The following is a conversation between Tony Marx, President & CEO of the New York Public Library, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City.
Denver: Pundits confidently forecast the demise of one institution or another because of advances in science and technology. But often that not only doesn’t happen, but the exact opposite occurs. For instance, with the advent of the digital and internet age, the need for libraries would no longer exist. They had served us well, but their time had come and gone. That proved not to be the case. In fact, libraries today are more vital and central to the life of the community than they have ever been. Here to discuss that and much more with us is the head of the nation’s largest library system. He is Tony Marx, the president and CEO of the New York Public Library. Good evening, Tony, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Tony: It’s great to be here. Thanks.
We’re a very strange, hybrid organization, but as you say, never been used more. The public libraries of the city in five boroughs, about 215 of them, we get almost 40 million visits a year, which is more than all the museums and sporting teams combined in this town. It’s amazing. People thought libraries were ending. They’ve never been used more.
Denver: The New York Public Library was founded back in 1895. Share with us some of the history of the institution, Tony.
Tony: The Library was founded by the richest man in New York, Mr. Astor; the greatest collector in New York, Mr. Lenox; and the most powerful politician at that time, Mr. Tilden, who should have been President of the United States. They created the New York Public Library as a research library, as a private foundation. I’m the president of the Astor Lenox Tilden Trust. That was going to be their collection at the amazing building that everybody knows on 42nd St. and 5th Ave.
But then, along came the next richest man in the world, not just New York, Mr. Carnegie. Carnegie said, “Let’s build branch libraries. I’ll pay to build them for the City of New York.” It was the largest gift in the history of philanthropy, even today if you take it to current dollars. He said, “I’ll build the libraries; the city will give me land.” It was more than a hundred years ago, so there was still land. “But the city has to pay to operate the branches, but I’m not giving the money to the city. I’m giving it to this private foundation, and the private foundation will run the libraries for New York,” which is a very unusual circumstance.
It means that we’re not a public agency. We’re a private foundation doing the work of the research library, like the Library of Congress, more used research library than any in the world, and the biggest system of branch libraries. There’s no place else that combines those two. And it’s just amazing. I think Mr. Carnegie was right. He understood that as an institution, we were going to need private money. But almost half of our funding comes privately from the Carnegies of today, and more than half comes from the city, and a bit from the state as well. We’re a very strange, hybrid organization, but as you say, never been used more. The public libraries of the city in five boroughs, about 215 of them, we get almost 40 million visits a year, which is more than all the museums and sporting teams combined in this town. It’s amazing. People thought libraries were ending. They’ve never been used more. Circulation, hours, programs, number of branches, visits;…all of it – it is through the roof.
Denver: Wrong again! Another one of those forecasts! Didn’t pan out.
Tony: The life of the mind is still alive.
Denver: You have dedicated your entire career to education. Before assuming this role, you were the president of Amherst College. Much of that was inspired by a trip you took to South Africa in the mid-1980s. Tell us about that trip.
Tony: I’d been involved in the South African divestment movement in college, just because that’s what was the hot thing, and I’d never been to South Africa. No contact with it. But after I graduated and worked for few years at Penn, the University of Pennsylvania in Philly, I decided to go to South Africa. It was ’84. The country was about to go into a civil war basically. I think I was the only non-embassy or CIA American in the country. At least that’s the way it felt.
Worked for an education group. Helped them to set up a college that gave one year of quality education after 12 years of terrible Apartheid education, and sent a thousand students on to the greatest universities in the land, which previously they couldn’t get into because Apartheid made sure they didn’t have the qualifications. It was a life-changing experience. I saw what it meant to be in a country where people were willing to die for what they believed in, for what we take for granted in the United States. Maybe we shouldn’t anymore, but we did. Also, I saw the power of education. I saw that one year of quality can undo a dozen years or more, a lifetime of purposefully bad education in South Africa for black South Africans. My life has never been the same. That power, I don’t see anything else that can make the world better compared to education, in any form.
We don’t ask for any credentials. We don’t care who you are. We don’t care whether you could read or whether you’re a Nobel laureate. We’ll help you regardless.
