Statement by Thomas W. Galante
Chief Executive Officer, Queens Library
Testimony Testimony before the New York City Council Committee on Technology
“Broadband Access: Closing the Digital Divide”
April 23, 2012
Good Morning. I am Tom Galante, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Queens Library. Let me begin by thanking City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and the City Council Committee on Technology, particularly Chairman Fernando Cabrera, for the invitation here today. It is only with the City Council’s tremendous support that we are able to provide quality library service to every Queens community. Libraries are more relevant to people’s lives than ever before and we are constantly evolving to meet their needs. Our mission to provide free and fair access to information is a cornerstone of this City and indeed of our free society. It does not matter whether that information is contained within a bound leather tome or lives in the cloud. The library offers a place to find knowledge, no matter who you are or where you came from. It is the place where experts help you use that knowledge to inform you, enrich you and empower you.
I don’t have to tell you that technology is reshaping the field of information services. Access to high speed Internet is no longer a luxury for our citizenry. Mobile devices, smartphones and tablets are ubiquitous. Literature is going digital.
Our challenge, as public libraries, is to ensure that these technologies do not become barriers to accessing information and enriching lives. We must ensure that we do not let technology divide our people into the information haves and the have nots. It is a real danger. Here in New York City, an estimated 74% of interactions with the government happen via NYC.gov. Yet, an unacceptable number of people can’t even get to that resource at home. The United States Department of Commerce reports that nearly 38% of Americans still do not have access to the Internet at home. National trends also show that the two groups who most frequently rely on their public libraries for computer access are among the most vulnerable: the poor and teenagers.
Before I delve into specifics of the steps we are taking to shore up this divide, let me offer a little background on our system. Queens Library serves a borough of 2.2 million people from 62 community libraries, including Central Library in Jamaica, the Langston Hughes Community Library and Cultural Center in Corona and seven adult learning centers. Every day we are open, 40,000 people come through our doors and 8,000 people get on a computer. Every day we are open, 10,000 students visit for afterschool help and nearly 70,000 items are loaned, for free. We are grateful for the commitment of the City Council and the Mayor for providing the financial support for libraries to do all of this.
ACCESS: FREE PUBLIC ACCESS COMPUTERS & WI-FI
Queens Library currently has a network of 1,554 public access computers that provide free access to the Internet. These are used by patrons nearly 60,000 times every week. Additionally, all our 62 community libraries are equipped with unlimited free wireless for people who have their own computers or Wi-Fi enabled mobile devices. Many of the more recently renovated libraries are outfitted with counters and tables equipped with electrical outlets to accommodate laptop users. We also have 593 laptops that we loan out for use within our facilities.
In order to meet increasing demand from library users, we continue to upgrade our bandwidth. With federal (e-rate) funding, we have moved 35 locations to 10-megabit broadband and 20 more libraries will be moved to 10 megabit from the current 1.5 megabit by 2013. This increased bandwidth makes a world of difference, allowing uninterrupted access to interactive online experiences like educational videos. The increased bandwidth also allows us to support more laptops on the library’s wireless network at once. Even when people can afford their own computers, financial and infrastructure obstacles may exist to online access at home. We want to ensure that we are prepared to accommodate that growing need.
COMPUTER LITERACY & PROGRAMMING
In the last year, we have successfully built out our technology and associated educational components in large part through the Connected Communities Initiative funded through the Federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) and implemented in partnership with the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DOITT).
As you are aware, this initiative is aimed squarely at improving broadband access for underserved and high poverty communities. With the $4 million committed to this program over three years, we have vastly expanded computer access and literacy in Long Island City, Jamaica and the Rockaway Peninsula. Since it launched just seven months ago, our dedicated team has helped over 7,500 people in a combination of one-on-one sessions and group workshops. The program focuses on workforce development and computer literacy skills. Instruction on basic Internet skills, introductory computers skills and the basics of using the Microsoft office programs Word and Excel are among the most popular programs offered. Other program topics run the gamut from resume writing to social media networking, to civic service exam prep.
Our team has found that the demand for these programs far exceeds the capacity and patrons are coming in from every demographic group. Many teenagers, who are well versed on using their smartphones and social media, come in seeking instruction on basic word processing and other software. Many mid-career professionals who find themselves looking for a new job turn to the library when they discover their computer skills are outdated. Many older adults are coming in to dust off their resume and re-enter the workforce.
We have recently had our Central Library designated as a “Certiport Authorized Testing Center,” which means we will be able to offer industry certifications in Microsoft Office, Adobe and other computer programs. Students who take the course and pass the tests will be much more qualified and attractive to potential empoloyers. A series of classes and test administration in the private market for a single certification can cost on average of $800. At the library, it will be totally free.
Our technology and associated instruction cater to every age group. We have “Early Literacy” computers, which are especially designed with simplified buttons and operating systems for small hands and young minds. Coupled with a special web interface called KidsLinQ, our youngest patrons can access the Internet and explore it in a productive and safe way. Our Children’s Library Discovery Center, which opened last summer, incorporates technology in interactive STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) learning for elementary aged students. Computer literacy is incorporated into programs for teens after school, for our adults learning to speak, read and write in English and for new immigrants, with workshops presented in patrons' native languages.
DIGITAL CONTENT AND ACCESS
This month, Queens Library began loaning e-readers to library card holders for the first time. The pilot project is putting digital content, selected by librarians, directly into the hands of our patrons on an e-reader device they otherwise could not afford. We recognize that digital content and digital readers are the next method of information consumption. We must be able to provide access to that information, for free, on demand, to our patrons. If we don’t, we risk leaving them behind as content becomes exclusively digital. As it is now, cuts to our budget have slashed our purchasing of books by 60%. Wait times for popular e-books are unacceptably high. Some people in Queens wait for more than a year to read information they seek. This just shouldn’t be. Expanding our services to offer a robust and accessible digital collection to our nearly 900,000 cardholders will not be easy; millions of new dollars are needed to meet growing demand. This must happen to reach our common goal, to close the digital divide, which keeps too many of our citizens from the information and education they want and deserve to improve their lives.
There is so much libraries do to provide digital access and literacy to the people of New York City, but there is so much more we could do. All the staff that teaches computer classes and provides workforce development that helped those 7,500 people in the last six months is funded through a grant that will run out in August of 2013. All the computers in all the libraries are in use every single hour we are open.
The current City Financial Plan for FY 2013 proposes a loss of funding to libraries of over 30%. This would, if adopted, force the outright closure of 18 community libraries in Queens, and drastically slash hours everywhere else. It would prevent more than 1.3 million people from getting online in their library each year, and shut out thousands more from the educational programs they take advantage of now to better their lives.
With so much work to do, we can’t let such a scenario come to pass. You in the City Council have been true library champions in years past and we are grateful for that. We turn to you again this year to restore and expand needed funding so we can get on with the important work ahead of us for the people of this great City.
Thank you again you for the opportunity to testify today and for your tireless work throughout the year.