A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert, said entrepreneur Andrew Carnegie. However, the idea of a free public library can be traced to someone just as entrepreneurial—the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and one whose founding credits include, among other things, the United States of America—Thomas Jefferson.
Over the last three centuries, our libraries have served as an omnipresent and reliable resource of life-long learning for all Americans—from immigrants to veterans alike. Today, there are 16,536 public library branches in the U.S. and now more than ever, the role and relevance of libraries are in question. Having visited libraries around the country, I couldn’t be more excited about the latent potential in them to address the evolving needs of the communities around them.
“Today, there are 16,536 public library branches in the U.S.”
There is no institution that is as well positioned to serve the ever-changing needs of our communities as our nations’ public libraries. It has the infrastructure (functioning buildings) and covers the geographic range (in all 50 states, DC and outlying territories) to address virtually every community’s needs in a grassroots way. There are signs that some libraries have begun re-evaluating their purposes and realizing that purely literacy should not be their raison d’être. But they’re far from fully realizing their potential to serve people’s ever-changing needs.
Having founded a nonprofit that is focused on unleashing the dormant potential within libraries, I can make a strong case that we have only begun to scratch the surface in the ways libraries can redefine themselves in the 21st century. A few years ago, I decided to combine three facts I had become acutely aware of:
- There are millions of children across the United States who are denied art classes in their public schools (it is underfunded)
- Thousands of artists can’t afford a space to create artwork
- There are millions of square feet of underutilized real-estate in public libraries across the nation.
Using a mutually beneficial arrangement, I founded ProjectArt, an organization that grants artists studio spaces in public libraries (at no cost to the libraries) and in return they teach art classes to youth. It’s one simple solution that solves three complex problems.
The importance of arts education during the developmental years of a child is almost inestimable. If there’s one fact to know about the value of arts education, it is that having regular arts classes can reduce drop-out rates in high-school students from low-income communities by up to five-fold.
“Regular arts classes can reduce drop-out rates in high-school students from low-income communities by up to five-fold.”
The economics of it isn’t bad either. ProjectArt’s model (libraries-artists-students) is centered around simple, yet profound Smithian economics—that entities can work together out of self-interest and have unintended positive social benefits. Our programs have proven to attract audiences who wouldn’t otherwise come to the library (57% are new audiences) and a majority of them end up benefiting from other resources at the library (71% end up picking up a book). That’s prodigious.
ProjectArt is now five years old, operates in 23 libraries in New York City and is scaling up to multiple cities around the country, starting with Miami and Detroit this fall. Using libraries as an anchor, we’re solving known crises in an innovative way, while continuing to re-envision libraries as a never failing oasis in communities.