Denver: Let’s talk a little bit about the physical space. 215 buildings you have…
Tony: 4 million square feet.
Denver: Oh, my! Why do most people go to the library?
Tony: I actually think it differs. We’ve got millions of people to serve. I think the first thing to notice is, if you came to the main building, the Rose Main Reading Room is, I think, the most beautiful public room in the city. I am prejudiced. Most of those people look like they have another place to be. Most of them are not using our books, which is the only reason you need to be in that room. They’re using their computers even though we’ll lend you a computer if you don’t have one. We do that in all of our branches. They’re there because they might need the collection. But they’re there because it’s inspiring to be in a beautiful public space with your fellow citizens, instead of being home alone. We’re human beings. We’re not cavemen. We want to be with other people, especially when we’re doing the somewhat lonely work of the mind, if you will.
Then, if you go to the South Bronx, the poorest congressional district in the United States, 10 minutes by subway from the third richest congressional district in the United States, the Upper East Side… those folks are there for some of the same reasons, but also because probably many of them don’t have a quiet place at home… or books, or computers. Two to three million New Yorkers can’t afford broadband at home. What we take for granted, I carry it in my pocket, they don’t have. They come to the library. We lend it for them to take home… 10,000 people at a time.
But people come for lots of different reasons. People don’t have books at home. The poorest of America, of New York, don’t have books at home. We fill that void, as well as computers; and amazing librarians who, without being asked, will help you figure out what you want to learn about. It’s amazing. Foreigners come… foreigners have always come to the library for a stop because we’re the place that is respectful. We don’t ask for any credentials. We don’t care who you are. We don’t care whether you could read or whether you’re a Nobel laureate. We’ll help you regardless. The immigrants come to the library first, and that’s amazing, at a moment in history when, let’s just say, we seem to be less welcoming of immigrants even though we are a country of immigrants.
Denver: Those librarians do seem to be the very nicest people in the entire world, and I’ve heard that from so many.
Tony: It is amazing. I am a very lucky person to work where I do. People say, “It must be great to walk in between the lions every day.” The truth is, I walk in between the garbage dumpsters. I walk in through the loading dock. But the people at the library, every one – the librarians, the security staff, the maintenance staff – they are totally into what they’re doing. That doesn’t happen enough. That’s great. I love them.
We think of it as a third space, if you will. Most people have home, luxurious or not; work space, luxurious or not. The library is a third space. It’s your space. What’s amazing about the library is no one’s required to come, even though millions come. That means we must be doing something that people want. I like that.
Denver: Let’s talk a little bit more about what you just had mentioned. That is, a common civic space. Because so much of what we’re doing these days is virtual– it’s online– that people physically don’t get together the way they used to. And the library is one of the last places where that happens. How do you think of the role of the library as becoming that common civic space and how it can serve the community and the people living there?
Tony: We think of it as a third space, if you will. Most people have home, luxurious or not; work space, luxurious or not. The library is a third space. It’s your space. What’s amazing about the library is no one’s required to come, even though millions come. That means we must be doing something that people want. I like that.
If we were running a school system, we could require you to come to class. Whether we did a good job or not wouldn’t matter. So, we are the largest provider of free English language instruction in New York, citizenship classes, legal services. We’re the largest free provider of computer training up to coding in New York. We’re the largest pre-K literacy training, close to a million visits to that a year. None of it is required. If we’re not doing a good job, people aren’t going to come. That’s a great discipline that school systems, or universities for that matter, don’t have.
Denver: It’s self-motivated learning, which we don’t have in school. It’s mandatory. Here…
Tony: Which means whatever people need or want, which is fabulous. Not only do we give people, for instance, skills for jobs– whether it’s language, computer, what have you… reading, we’ll help you find a job too. Across the street from the main building is the Mid-Manhattan Library. That was the central branch library of New York, what I used in high school. I never dared to walk into the main building. It was way too… too daunting. But I spent a lot of time in the Mid-Manhattan, and it was a dump, and it had been a dump pretty much for its entire 50 years. We are now about to finish a $200 million gut renovation of that building. It is going to be unbelievable. Full floor, December ’19 or January ’20 probably the hard opening. Probably we’ll wait for better weather, May maybe. It’s going to have a full floor of children and kids room. It’s going to have an amazing ground floor, three stories of our largest branch library with a five-story wall of books in front of an atrium that’s going to be unbelievable.
