Where the Edge and the Center Meet— Driving Innovation in New York City’s Public Libraries

Posted by Julie Sandorf on April 12, 2016 at 10:30 AM

Over a century ago, Andrew Carnegie endowed the City of New York with an extraordinary and everlasting gift—the construction of 100 neighborhood public libraries across all five of the City’s boroughs. There are now 207 branches, serving over 40.5 million visitors annually—more people than all the City’s cultural institutions and sports arenas combined!

Much like the growth experienced during Carnegie’s time, New York has again become a magnet and adopted home for millions of ‘strivers’—immigrants seeking better lives for themselves and their families, young families attracted to the city’s opportunities and vibrancy, and older residents who want to remain active members of community life. In a city undergoing unprecedented population growth with rapidly transitioning neighborhoods, newcomers and old timers alike look to their neighborhood libraries as centers of community life and front-line library staff as among the most trusted community resources.

For a 21st century New York City, with 41% of its population foreign born, 2.9 million residents without high speed internet access at home and an increasingly competitive knowledge economy, neighborhood libraries are the ideal ‘labs’ for innovation and experimentation to meet 21st Century needs. Neighborhood libraries are well-positioned to serve residents who are longing to connect to community life through cradle-to-grave lifelong learning and through social, cultural, intellectual and multi-generational activities.

Who better to serve as change agents than the front line library staff? These dedicated individuals interact with New Yorkers every day and, through these interactions, are acutely sensitive to local needs. Design expert Michelle Ha Tucker, speaking at the Aspen Institute’s August 2015 Leadership Roundtable on Library Innovation, advised: “Think big-act small. Change happens by empowering people at the front-line level, and then creating lots of small experiments that eventually bubble up to a large scale movement”.

Among the key challenges in library innovation is this: How to empower, both financially and administratively, these local change agents and move the breakthroughs that occur at the edges into the whole organization. Over the past year, the Charles H. Revson Foundation has funded the New York Public Library’s Ideas Fund and the Brooklyn Public Library’s BKLN Incubator to drive innovation at the branch level while connecting these efforts to making change across the entire system.

New York Public Library Ideas Fund

In 2015, NYPL established the Ideas Fund to encourage staff driven innovation. The Ideas Fund is managed by a team of fourteen staff drawn from all levels of the organization. This management team, known as the Innovation Project Committee, received 127 exciting ideas in just one week.

Twenty-seven ideas were chosen for funding support in the initial round, including such pioneering programs as STEM workshops for special needs students, an LGBT+ film and discussion series for teens, guided walking tours of the Bronx, staging outdoor classrooms and circulating hardware. Three projects were selected for expansion to additional branches. These include local newspaper digitization, investigation of a tri-library museum pass program, and program enhancements to NYPL’s Family Literacy Centers.

This year the Ideas Fund has funded 32 new projects including a job search support program for the long-term unemployed, improvements in library accessibility and patron inclusion, and the creation of a mobile library.

Through the Ideas Fund website, Project Committee members are exposed to creative ideas from colleagues across the institution, and the site’s interactive forum remains active to promote communication and collaboration among staff across the whole system. In subsequent grant-making rounds, Committee members are regularly rotated and include former awardees to ensure that institutional change is ongoing. Successful ideas are scaled and replicated at additional NYPL branches.

Brooklyn Public Library BKLN Incubator

Building on our 2013 grant establishing Brooklyn Public Library’s Department of Outreach Services, which has successfully forged meaningful partnerships with community based organizations and city agencies to expand and enhance program services, Revson has most recently awarded a grant to BPL to expand its BKLN Incubator.

Piloted through an IMLS Sparks! Innovation Grant, the BKLN Incubator seeks to create a grant fund and support system that would encourage innovative practices at the branch level; to establish a mechanism for generating, testing and sharing program ideas; and to provide staff with professional development opportunities. The first call for submissions last November resulted in the submission of 30 ideas, representing the collaborative efforts of 51 staff members from 19 branches and 31 outside partners.

With Revson’s support, BPL is developing a much deeper and more rigorous set of training modules and research-and-development support for winning ideas, using outside consultants with expertise in community engagement, program development, service design and related fields. In the lead-up to the competition for funding, all interested staff will be introduced to basic skills in program design, budgeting and tools to help them create strong proposals and partnerships. A review committee composed of BPL staff will select between 5-8 winning projects, each receiving between $2,500 and $10,000. Specialized consultants will work with the winning teams to refine their projects, develop prototypes and measure results. BPL will also recruit and match staff mentors from across the system to support the teams.

The NYPL and BPL innovation funds are working creatively to address the innovation challenge. As stipulated at the Aspen Institute Roundtable last summer, “Libraries must foster a culture of innovation and look to ways to foster new thinking and experimentation at the edges of institutions and connect them with the center…. Innovation must become part of the library DNA.” The Revson Foundation is proud to partner with public libraries in the City to help re-imagine New York’s branch libraries and meet the innovation challenge of the 21st century.

Julie Sandorf


The Charles H. Revson Foundation