The Queens Library is that rare New York phenomenon: a government-funded social-uplift program that works. It succeeds by doing what it has done for over a century: giving New Yorkers with ambition (however modest or grand it may be) the tools they need for self-improvement. These tools get real results in Gotham, where people can earn an incremental reward for each skill they obtain. Learn English, and move from a kitchen job to an office job. Master math, and pass the GED and start technical college. The Queens Library’s crowded branches suggest that many poor and immigrant New Yorkers understand the city’s opportunities for upward mobility and that they see themselves not at all as victims trapped by circumstance but as individuals possessing the independence, the self-discipline, and the chance to get ahead.

Libraries aren’t sexy to city policymakers, though. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recently released blueprint for fighting poverty contained not one word about New York’s three public library systems. Like his 1960s predecessor John Lindsay, Bloomberg prefers ministering to the city’s perpetually poor rather than lending a hand to working-class and immigrant families who, just by their presence in the library, have already shown a thirst for self-improvement.

Since they’re such a low government priority these days, the city’s libraries have had to cut back on hours. For all its excellence, then, the Queens Library doesn’t meet the standard set by public libraries’ first great patron, Andrew Carnegie. Libraries, he believed, should “be accessible at all reasonable hours and times, free of expense,” with reading rooms “open every day of the week except Sunday . . . from at least nine o’clock a.m. to at least nine o’clock p.m.”

Queens built the backbone of its library system largely with Carnegie money—$240,000 of it, over $5 million in today’s dollars—which began to arrive in 1901. The steel magnate endowed eight Queens branches not only with capital but also with a lasting philosophy, reflecting his own working-class experience and decades of thinking about how best to uplift the poor. In divesting his vast fortune at the end of the nineteenth century, Carnegie believed it wisest to help “those, who, being most anxious and able to help themselves, deserve and will be benefited by . . . the extension of their opportunities by the aid of the philanthropic rich,” rather than (as he saw it) wasting his money on the “irreclaimably destitute [and] shiftless.”

Carnegie seized on public libraries as central to this mission, in part because a private library had served him so well in his youth. When at 12 he emigrated with his family to Allegheny, Pennsylvania, he had finished only five years of formal schooling in his native Scotland. Completing his schooling in America was out of the question: to help support his family, he had to go to work, first in a Pittsburgh factory and later in a telegraph office. Though Carnegie
enjoyed working, he still wanted to “improve himself” by learning, especially the history and government of his new country. Unfortunately, working until 11 pm on alternate nights “did not leave [him] much time for self-improvement, nor did the wants of the family leave any money to spend on books,” he later recalled.

Carnegie found a partial remedy in the library of Colonel James Anderson, who let “working boys” peruse his 400 volumes on Saturday afternoons and borrow one book each per week. Through Anderson’s generosity, Carnegie devoured Macaulay, Shakespeare, and other classic authors, and the colonel’s library also kept him “clear of low fellowship.” One key advantage of funding libraries, Carnegie came to realize, is that they give “nothing for nothing.” At the library, people “must acquire knowledge themselves. There is no escape from this.”

By the turn of the century, Carnegie had honed his philosophy into a library-funding effort that operated with businesslike efficiency. It would eventually approve applications for more than 2,800 public libraries, 65 in New York
City alone. Because Carnegie saw libraries—rightly—as public infrastructure, he only funded initial capital costs. Town and city leaders had to agree to pay operating costs.

Even before Carnegie began disbursing his funds, the working-class and middle-class residents of Queens had shown a thirst for knowledge and self-improvement, and looked to libraries to help satisfy it.

Railroads and proximity to ports and to bustling Brooklyn and Manhattan had made Queens ideal for factories in the late 1800s. As people followed investment, the borough’s population swelled fivefold, to more than 150,000 around the turn of the century. Pooling resources, the immigrants who toiled in the factories of Queens and populated its villages started a dozen hodgepodge private libraries, while two of the borough’s biggest employers—Conrad Poppenhusen’s rubber plant and William Steinway’s piano factory—set up free libraries for grateful workers and their families, with half the volumes in German to accommodate new immigrants.