Twice the seating space we had before, full floor of adult education for job skills in particular. A full floor of a business library… let us help you find a job. We have job fairs at the library… or create a business. Then on top, where there used to be just air-conditioning, is a 300-person amazing program space, and what I think is the only free public roof terrace in New York, overlooking the main building connecting the two. It’s just going to be incredible.
Denver: It does sound pretty cool. One other program we haven’t touched on yet is your after-school program. Tell us about that.
Tony: We get about 30,000 or 40,000 kids in our branches after school every day. When I arrived, what I noticed was a lot of computer games being played. My son spent his entire middle school killing millions of virtual people, and he seems to have come out alright. I get it. But it did seem like a waste. We had no formal programs for kids after you…. did the massively increased preschool literacy. But we had nothing for after that. Now, we have after-school programs. We’re going to create homework help programs. We are just starting a college advising system throughout the library so kids in the public schools are not getting the kind of college counseling that my kids get naturally at home. So, we’re going to do that at the library.
At Amherst, one of the things we did importantly was triple low-income enrollment into the top- ranked, richest, whitest college in the land. We need to help kids in New York find those opportunities. So, we will. We just announced a great new hire – I have amazing people who work with me. Just amazing. Every one of them way smarter than I am, which is absolutely as it should be. I know that’s a low bar – we just hired the person to run the branch libraries and the education programs. So, that’s the vast majority of our employees and of our efforts. Brian Bannon is joining us. He was commissioner and CEO of the Chicago Public Library System. He was at the Gates Foundation and Seattle and San Francisco Libraries. I’m sure with Brian’s leadership, we’re going to do even more. We are changing what it means to be a librarian.
Denver: You’ve gone from passive to proactive, haven’t you?
Tony: That’s right. We are still passive at the civic space, the books, the computers, the librarians essential. But now, we’ve almost doubled our physical space. We’re spending about $ 1 Billion dollars at the moment on physical renovations including the Mid-Manhattan, including the Schwarzman Building, the main building. But $ ½ Billion throughout the system in the poorest neighborhoods. That has become the education space. Whatever any neighborhood needs, we will try to provide. If we can find partners who know how to do that better, we’re happy to do that too.
Denver: Before we leave the physical space and talk digital, you have a pretty cool historical collection of artifacts and documents.
Tony: 55 million items.
Denver: Share, not all, but maybe two or three.
Tony: We have unbelievable things. I had no idea, literally. No idea. I’m a born and bred New Yorker. We have the only copy of the letter from Christopher Columbus to King Ferdinand in 1492. I think I found something. We have one of two copies in the world of the Declaration of Independence in Jefferson’s hand, with his edits. We have Winnie the Pooh; I don’t mean the book; we have that too. We have the bear, the actual bear, and his friends. All of these amazing… we have the original Bill of Rights. Just ridiculous. Thanks largely to Mr. Lenox, great collector of his age.
The public has never seen these things. I didn’t know we had them! We’re going to put them all on prominent display in the Gottesman Hall right off 5th Avenue. When you walk right in, you’ll walk right into if for free. It’ll be the most visited room per square inch in the City of New York. We’re going to create a new entrance to the main building so we can invite every high school student to come see the treasures of the library and then teach them what a library can do… because kids, including my kids, don’t know anymore why they need a library. We’ve got competition… a lot digital… we’re about to move into. We have to compete. We can’t just sit and assume everyone will do what they’ve always done. The world has changed, so we’re changing.
Denver: How cool is that?! When is that exhibit going to be up and running?
Tony: I think that’ll be 2020 as well, which is also the 125th anniversary of the library; so we’re going to have quite the party.
Denver: You talked about partnering before. Some of those partnerships include the Department of Corrections and Homeless Services. What are you doing with them?
