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Keeping Up With the Jonesaviches: Branches Change with the Neighborhood

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Russian Costume [Scrapbook]. Image ID: 1634210

Decades before Pelham Parkway-Van Nest got its hard-earned hyphen, another more subtle change was underway.

As the Soviet Union crumbled, hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews made their way to New York City. Many settled in Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay, but others found their home in this pocket of the East Bronx. As the demographics of the neighborhood shifted, so did the library’s collection.

Over the years, this population has earned a reputation as “voracious readers,” and the library manager here, David Nochimson, has rushed to feed the bookworms. The New York Public Library as a whole has more than 85,000 Russian items for adults, with more than 19,000 in Mid-Manhattan’s world language collection. But more and more books are making their way to Pelham Parkway-Van Nest. The branch circulated more than 4,000 Russian items in fiscal year 2013-14, an increase of nearly 50% from the previous year. While the number of Russian-language books housed at Pelham Parkway-Van Nest changes daily, it has swelled to around 1,000.

And that’s not 1,000 copies of Anna Karenina.

The shelves are stocked with popular reads, like women’s magazines Good Housekeeping and Cosmo, and well-worn paperbacks in patrons’ mother tongue. The branch subscribes to Russian newspaper V Novom Svete, or “In the New World.” There are movies and music—and if a patron is looking for a title written in the cyrillic alphabet, library staff is there to help work the catalog. It all goes to show that the character of the branch has morphed along with its demographic. Because the Library isn’t a static thing, it’s an organism that is reinventing itself as frequently as New York.

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Seward Park, exterior view. Image ID: 100927

"We've gradually allowed the size of our Russian collection to grow over the past few years to meet the demand, and it's paid off,” Nochimson said.

The same thing happened on the Lower East Side. The Seward Park branch opened its iconic doors in 1909, when the neighborhood was dominated by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. As they moved out and Asian immigrants moved it, that branch has found itself decades later in Chinatown. The demographics changed, but the Library’s mission did not.

If you visit Seward Park today, you’ll see a full slate of activities in Chinese: From morning tea to karaoke to bilingual birdies, which teaches children to read in both English and Chinese. From the multilingual signs to its more than 16,000 Chinese items in circulation, library manager Lakisha Brown recognizes Seward Park’s changing needs and is meeting them head-on. The evolution may have been gradual but it’s far from over. The neighborhood will keep on changing, and the library will keep on supplying books in whatever language residents read.

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Blackwells Island, East River. From Eighty Sixth Street, New York. Image ID: 1659256

Nowhere is that more clear than on Roosevelt Island, an idyllic spot across the East River from the U.N.

Library manager Nicole Nelson’s patrons come from all over the world. Many are diplomats, U.N. support staff, their spouses, and their children. They are highly educated, and they are looking for books in their native tongue while living so far from home. And whether they’re looking for children’s books in Japanese or literature in Swahili, Nelson turns to the Library’s considerable resources, fills the requests, and tries to anticipate the next trend. Her branch is decorated with children’s books in more languages than you can count, and everywhere Nelson walks people are saying thank you.

In whatever language they speak.

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