Queens had already started to incorporate its libraries into a formal public system when Carnegie’s funds began pouring in. The directors, who shared the industrialist’s philanthropic vision of presenting opportunity to all comers,
realized that one of the library’s key mandates would be to assimilate immigrants. The branches wooed newcomers unfamiliar with free public libraries, posting ads at local movie houses advising that “the public library is the working man’s college. Use it.” The libraries circulated flyers in Italian and Polish and advertised the availability of “books for businessmen” at ferry terminals and books “for mothers” at the Astoria milk station, recounts Jeffrey Kroessler in his centennial history of the Queens Library, Lighting the Way.

The library’s second big responsibility was to help kids, including those whose parents worked too hard to supervise them adequately. For Carnegie, one could find “no use to which money could be applied so productive of good to boys and girls who have good within them and ability and ambition to develop it, as the founding of a public library in a community which is willing to support it as a municipal institution.” Children’s librarians, introduced a decade or so after the Queens Library’s official founding,
pioneered story hours and lobbied to keep branches open evenings, noting that 12- to 14-year-olds came to the library “because they’ve no place else that is equally wholesome to go.” The library soon boasted hours more typical today of a customer-friendly retail store than of a government institution: “seven days a week, from 9 to
9 daily, and 4 to 9 Sundays—a total of 77 hours
a week—and holiday mornings from 9 to 11.”

Queens Library directors didn’t allow grand plans to carry them away. When Carnegie awarded his library grant, the “original plan was to erect three grand edifices,” Kroessler writes. Instead, Queens built eight modest but dispersed branches, so that residents of the aptly named Far Rockaway, for example, wouldn’t have to travel several miles to admire a “grand edifice” when all they wanted was to borrow books. As the borough’s population continued to increase, the Queens Library built more small outposts. Today, no Queens resident lives more than a mile from one of the library’s 63 branches.

The Queens Library stuck to its traditional mission, even after the borough’s demography changed and a very different idea of how to achieve social uplift—emphasizing victimhood and government handouts, not self-empowerment—became prevalent in the sixties. When poor blacks from the south and from Manhattan and Brooklyn flocked to parts of Queens after World War II, the library ably served the newcomers, expanding into six newly built housing projects and using its bookmobile to introduce poor black children to reading. During the sixties, when other nonprofits were embracing
the new welfare-state ethos, the library focused on introducing books to bookless homes and teaching parents in low-income neighborhoods like the South Jamaica Houses how to read to their children.

As immigration and upward mobility have continued to reinvigorate Queens over the last two decades, circulation has doubled. Last year, 811,000 “active borrowers”—nearly 40 percent of the borough’s population—visited the library 14.3 million times, borrowing 20 million items. Each year, the library lends an average of nine books or other items for each Queens resident, more than twice the per-capita number of volumes than the New York Public Library lends in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island. Queens’s per-capita number puts it near the top in library circulation nationwide, just behind San Jose and Phoenix. Half a million people a year attend at least one of the library’s free educational programs, ranging from homework help sessions to classes on dining etiquette to academic lecture series on such topics as “The Path of the Ancient Greek Philosophers” and “Turkey’s Entrance into the EU: Problems and Prospects.”

But numbers don’t convey the full extent of the public’s demand. On one recent Tuesday at the Flushing branch, a dozen or so people
were there a quarter-hour before the official opening time of 1 pm, waiting to get in. Just a half-hour into its day, the Flushing library becomes as crowded as a bus station, with patrons browsing the amply stacked bookstands, working on computers, and reading and writing at tables. Despite the crowds, the library stays quiet, suggesting that a certain reverence goes with the enthusiasm. Even children and teenagers, though they run and holler up the library’s outdoor steps, hush without prompting once inside and get right to work.