Tony: People say: What about the homeless and the libraries? My answer is: That’s fabulous! You don’t want them sitting reading? Trying to think about their lives and being respected? We do all of that for the homeless. We work with the cities, the agencies, the homeless and all the agencies basically.
For 40 years, we’ve sort of taken carts of books around Rikers and the other facilities, but that wasn’t good enough. So, we’ve opened a physical library on Rikers Island. We’ve just opened another one at the Manhattan Detention Center. Those are amazing. The guards volunteer. The guards bring books in to contribute to the collection. It’s just unbelievable. We have to invest in the future of these people’s lives. If we throw them away, they will behave accordingly. So, we’re trying to do better.
We’re partnering with the public school system, so we’re the biggest library system in America. New York has the biggest public school system in America, and we’ve never talked to each other. When I arrived, the Chancellor then, Dennis Walcott, now my colleague at Queens Library, he said, “We can’t afford libraries in the schools. We’re spending all of our money on teachers instead.” I said, “That’s funny. I’ve got 55 million items, most of which are sitting on the shelf most of the time. Maybe we can help each other. So now more than half the schools in New York have computers linked to us. A teacher can order up to 100 books at a time on whatever subject they’re studying that month. We’ll bring them physically and create a library in the classroom. When you’re done with that subject, we’ll take it, and we’ll bring you the next ones. Everybody wins. That’s great. This means being creative. It just means talking to each other.
Denver: Absolutely, you don’t even know where you’re going sometimes, but you come out the other end and say, “We could do this together.” Well, this is an exciting time also because you’re transitioning to the digital age while all this physical stuff we just talked about is going on. Let me pick up on what you said before about 2 million to 3 million people in the city do not have broadband at home. Wow! That’s quite the digital divide. What are you doing to help address that?
Tony: The story I love to tell is, I was in the Bronx maybe 6:30 on a beautiful afternoon and leaving a branch that had just closed. There’s a kid sitting on the stoop with the oldest laptop I have ever seen. I said, “What are you doing?” He said, “I’m doing my math homework. It’s online. It’s assigned. I have to do it.” I said, “That’s great. Why the hell are you sitting here?” And he said, “Because we can’t afford broadband at home. I come and take bleed out of the building from the library.” I thought, “Oh, my God! New York, the information capital, the capital of the world, and kids are picking up crumbs to do the homework we want them to do to succeed. That’s crazy.”
It turns out there are 15 million Americans in this situation. So we started; we raised money from Google. We got some federal money. We were then working with the FCC, I say those days are over at the moment. We said we’ll lend 10,000 people WiFi at home for up to a year at a time, and we thought in demonstrating that there was a solution to the digital divide that that could become a federal-funded solution. I don’t think federal government is interested in that right now. So, we continue, but I will say we are frustrated that…. This just can’t be!
Denver: You even took that to Kansas and Maine too as part of a proof-of-concept.
Tony: I think that was probably the first and maybe only time in the history of the library where I raised money for the Kansas and Maine library systems, and that was simply because the FCC folks said to me, and the White House said to me: This was under President Obama – they said, “If you’ve got a solution to the digital divide, you have to prove that it doesn’t just work in that wacko city you call home. You have to prove that it works in other places.” So, we raised the money, and we did it in Kansas and Maine! Good for them!
But the point is, we are a physical facility essentially and a collection essentially. But the world is turning to these devices that I’m fortunate enough to carry in my pocket. That means we need a catalogue that can find you anything.
For instance, we have a chunk of our collection that is situated off-site; in every major library that’s true. Ours happens to be in Princeton. We share it with Princeton, Columbia, and now Harvard. You can read those books digitally if you ask, or we’ll send them to you. We’ve actually just doubled the size of the most used research library in the world because the Harvard, Columbia, Princeton collections have now merged with our collection. So, the public in New York has access to the greatest private university library collections. That’s never happened before. But you can also do it online, and that’s what people want to do. So, we need a catalogue that could help you search, a catalogue that can tell you it’s coming from Princeton; it will be here tomorrow. Or here it is online.
Denver: Speaking of online, where do we stand with digitization of books and the role you guys are playing with that?
