Let's get this out of the way: Binyamin Solomon is black and he's Jewish and he lives in Crown Heights, and none of those things are the subject of this story. While his overlapping identities make him a member of an interesting if minuscule minority, Solomon also belongs to a much bigger demographic: the nearly 3 million New Yorkers without broadband Internet access at home.

That predicament spurred Solomon to membership in still another group, regular visitors to the city's libraries. As often as five times a week, he spends ninety minutes or more at the Eastern Parkway branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, which along with the New York Public Library and Queens Borough Public Library systems operates some 214 branches throughout the five boroughs. Eight years ago, Solomon started using the library's computers, becoming more familiar with them through the help of library staff. "It's because of them I know as much as I know now," he said in a recent interview.

When he saw a promising job ad in a newspaper last year, he updated his resume on a library computer and printed it there for five cents a page. He got the job, as a security supervisor at the Hudson Yards construction site. Now he stops at the library on his way home from work to send email, check Facebook and scout the occasional item from an online store.

A growing need

Thanks to people like Solomon, demand for public library services has risen dramatically in the past decade, even as repeated budget cuts have forced libraries to operate with smaller staffs, reduced hours, shortened weeks and shrinking capital investments. Libraries have been challenged both to expand and to contract—forces felt throughout the systems at every level by staff and patrons alike. In places, record appetite and resource constraints not only cap the potential for further flourishing but threaten to render an incomparable, innovative and vibrant institution less so.

After years of advocacy campaigns to restore money lost in annual spending cuts, library advocates are pushing the city for deeper—and more consistent—funding to help address some of the key issues they face: how to balance multiple and evolving roles, overcome disparities within the system, and maintain and invest in infrastructure for years to come.   

A report on the libraries issued last year by the Center for an Urban Future entitled "Branches of Opportunity" found circulation had risen by 59 percent from a decade before, and attendance at library programs was up by 40 percent. Data from the three library systems shows circulation in FY13 was down from that FY11 record of 69 million materials, but still accounted for 60.8 million items checked out.

Program attendance at branches in all three systems last year surpassed 2.5 million, while New York Public Library branches—libraries in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island—logged more than 14 million visits. The Brooklyn Public Library system recorded nearly 300,000 wireless sessions in FY13, nearly triple the number recorded three years before, and issued more than 167,000 new library cards, while the Queens library also topped 100,000 in new cards issued.

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Program attendance, system-wide

Source: MMR
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Far from being replaced by the Internet and e-books, the CUF report established that libraries are more important than ever in the digital age, an essential institution helping to bridge the city's digital divide and enable people from every demographic to develop skills and resources they need to navigate an information-based economy. Along with access to computers and the Internet, the library branches offer job search and resume-writing workshops; early literacy, English language, GED and citizenship classes; and other programs vital to education, employment and survival for people who may not find those needs met anywhere else.

Robust demand is visible as libraries have expanded their uses and embraced a new role as community hubs. Once seen as repositories for books and quiet spaces for reading, libraries bustle with programs each week, from toddler story times to open-mic nights, poetry readings for speakers of various languages, knitting and crochet groups, storytelling workshops, movie screenings aimed at teens and seniors and homework help sessions for schoolchildren.

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When the new Mariners Harbor branch opened in Staten Island in December, city probation officers attended the grand opening, saying they planned to introduce their charges to its computers and programs. The library, which was built after a decades-long push by residents for a branch they could walk to, now gets two requests a day from community groups to use its community room, says branch manager Elizabete Pata. "That just goes to show you how coveted that space is," she says.

Pata sees teenagers clustered around the branch's Apple computers (it is only the second NYPL branch to have them) and its lounge-style seating, but many are also avid readers, she says. "We're getting to know everyone by name. We have literally had this one girl"–Pata thinks she is a third grader from nearby P.S. 44—"come in every day," on her own. "It's already more of a community center, in that aspect, just a safe place for kids to come after school."