National Library Week: Queens Library System Offers Unique Experiences

14 Richmond Hill Library

BY STEVEN J. FERRARI

Widely considered to be one of the largest, most-used libraries in the country – if not the world – the Queens Library system celebrates National Library Week by highlighting the hundreds of programs available to the nearly one million residents of Queens who regularly visit one of the 62 branches Borough-wide.

Supporters of the library stress that the library system is more than just a place to borrow books, movies and music. The library is a vital part of the Queens community that assists residents with job searches, English-language classes for non-native speakers, computer instruction and several other programs for children and adults.

“The wonderful reality of this library is that it has such a wide array of services,” Joseph Ficalora, president of the library’s Board of Trustees, said. “The library affects so many different facets of people’s lives.”

Bridget Quinn-Carey, the library’s chief operating officer, noted that the Queens Library is always ready to serve its communities.

“Our children’s librarians are there to offer story times for youngsters,” she said. “Many of the books, DVDs and music available in each community library are hand-selected by people who best know their customers’ needs.”

Opportunities Offered

Representing one of the most diverse populations in the world, the Queens Library has evolved beyond just a circulation system. According to the library’s website, the 62 branches of the library offered more than 38,000 free programs in 2013, with attendance topping 665,000.

A Chinese food cooking demonstration at the Flushing branch is one of the many programs put on by the library every year.

A Chinese food cooking demonstration at the Flushing branch is one of the many programs put on by the library every year.

One of the key offerings in a Borough that boasts hundreds of different languages is the library’s outreach for immigrants and new citizens. Over the last 35 years, the library has assisted thousands of immigrants with free citizenship and naturalization classes, along with English Language courses and adult basic education classes.

The library also offers a number of programs directed at helping its users find new jobs and get access to small business support programs.

The library’s main branch – the Central Library in Jamaica – hosts the Jobs4Five kiosk, a program that assists users with the job application process. Job hunters are encouraged to create a profile with their resume and employment information and the kiosk assists in sending out applications to appropriate positions.

If a job hunter is worried that he or she does not have the proper attire for an interview, the library helps there, too. Its “Tiebrary” program also lends ties to library patrons, along with a pamphlet on how to tie it properly.

Ficalora said the Queens Library was ahead of the game in terms of developing technology to make visits to the library more accessible to everyone. He noted that the library has taken a lead in looking for new ways for libraries around the world – not just within the Queens Library system – to use new technologies.

“Our people are at the forefront of what can be accomplished with technology,” he said.

The library has also made technology within each branch a priority. System-wide, the library houses almost 2,000 public computers, along with Wi-Fi access so people can work on their own laptops or tablets.

In the storm-ravaged Rockaways, the library is lending tablets with a proprietary interface that makes the system easy to use, even for those who are technologically uninitiated. The program earned the library the Library of the Future Award from the American Library Association in 2014.

The library also provides coursework in computer coding languages, and offers digital access to music and independent films.

PR Problems

News reports calling out the Queens Library system for the high salary earned by President and CEO Thomas Galante led to investigations that revealed more news that several officials considered troubling. The use of public funds to create a smoking deck outside his Jamaica office, in addition to earning six-figures through consulting work at a school on Long Island raised eyebrows with a number of elected officials.

City Comptroller Scott Stringer called for an audit of all three library systems in the City, while Queens Borough President Melinda Katz called on Galante to resign, calling the situation with Galante a distraction from what the library is meant to accomplish.

“[The Queens Library] is an extremely needed institution to the cultures and the people of Queens,” Katz said in an interview this week. “Anything that damages that is a problem.”

Earlier this month, the library’s Board of Trustees met to vote on a resolution that would give Galante a paid leave of absence. The resolution failed, with a 9-9 tie among members. The resolution’s failure meant that Galante would continue in his role.

Funding Fears

Over the years, the Queens Library has seen a drastic reduction in funding. The lion’s share of the library’s $128.1 million budget comes from the City of New York, which provides 85 percent of the total. Despite a growing population and high demand for programs, the library had $18 million cut from its budget.

While the Queens Library system has frequently been recognized as one of the largest-circulation libraries in the world, a loss of funding means less new items the library is able to purchase. According to the Library’s website, 17.5 million items were circulated to almost 900,000 borrowers in 2013.

“You can’t have a high volume of use if you can’t buy the books,” Ficalora said.

While a number of elected officials have attacked Galante for his high salary and consulting work on Long Island, Ficalora said that the end result could mean even less available services for the library’s 62 branches.

The Board of Trustees president noted that the bad publicity could mean that officials and community groups will shy away from giving the library funding in the future. He noted that library users are still coming to the library to take advantage of its services.

“[Library] users are not being dissuaded from meeting their needs by going to the library,” Ficalora said. “The people funding the library are being dissuaded.”

He added that library officials are concerned that private donors and elected officials who provide funding to the library could hold off on funding, out of fear that more negative news could come to light.

“The consequences of these attacks are far more damaging than the attacks themselves,” he said. “So many different funding sources are being confused by the information being put out there.”

When asked about the future of the Queens Library system, Katz said she agreed with Ficalora’s fears of a decrease in donors. She said the reason she pushed for the vote to give Galante a leave of absence was to give the library a better future in terms of funding.

“My focus wasn’t to punish anyone,” she said. “I wanted to bring a structure to the system that donors could have faith in.”

With more than 7.5 million items in a collection that spans the Borough, Ficalora said that he was proud of the Queens Library system, which is often hailed as an example of what libraries should be. He noted that the library has received countless awards for “the innovative ways that it provides services,” adding that he is sure that library patrons will continue to utilize its services.

“The library offers so many unique benefits, from afterschool programs for kids to programs at night for individuals who work,” he said. “It really is a wonderful system.”

Reach Steven J. Ferrari at (718) 357-7400, Ext. 122, via email at sferrari@queenstribune.com or
@stevenferrari.