Tony: You’ll remember that Google early on said: “We’re going to scan every book,” including they scanned close to a million of ours. And we want every book available to anyone online for free through Google. The Supreme Court said, “Excuse me, copyright is in the Constitution, which it is. You’ve ignored it, so we’re going to stop you.” You can show two sentences. You can’t come up with a better anecdote of superficiality right, than… the world is… humanity has written a hundred million books. Congratulations, you can read two sentences from this book. That’s ridiculous. We want to do what Google couldn’t do. What the court wouldn’t do. Which means, we have to make deals with authors, which is why I was at the Authors Guild for instance last night. We’re working with them. We actually believe that we now have a path, that in the next few years will get us on the way towards every book, any book, for anyone, in the world.
Talking to South Africa because as you said, I have a debt to that country and a love that may be our first global move. But we will… you can right now, you can download the SimplyE app we came up with from the App store on your phone. You can sign up for the New York Public Library for a card on your phone, and you can in two clicks read any one of 100,000 books on that. It was 25 clicks, we’re down to two. We’ve offered this app to every library in America for free. My job, our job is to go from 100,000 titles to 100 million titles to every book. That will require figuring out what’s in the public domain, what we didn’t know was in the public domain, but is, and we’re working with the Library of Congress which for a couple of hundred years, it’s been sort of using quill pens. We’re now digitizing the copyright records at the Library of Congress. We’ll find more books that we can do that for free.
Then we made deals with the major publishers for the stuff that’s in copyright in print. We pay licenses; we have to. So will Akron Library or Soweto Library, but the vast majority of books written in the 20th century are in copyright but out-of-print. We have one of the few copies of those books. But if you can’t come to 42nd Street and 5th Avenue, you’re out of luck. So, we’re working with the Authors Guild to figure out how we can make rights deals with those rights holders, how we can offer books for people to read digitally that no one is reading because no one has access to them. Then we’ll find the rights holder if people are interested. So it’s going to be complicated, but we can do it. Because we are the biggest library, we can and should lead the way on this, and it will be a revolution in access to quality information, the likes of which the world has never seen.
…if you used every public building in this city, and you put up broadband providers on the top of those buildings, you could create a level of universal access online. It doesn’t have to be all the bells and whistles, and if you want the bells and whistles, you could buy them, thank you very much. And the providers would want to sell them to you. But everyone should have a basic utility level. It should be like water.
Denver: That is one ambitious undertaking. Why not? Tony, where do we currently stand with net neutrality? And what will libraries and the people who use them lose if net neutrality is lost?
Tony: Tim Wu, who invented the term, who was a friend and a colleague and professor at Columbia Law School. Tim is better at this than I am. Net neutrality basically says everyone should get roughly equal levels of service. When net neutrality goes away, which is what the FCC is working on at the moment, you’ll be able to get the fast lane if you can afford it, and everyone else would be consigned to the slow lane. We’re worried about that. We want everyone to have access to all the world’s information. That’s what we do. The fast lane, we actually think the country has to step up on the digital divide issue. This is my personal belief. My personal belief is, in the United States, or let’s start with New York, if you used every public building in this city, and you put up broadband providers on the top of those buildings, you could create a level of universal access online. It doesn’t have to be all the bells and whistles, and if you want the bells and whistles, you could buy them, thank you very much. And the providers would want to sell them to you. But everyone should have a basic utility level. It should be like water. That’s perfectly doable; we just don’t seem to have the appetite for it at the moment in the city, or in the country.
The story about the kid in the Bronx, when I went back to my office, I realized that there were two to three million. The first thing I thought was: What committee do I need to go through? And then I realized my fellow college presidents hate the story. I realized I didn’t need anyone’s permission; I could do what I want. We don’t have a faculty. We don’t have a teachers union. The actual, the fundamental way to describe this is: There’s no regulations about what a library has to do because no one thought it would ever change… We are rethinking what a library means, and we’re the biggest in the city at the center of the world.
Denver: You have said that the New York Public Library has fewer institutional constraints than many other organizations of your size. Explain what you mean by that, Tony. And how does that work to your advantage?