Because nearly half of the residents of Queens are foreign-born, one of the library’s most
practical services is to help the borough’s African, Asian, Hispanic, and Middle Eastern immigrants assimilate into American society, just as
it helped German, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants become citizens a century ago. The library is particularly effective at this task, because it recognizes a key truth lost on many contemporary immigrant-advocacy groups: newcomers can’t succeed in America unless they speak English. Hence the library’s wildly popular, and free, English-for-Speakers-of-a-Second-Language program—the largest such initiative in the nation, serving 3,000 students annually. Each semester, the program must turn people away, sometimes two prospective students for every one who gets a slot.

Take the Number 7 train to Main Street in Flushing, walk two blocks to the spacious four-story curved-glass library, and you’ll see how keen many Queens newcomers are to learn English. In the basement adult learning center, as many as 40 students will be listening to English-pronunciation CDs, doing grammar exercises
on computers, watching language videos, reading vocabulary texts, and engaging in halting conversation with one another in a new tongue. One recent Thursday morning, a dozen adult students listened intently as a librarian took them on a tour of the center, explaining in slow, clear English the wealth of materials available. When she’d finished, the students eagerly examined the shelves, filled with books on everything from basic vocabulary to idioms, as if they’d stumbled upon a treasure trove.

While many students can learn to read and even write English on their own, several told me, they cannot learn to speak it by themselves—and often there’s no one to practice with at home. That’s why so many students crowd into the library’s English classes. During the first session of a nine-week class at the Flushing branch, focusing on job readiness, nine immigrant students—their backgrounds ranging from Ecuador to Bulgaria to China—met in a room with walls papered with large-print conjugations of irregular English verbs. Instructor Heather Dutiel detailed in careful cadence the basics of looking for a job in America, explaining tricky verbs—the difference between “have you” and “do you”—at points in the lecture. After some instruction, Dutiel showed sample resumés and asked the students to discuss their job searches among themselves. The students, with various English-fluency levels, spoke tentatively in their only common language, asking what kind of employment each sought—“Full- or part-time?” “In Queens or Manhattan?”—then writing down the answers to read to the class.

The course satisfies a real hunger for self-improvement. Sandra, 33, came here nine months ago from China and works in a bakery on Main Street, Flushing. She’d love to learn enough English—“telephone English,” as she puts it—to find better-paying work in a Manhattan office. Galina Stoyanova, 38, was a college-educated engineer with nearly two decades’ work experience in Bulgaria, but she applied with her husband for the green-card lottery, wanting their 12-year-old to get an
American education. Because Galina isn’t English-proficient, she’s had to work at a discount store near Times Square to pay the bills. She wants to learn enough English to begin working again in her field.

Similar striving animates the Central Library of Queens, in Jamaica: on any weekday, nearly two dozen students diligently work in the adult
learning center annex until the 8:30 closing time. One recent evening, eight students showed
up for a conversation group, several of them
after long workdays. Volunteer instructor Chris Miller asked them to introduce themselves, gently prodding them with questions about their home countries and current jobs. He then asked what the “three best things” were about living
in New York. Students invariably included
the word “freedom” in their answers—and they
clearly view the library’s resources as a key stepping-off point for making the most of
that freedom.

Rachel Labonte, soft-spoken and poised, came here alone from Haiti two years ago and works at a Long Island 7-Eleven. She praises America’s “advantage” in educational opportunity, and she plans to enroll at Queensborough Community College, with the hope of becoming a psychologist. Taking advantage of the library’s programs, she’ll take her English-proficiency test for college entrance in November. Mathilde, from Morocco and now working in an electronics store, marvels that “with English” she could “have any job,” while Duge Desforge, also from Haiti, hopes to resume his civil engineering career once he’s proficient.

Some immigrants take the library’s language classes not only for themselves but also to help their kids flourish. “My little sons prefer to speak in English,” says Ecuadoran immigrant Monica Davila of her nine- and 11-year-old boys. “What happens is, my kids say, ‘you speak everything wrong.’ ” When she joined her first conversation group at the Jamaica branch two years ago, she knew no English, but “I practice and practice,” she says—and it shows.

