The Queens Library's secret: help those who help themselves.
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."
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