First Person: Communities Have Flourished With Libraries. It’s Time to Stop Stunting Our Growth.

By Ruiyu Tang, Teen Civics Ambassador, Chatham Square Library
April 29, 2024
A teen sitting at a table and smiling at the camera while making origami

Ruiyu Tang, the author, leads an origami-making program for his peers at Chatham Square Library in his role as a Teen Civics Ambassador

Raindrops tap danced on my umbrella as they tumbled from a gloomy Thursday sky. Their steady rhythm made a puddle, which expanded around my shoes as I fumbled for my keys—which I had conveniently left at home. 

The library stood amidst the showers with bright lights promising warmth, dryness, and the rich, crisp scent of books. The library offered a sanctuary and a temporary home for me, the young boy left to soak in the rain. 

Exterior image of Chatham Square Library

Chatham Square Library in Manhattan's Chinatown neighborhood

Libraries are essential components of communities, whether they act as physical barriers from the climate or through their immense wealth of knowledge, resources, and opportunities. Their positive impacts are seen especially in more disadvantaged neighborhoods, like my home in Chinatown, where reports by NYU’s Furman Center show a poverty rate of 24.2% and a household income 27% less than the citywide median. Low literacy rates in Chinatown have had profound consequences on employment and income, and research from the Asian American Federation has shown that 70 percent of Asian immigrants living in poverty have had limited support in English speaking skills. 

This is where libraries come in, offering English classes free of charge for thousands of immigrant adults annually and connecting patrons to digital resources and online workshops. From 2022 to 2023, The New York Public Library saw a 113% increase in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes, serving over 150,000 learners. Additionally, services like free internet, accessible technology, and books have contributed significantly to literacy and education for immigrants. 

The bright lights of public libraries have shaped personal and career pathways for many patrons, including for me and my extended family. My grandfather took English classes at the library that helped to erase the language barrier between us. Craft programs and Chinese calligraphy workshops jumpstarted a deeper connection to my Chinese cultural heritage and are one of the reasons why libraries are such valued community hubs in my neighborhood.

Teen Center at Chatham Square Library

The Teen Center at Chatham Square Library

I now intern as a Teen Civics Ambassador at the Chatham Square Library, sandwiched between dim sum shops, dumpling restaurants, and Chinese supermarkets. It is a pleasure to watch children and teens who look like me grow and flourish in a space that is made for them. They crowd around the Young Adult librarian’s desk, recounting their days, talking about vacation plans, discussing recently-read books, and exchanging gifts during birthdays or special occasions. Those who are uncomfortable with their English-speaking skills are welcomed by a well-equipped staff, who engage in meaningful conversations in a much more familiar Mandarin and inspire confidence in teens that they are heard and understood. It is no coincidence that a study by The Center for an Urban Future finds that branches with the greatest resource circulation and patron engagement are concentrated in immigrant communities. Offering over 90,000 programs a year, The New York Public Library truly tries to accommodate everyone and strives for inclusivity. 

Unfortunately, a rain cloud hangs over the sunshine that libraries represent. Last November, mid-year budget cuts slashed funding and caused libraries to close their doors on Sundays. Long gone are the Sunday memories when my small but chubby hands eagerly picked out a stack of chapter books to read that week. Now, New York City’s library systems face increasing pressure from proposed cuts that total over $58 million. Monetary values may be abstract, but they translate into real impacts, including the potential loss of universal six-day service undoubtedly reducing program availability. Even more devastatingly, library engagement was on an upward trend in almost every metric before cuts, including WiFi usage, program attendance, and library card registrations. As the library expands its reach and benefits the lives of new patrons, these cuts could not come at a worse time. For the young boy who wanted more than anything to communicate past the language barrier with his grandfather and for the thousands of patrons who use the library to enrich their lives, budget cuts remove a lifeline for individuals, families, and entire communities. 

A group of people holding signs in multiple languages saying "no cuts to libraries"

Library supporters rally for No Cuts to Libraries in front of City Hall

Luckily, we can advocate and testify against these cuts. From a young age, teen programs and librarians instilled in me the importance of civic engagement and activism. From voting in a favorite book program to receiving a list of civic-related summer reading recommendations, my librarians nurtured an appreciation for speaking out and making my voice heard. Even recently, a Manga March Madness initiative invited teens across the library system to vote and to show that teen voices can have a significant, tangible impact. 

Budget cuts are intimidating and cast a shadow over our heads, but there are many ways for teens and patrons everywhere to make their opinions heard. For example, as part of NYPL’s advocacy campaign, our website allows you to sign a letter and instantly sends that message to prominent members of City Hall. Additionally, you can support the library by following our progress as we testify about the importance of libraries and urge your families to attend #NoCutsToLibraries rallies. The library’s social media page is a great way to express your own stories in the comments and to let policymakers hear, firsthand, what the library means to you. 

Our libraries have been a safe place, a place of growth and development, and a place of learning and community building. We have witnessed the positive impacts of afterschool programs, resources for underserved communities, and access to education and career preparedness programs. So join my voice in saying, no cuts to libraries! 

At The New York Public Library, we believe what teens have to say matters. Read more from Teen Voices at NYPL.