The staff works to make the place warm and inviting, and all of the state-of-the-art technology is nothing without that.”

One of the members of the NYPL’s flagship Teen Center, student and library page, Kaelin Motsoasele, shared their own experience. “As somebody who has been so interested in civics, especially from a young age, the ability to work on civic at this library has opened so many doors for me. I was able to learn how to go about my own programming and how to engage with my fellow teenagers, especially since I knew that my peers definitely didn’t want to be engaged. There was a lack of information and lack of access.”

Last but not least, the architect of the SNFL as well as Founding Partner and Creative Director of the Netherlands-based firm Mecanoo, Francine Houben shed light on what an architect takes into consideration when they are designing a public library: “We try to imagine what kind of communities we are serving, connecting the library to the identity of each place. I want to give people the feeling that this building was designed for them. It’s not my library, it’s their library.”

Finally, all the participants agreed that fundraising is an essential process that requires the joint efforts of the state, private funders and citizens.

At the heart of the SNF Dialogues event lied the launch of a four-part podcast series, "Beyond Books: The Many Lives of Libraries," hosted by Dr. Ares Kalandides; a deep dive into how libraries around the world have navigated the challenges posed by technological innovation and changes in urban settings.

An animated excerpt of an interview with the creator of the Colombian mobile donkey library (“Biblioburro”), that was featured in the podcast series, was also shown during the discussion.