At the Corona branch, where the surrounding population is 80 percent Hispanic and 70 percent foreign-born, Marcela, an earnest 29-year-old who came to America from Mexico six years ago, bubbles over with the desire to learn. To assist her children in school, “I need English,” she says, straining to understand my questions. With difficulty, she explains that her American-born children, aged three and five, already far outpace her in English proficiency. Her more fluent husband works from dawn to night in a local deli, so he has no time to help her learn the new language. In part to improve her English, Marcela has signed up for the library’s morning crafts class, and she has tried to register twice for filled-up language classes. To help meet this kind of demand, the Corona branch invites parents to take ten weeks of “Clases de Inglés para la Familia” with their kids.

Even for children whose parents don’t take the classes, the branch is often a first introduction to English, says librarian Damini Patel. In the children’s section, mothers chat quietly in Spanish as their children play and read; the English-language picture books for toddlers seem just as worn as the Spanish-language books. As for older kids, they “tell their parents, ‘take me to the library,’ when the parents can’t help with homework because they don’t know enough English,” Patel says.

Branch manager Diane Vitale says that while many of the library’s Hispanic parents aren’t “highly educated themselves, they’re determined that their children get a good education.” The parents consistently attend story times and toddler-literacy classes, Vitale says, and will send older children to the library several times a week, desperate for them to speak English well so that they can better their circumstances.

In addition to English classes, the library presents immigrants with something almost equally important to success in their new country: an understanding of American history, politics, and culture. The Flushing adult learning center offers walls of easy-to-read books on American government, culture, and citizenship, as well as introductory editions of the canon of English-language literature, from Jack London to Mark Twain. On nearby shelves beckon slim biographies of such key figures of American history as George Washington and Frederick Douglass, with difficult words highlighted and explained. Inspirational in a different way is an easy-to-read version of Goldman Sachs: The Culture of Success, chronicling the august investment-banking firm’s founding a century ago—by immigrants. The Jamaica branch center offers similar texts, from biographies of notables like Sandra Day O’Connor to the collections 101 American Customs and 101 American Superstitions, which explain holidays like Halloween. A slim in-house pamphlet, “The Open Door of Our Lives,” features past students recounting how the Queens Library helped them seize opportunity. “I came from Africa,” writes Dariata. “Now I have my own salon.”

The Queens Library offers formal citizenship classes, too. At one evening session in
Jamaica, volunteer Margaret O’Sullivan
patiently corrected translations and pronunciation as her 12 students read aloud texts on how America works, why the Pilgrims came here, and what the Bill of Rights guarantees. Signs of civic pride festooned the walls, including a poster proclaiming, “Congratulations! Hasna Harun is a U.S. citizen” and an American flag covered with variations of such student sentiments as “I came to America to have a better life.”

To help the most ambitious newcomers pursue their dreams, Flushing’s International Resource Center offers more than 60,000 books and magazines, many devoted to economics and business, in 50 languages. Texts on economic regulations in the American states stand shoulder-to-shoulder with corporate case studies in Chinese dialects. On the two afternoons when I visited, nearly every chair in the center had an occupant.

Perhaps New York’s most striking confirmation of Carnegie’s faith in libraries as engines
of social uplift is the Queens Library’s modest Arverne branch, in the shadow of the elevated A-train tracks that ring Far Rockaway. Serving one of Queens’s poorest neighborhoods, Arverne overflows with the “at risk” African-American teens whom antipoverty programs often target for help—teens who enthusiastically grasp the opportunities that the branch offers them.

One afternoon this fall, dozens of preteens and teens crowded into the tiny building. About ten of them, students at P.S. or I.S. 105, competed in, or watched, two chess matches—one of them played on a board that the students had made out of cardboard and origami paper. “Don’t move without looking first,” volunteer Lawrence McBride directed a 12-year-old boy. “I would have covered the bishop first,” counsels a student watching the game. “I don’t know why I sacrificed that pawn,” another says. “I don’t know why you did, either,” a third replies.