Tony: I was a college president. Everything that a college does appropriately goes through a committee. I haven’t got those committees. It’s amazing. I don’t have faculty. The story about the kid in the Bronx, when I went back to my office, I realized that there were two to three million. The first thing I thought was: What committee do I need to go through? And then I realized my fellow college presidents hate this story. I realized I didn’t need anyone’s permission; I could do what I want. We don’t have a faculty. We don’t have a teachers union. The actual, the fundamental way to describe this is: There’s no regulations about what a library has to do because no one thought it would ever change. So, they didn’t bother.
The school system has regulations, I’m sure, are six-feet high. We are rethinking what a library means, and we’re the biggest in the city at the center of the world. If we say, Okay, we’re going to still be passive, but we’re also going to be proactive with the education programs. We’re going to spend a billion dollars to fix up our branches, especially in the poorest neighborhoods. We’re going to open the research library, the main building. We also have the library for performing arts in the Schomburg and Harlem. We’re going to open those to the public. We’re going to invite the treasures, and we’re going to put it all online. Those are massive transformations. Basically, if we can figure out how to do it and how to pay for it, we can do it.
There are few jobs like mine where that’s true, and that’s amazing. It makes it all the more important that we do it right, that I have people working with me who are way smarter than me, who can tell me when I come up with a stupid idea. I don’t want to overstate. We are constrained primarily in one way, which is financial. So, again, we have about a $350 million operating budget, $200 million or so comes from the city. Thank you to the mayor and the city council. About $20 million comes from the state. About $50 million to $60 million comes as return from an endowment that we’ve built up over the course of the century. If we can’t raise it, if I can’t raise, call it $80 million a year, we’ve got a problem. If we want to do more, we’ve got to raise more.
Denver: You may have a problem with some of this public funding.
Tony: We’ve had the best years of city funding in history. We’ve had the biggest year of private funding in our history just in the last few years. We had gotten away from what we call the budget dance where every year… this was mostly before I arrived at the library; the budget would be threatened with a cut; then the city would say, “Okay, we won’t cut you. Then everyone would say, “Thank God!” But we wouldn’t get any more money, and sometimes we’d get less money.
Denver: Then you would do the same thing the next year.
Tony: By the way, we have more branches; we’re adding more branches, more square feet, more hours, more days, more services, largely requested by the city. We’re the biggest provider of the municipal ID program, or the work with the public schools, or the work with Rikers and the Manhattan Detention Center. All of that, we’ve taken Macombs Bridge, which when I arrived was one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York, had a 600-square-foot library, like a studio apartment. It was ridiculous. We’re moving across the street to five times the space, but that costs money. We have to run that. That’s true throughout the systems. This year, the city for the first time in years has said, “We’re going to cut the libraries. They’ve already taken a $3 million cut for just the New York Public, so $8 million or $9 million across the city. We have $8 million that we got last year from the city council, but it’s not baseline. So if we don’t get that, that’s a cut. The city is threatening a cut beyond that.
We won’t be able to do what New Yorkers need us to do. It’s sort of funny. The library is the most used institution in this town. Yet everybody takes it for granted and doesn’t really understand why it’s important or what would be lost if it went away. I don’t want to find that out. My job, our job, is to convince our friends in City Hall, City Council, Mayor, everybody in the administration to say, “This year we need an increase of funding just to pay for what we have taken on, which we’re proud to have taken on to serve the city and its citizens.” I’m worried we may not get it. I really am. It’s really scary right now.
Write to your mayor, write to your city councilman or woman. People need to hear from New Yorkers. This is different than philanthropy in the way that you usually talk about it… We are so grateful for our private donors, for foundations. It’s amazing what we’ve been able to do. But the citizens of New York need to step up and say, “This is important to us.” Just because we take it for granted doesn’t mean we can let it go.
Denver: What can people do?
Tony: Write to your mayor, write to your city councilman or woman. People need to hear from New Yorkers. This is different than philanthropy in the way that you usually talk about it… We are so grateful for our private donors, for foundations. It’s amazing what we’ve been able to do. But the citizens of New York need to step up and say, “This is important to us.” Just because we take it for granted doesn’t mean we can let it go.
