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Curated & Moderated by:
Anna-Kynthia Bousdoukou

Public Libraries: A Quiet Force to Strengthen Democracy

April 4 2024

For over 125 years, The New York Public Library has provided free access to knowledge and information for all, regardless of background, birthplace, income or beliefs. New Yorkers need and rely on the vital services and knowledge that libraries provide, which gives us an outsized role in the very foundation of our democracy — an informed citizenry.

The services and programs that we offer — including English as a second language classes, free after school programs in high needs communities, citizenship classes, and computer literacy courses – unlock doors of opportunity and even the playing field, helping to ensure that everyone is equipped to become engaged citizens and productive in their communities.

As a non-partisan and trusted institution, we have no agenda. We operate 88 branches in three boroughs and serve communities that run the gamut from politically progressive to conservative.

Wherever we are, we respond to the community and their needs, and give them tools to fulfill their potential and to see the potential of others who are different from themselves. This is the reason I believe that public libraries are the most trusted, the most visited civic institutions in the five boroughs.

Our mission has taken on new urgency over the last several years following the disturbing rise in book challenges across the United States, with the latest data showing a record high number of titles targeted in 2023. Public libraries are often the targets of these coordinated censorship campaigns, the data shows.

In recognition of these attacks on one of our basic freedoms and the fundamental role libraries play in our democracy, The New York Public Library launched its largest ever anti-censorship campaign last year to underscore the importance of reading freely. Among the offerings was a national banned book club – “Books for All” – that provided unlimited access to select young adult titles that have been the subject of bans and/or challenges. Anyone, anywhere can check out the book club books, regardless of whether or not they have an NYPL library card.

Libraries also serve another key role in a democratic society, and one that has become increasingly urgent as we spend more of our lives on screens: we are community hubs and gathering places for all at a time when those spaces are few and far between.

Come to any of our branches and see people from all walks of life, enjoying the space, quietly reading, learning a new language with native speakers, and getting homework help. Nationally, a new study shows that young people – the ones we tend to think of as most glued to their devices – are visiting libraries at higher rates than older generations.

At NYPL, we see this firsthand in our teen centers, the first of which opened in 2021 at our Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library. Centrally located in Midtown Manhattan, it immediately became a hub for teens from all over the five boroughs, and its success helped propel the launch of 19 more teen centers in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island, thanks to generous funding from city government and our private partners. Every day you’ll find teens collaborating, studying, creating, and just hanging out in a safe space.

It’s clear that people of all ages are hungry for places where they can gather freely with no expectations, and that the demand for libraries will continue to grow. We must continue to invest in libraries, so they can keep quietly strengthening and fortifying our democracy, whether it's through standing up against book bans, author talks that connect neighbors with little in common, or a being a welcoming space when all other doors are closed. Regardless of what you need in these challenging times, your library is here for you.

Photo credit: Jonathan Blanc /NYPL