Waiting for a turn, 12-year-old Sabla says that she plays because it “helps [me] to concentrate” in school. Karizma, also 12, who wants someday to go to Harvard Law, has
“never lost” at chess since she started playing last year. She reports that she has collected dozens of strategies to “think about how to start the game, what to do first.” Mercedes, 14, a student at Saint Rose of Lima, has her mind set on UCLA, to do something with “science and animals”; she likes chess because it’s “challenging.” McBride engages the students when they’re shy, saying of 11-year-old Christopher, “He’s
gotten really good since April.” He also eyes potential recruits, corralling one six-year-old boy making noise in the children’s section to “come watch your brother win.”

The middle-aged McBride, who taught the game to his own two children decades ago, runs the chess club three times weekly, he says, because encouraging abstract thinking and patient deliberation, as chess does, will help neighborhood students “excel academically,” particularly in math. He’s pleased when the students come to him with homework questions.

Arverne library clerk Yvonne Burks also encourages young strivers. She showed me a thick stack of book reports assigned in her after-school program that lets students “read down” library fines. Burks holds hour-long seminars on everything from sewing buttons to applying to college. “People think—and I’ll just say it—that because we’re a black neighborhood, we don’t have high achievers. But we have many high achievers here,” she said, citing students who have gone on to college and who return to the library to visit or volunteer.

Arverne’s librarians keep a special eye on teenage boys, even hiring a few who’ve been regulars there. Hayward Pelt, 19, a tall, reserved senior at Beach Channel High School, tells
me that he started spending afternoons at
the library when he was 11 or 12 and has
“matured since then.” His part-time job is a good fit, he says, because “I have to read a lot for school”; librarians know when he has a lot of schoolwork and give him time to study. He’d like to attend San Bernardino Valley College, following his brother’s footsteps, and major
in architecture.

Like the other Queens Library branches, Arverne offers a simple, but crucial, benefit: a quiet place to study. There’s no chaos such
as reigns in some of these kids’ schools and homes, but no lockdown supervision, either. As Arverne’s manager, Sharon Anderson, put it, “Here the students aren’t guarded. They’re
assisted.” Each afternoon, dozens of children
and teens quietly read, do homework, or use
the library’s computers, asking for help at their own pace; adults also come in looking for information on the GED or for help in preparing a
resumé. When the students’ voices grow too loud, Anderson’s stern warning—“this is a library”—settles them down. Khadijah, an articulate 12-year-old who wants to be a pediatrician, has been doing her homework at the library since she
was little. Last year, when she needed help for her upcoming standardized math test, the library’s after-school tutor, “Miss Stacy,” was always obliging. “It worried me a lot,” Khadijah said of the test, “so I came in every day and prepared.”

Libraries were the government’s first experiment in public-private social uplift, and one of the most successful. But as New York has allowed social-services spending to devour its budget over the past half-century, the city has neglected these critical institutions. While the city does fund capital improvements to libraries (with debt), it hasn’t provided the money that they need to keep the long weekday and weekend hours that their hardworking, and often long-commuting, patrons need. The typical Queens branch’s hours—39 per week—are a far cry from the 77 hours that libraries kept their doors open in the early twentieth century, faithful to Carnegie’s vision.

With more resources, the library would “keep the doors open” longer, says director Thomas Galante, especially on weekends, when working people are free to come. “We have wonderful things to offer inside, but people can’t get to them when the library is closed.” And, of course, the library could buy more books: the $10 million it spent on acquisitions last year
is down $2 million from 1999, and the library’s total annual spending, about $94 million, would be a rounding error in Gotham’s $2.2 billion public assistance bill. With more resources, the branches could provide more homework monitors and more classes in topics such as GED preparation and English-language instruction. Several librarians, including at Arverne, told me that they’d like to contract for professional SAT-prep classes and competitive high school exam classes as well.

But despite his plans to do more to fight poverty, Mayor Bloomberg has in fact cut the library’s budget, so that only 30 percent of its branches can now stay open on at least one weekend day, compared with over 90 percent before the cut. Critics would argue that the library isn’t an antipoverty program, since it depends on self-selection: people have to want to do well for the library to work. But to combat poverty, why not start by helping the many poor people who want to help themselves, like those thronging the libraries of Queens?


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