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.
That's the good news. For the bad news, Gelinas notes that city leaders don't recognize libraries as poverty-fighting tools and have cut funding.
The article has some nice history (including background on Andrew Carnegie), and showcases the services offered then and now. For instance:
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.
The whole article is well worth a read.
Previous related articles:
What are libraries for?
What are libraries for?, revisited