Denver: Where do we stand with libraries across the country? We’ve talked about all the exciting things that are happening here in New York City, and it’s a very progressive and proactive institution. How would you describe how libraries are faring across this country of ours?
Tony: I think libraries are hurting because of fiscal squeezes in their municipal sources of funds. But there are 17,000 libraries in America. They are the lifeblood of every community. I think it’s fair to say a lot of them look to us. So as we moved into education; the sector of libraries has moved into education. As we’ve made the digital provision of books available, we’re offering that to every library in the country. Every library will have to decide what they want to do. We can’t afford to pay the cost of everyone in Ohio reading what they want to read. The people of Ohio have to decide. But we’ve got 40 or 50 people in our digital office, which is probably more than all libraries in the world combined. We can build things that work, and we can offer them to our colleagues, and we’re happy to do that. That’s our job, in part.
“…I had the most amazing library. I sat in Washington Heights reading books about how to build boats and navigate by the stars. Based on that, I became the first person in my family to graduate from high school, college, grad school.
Denver: Let me close with this Tony. At the end of the day, the heart of your work is to impact people’s lives for the better. Can you share with us a story where that has been the case?
Tony: There are so many stories. I will tell… my colleagues will smile when they hear this because they’ve heard this story before. It’s one of my favorites. I grew up in Washington Heights. My dad didn’t go to college. I went to public school. Nothing fancy. Sort of amazing, some of the parts of my life now. So in Washington Heights, as is true of many of our libraries, it was a four-story Carnegie mansion, if you will. Beautiful building. When I arrived, pretty much in all those Carnegies, the basement and the top floor were empty. We just didn’t have the resources. We’re changing that. We’re fixing that up. We’re using the basements typically as classrooms for our education programs. The top floors, interestingly, were all custodial apartments because back in the day, people lived in those custodial apartments and shoveled coal to keep the library warm.
So, I go to Washington Heights. We spent millions of dollars to turn that apartment into an amazing teen center, computer lab -just amazing things. We give the usual boring speeches and cut ribbons, do things that I do. Then a guy in the back… elegant, mid-70s, grey beard African–American gentleman raises his hand and says, “Can I say something?” I said, “Yes, sure. I don’t know who you are, but sure.” He says, “I’m Mr. Clark; my father was the custodian here, and I grew up where you’re currently sitting. Every night, when the library closed, I went down and had the library to myself. I might have been a millionaire. I had the most amazing library. I sat in Washington Heights reading books about how to build boats and navigate by the stars. Based on that, I became the first person in my family to graduate from high school, college, grad school.” He became an administrator of a city health agency of some sort. Then he said: “ When I retired, I remembered, and I built that boat. And I navigated by the stars.”
When he said that, I was like, “Oh my God!” The whole city… this is what makes New York amazing. We are the center of the world – forgive me, I’m a New Yorker – because of the diversity of experience and talent that we have here. The library is committed to putting that into play. Let’s be clear. The future of our economy, the future of our democracy, our future rests on one simple fact. Can we engage the mental capacity of our friends and family and fellow citizens? Or, are we ready to give it up and let it go down the drain of diversions, on screens of invidious comparison?
The library is committed to making sure that you have quality information, that you have access to it, that you can use it to build your life as you will, and that New York can benefit from this amazing mix of talent and intelligence. That’s been the secret of our success, and if we don’t maintain it, it will be the secret of something very different. So, we won’t let that happen.
Denver: What a sweet story to end on. Tony Marx, the president and CEO of the New York Public Library, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. You have so much to offer for those who have not yet availed themselves of all these wonderful resources. Where would you suggest they start?
Tony: Go on line, nypl.org. Or come to any branch; look it up. There’s one within walking distance of wherever you are, or come into the main building.
Denver: If you get a library card, that also provides you free access to a bunch of cultural institutions and museums, correct?
Tony: We now have the culture pass, free access to the great museums as well.
Denver: Tony, it was a great pleasure to have you on the program.
Tony: Thank you so much.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.