Kerwin Pilgrim recalls the days a decade ago, when, as a recent library school graduate, he waited on patrons at the New Lots branch in East New York, Brooklyn.

“I’m there ready to do my best reference work,” he remembers. “Are they going to come in and research the Great Depression, or other topics? No. Every other question at the desk is, ‘Hey, can you help me find a job?’”

Now, as director of Adult Learning for the Brooklyn Public Library, Pilgrim oversees a range of programs and services designed to address those questions. Adult Learning Centers at five locations offer users job-search and employment-related assistance, from basic literacy, English, and computer classes to job training workshops and support for developing small businesses. Passionate as he describes efforts to re-imagine the library’s potential, Pilgrim says he is simply a “mouthpiece” for users “who demand more from public libraries.”

“What they are really looking for at the local level is things to help them move their lives forward,” he says. “There’s a new focus on…the library as an institution that will help you progress.”

The city’s libraries have embraced new roles as community hubs, partners in education and lifelong learning, drivers of workforce development, even economic and cultural engines, providing vital services to tens of thousands of schoolchildren, job-seekers, immigrants, and older adults, officials with the city’s three public library systems say. Evidence of this orientation is on display every week in the growing number of classes, workshops, programs and services offered at the branches – more than 2,600 per week, or over 137,000, in the last fiscal year citywide.

Programming has expanded despite a half-decade of cuts in city library spending. The 2008 recession prompted heavy demand for programs and services, and many programs are funded by grants from private foundations, non-profits, and city, state or federal agencies. The rising demand has required branches to reshuffle and manage coveted space to accommodate multiple uses and clientele. And while the ebb and flow of outside contributions allows for innovation in programming, unsteady funding comes with a cost for patrons and staff when money for popular programs dries up. Unique relationships with donors also make for disparities in programming among the three systems, as the recent arrival of a $15 million gift to the New York Public Library and the loss of a Brooklyn Public Library grant demonstrate.

Meeting needs they see

There's hope that programming for all three systems will continue to expand. The city’s FY’15 preliminary budget provides baseline funding for the libraries at last year’s levels (still much less than peak funding in 2008), but a push is on from the City Council and library officials to increase that by $65 million to enable six-day a week service at every branch. More hours mean more time, space and staff for programs and services.

Most programs are developed and led by librarians in the branches in response to perceived need or patron requests. Some exist in partnership with outside groups, while others are centrally planned through multi-level initiatives with their own infrastructure and staff to serve different demographics within the libraries’ overall constituencies, says Bridget Quinn-Carey, who oversees programming as chief operating officer of the Queens Public Library. With rare exceptions, all programs are free and open to the public.

“It’s a level playing field for everyone in the community,” Quinn-Carey says.

Libraries create programming with a wide range of groups in mind. In a given week, a visitor to the city’s libraries could, just for starters, get a blood glucose screening, attend a pre-GED class, learn to knit, apply for food stamps, build Lego robots, get information on how to cope after Sandy, take an Arabic calligraphy workshop, practice English conversation skills, train to be a home health aide, dance ballet, get homework help from a paid tutor, workshop a short story, conduct a mock job interview, create a hydroponic “window farm”, consult with an elder law attorney, listen to rhymes at infant story time, seek help from a case manager for domestic violence, and get assistance with email basics like how to send attachments.

While programs like yoga or movie screenings might not always seem directly linked to literacy, they do get patrons in the door, which can prompt them to check out materials or use other services, says Judy Zuckerman, Brooklyn Public Library’s Director of Youth and Family Services, “It’s all part of education and bringing people together.”   

Libraries are also offering more in-depth programming, adding multi-week workshops to their slate of one-time sessions. They run summer camps and SAT prep classes, staff social workers to aide new immigrants, and loan books to people in jail and in nursing homes. In September, a handful of branches in Queens could become city pre-Kindergarten sites, although those applications are pending.

“We’ve got all sorts of things you wouldn’t expect,” says Quinn-Carey. “We’re an organization that likes to say ‘Yes.’”

“We don’t do it in a vacuum,” she adds. These programs “come about because we really believe the role of the library in the community is to be responsive to the community.”

Driven by funding

The city’s three public library systems – New York Public Library, which serves the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island, the Brooklyn Public Library, and the Queens Public Library – together increased the number of program sessions they held between FY’09 and FY’13 by 19 percent, and saw attendance at programs rise by 13 percent during that period. All three library systems received grants from federal stimulus funding that greatly expanded workplace readiness programming. But different funding streams meant that NYPL increased its programming in much greater numbers, while Brooklyn experienced a decline in sessions and attendance during this period.

Attendance at NYPL programs rose 43 percent as the number of sessions grew by 37 percent, according to data from the Mayor’s Management Report. Much of that growth occurred in the last two years, coinciding with a new emphasis on free educational programs by Anthony Marx, who was appointed president and CEO of the library in 2011. In the last 18 months, Marx has helped to raise some $35 million for “out of school time” programs, expansion of the library’s adult learning centers, and adult literacy training, according to library spokesman Ken Weine. Pilot programs in 15 branches offering students services like daily homework help began in September.