NYPL President Tony Marx Discusses the Library’s Evolution during NYU Steinhardt Lecture

New York Public Library President Tony Marx delivered a lecture hosted by NYU’s Steinhardt School of Education on Tuesday about the ways his institution continues to evolve to meet the educational needs of 21st-century New Yorkers.

“The model of libraries we inherited…was basically a passive model,” said Marx, 58, a career educator and previously the President of Amherst College, who cited the NYPL’s previous inability to inform disinterested New Yorkers about the limitless resources available through the world’s largest city library.

Over 200 people, including guest educators unaffiliated with NYU, attended the 9 a.m. event held in the Grand Hall of NYU’s Global Center for Academic and Spiritual Life, which included a subsequent conversation with Steinhardt faculty moderator Professor Noel Anderson and Associate Professor panelists Fabienne Doucet and June Ahn.

If any guests seated at one of the dozen or so round collapsible tables were glossy-eyed and yawning over Dixie cups of steaming coffee and plates of assorted supermarket Danishes before the lecture, Marx humbly commanded their attention and, subsequently, their admiration, once he stepped to the podium.

When Marx took office in 2011, NYPL received more publicity for its extravagant celebrity fundraisers than it did for any of its programming. In a city where 61% of households do not own children’s books and a similar percentage of third graders do not read at grade level, according to a statistic referenced by Marx, he realized the library needed to assume the responsibility of connecting individual branches with members of their surrounding communities.

Marx’s mission to revert this dynamic, which he called “the book gap,” revolves around promoting “digital equity,” one’s ability to access technology regardless of socioeconomic status.

Central to this effort is making digital texts more readily available to library cardholders. In the Summer of 2016, NYPL launched the Simply E app, which instantly provides readers with over 300,000 free eBooks, a number Marx said he hopes will grow to three million within the next year or two.

“We don’t care, as an institution, how you read. We care that you read,” said Marx, effectively dismissing his own loyalty to hardcopy books. “We aspire to start by getting every New Yorker potentially every book online for free.”

The library also offers basic computer skills and coding classes, launched youth after-school programs, added English second-language classes, grew its early literacy program to 364,000 students annually, and increased its immigrant citizenship counseling services by 500% across NYPL’s 88 branches.

“Under his leadership, we’ve taken a proactive approach in making sure neighborhood and research libraries are meeting the needs of our communities,” said Ali Tan, an NYPL colleague who feels Marx has given the library an invaluable sense of direction during his nearly six years as president.

“We really do live in an incredible city with a wealth of information mostly accessible and for free at our fingertips,” said Jennifer Frankola Crawford, who graduated Steinhardt in 2004 with a Master’s degree in Teaching and Learning. Crawford, an education lawyer, attended the lecture to learn about the library’s extensive services for people with disabilities, providing audio texts to people suffering with visual impairments and programs for those with autism. “A lot of my clients live in New York City. Most of them struggle with disabilities and access to information, and I wanted to know how NYPL offered assistive technology to meet their needs.”

During a time in which the federal government’s support for public schools is constantly questioned, Marx emphasized the power of “self-motivated learning,” a student’s thirst for knowledge, that can transform a library into an indispensable educational resource.

Throughout his speech, Marx spoke in a humorous and colloquial tone, jibing at his age and light-heartedly calling out NYPL employees seated at the table near the stage, but always seemed so genuinely in awe of the institution he represented.

He routinely digressed to illustrate this sense of reverence with personal anecdotes, none more poignant than his telling of a function at a newly renovated branch in Washington Heights, when an older gentleman abruptly interrupted the proceedings of an official ceremony to explain his personal connection to the library. As a child, his father worked as the custodian at the same branch. He became passionate about reading while accompanying his father to work, racing through books as his dad laid coal in the building’s furnace. The man subsequently became the first member of his family to graduate high school and college and credits the library as the source of his intellectual curiosity.

“We impact people’s lives even in ways we don’t realize,” Marx conceded, as audience members nodded and verbalized their approval, almost as if he was carrying 200 individual conversations at once.