The best kept secret of the Brooklyn Public Library is in the basement of the Williamsburg Branch, perched over the BQE near the projects and the JMZ train. In 2006 a Superheroes’ Union Meeting Hall decorated with posters gently poking fun at the rules and regulations of working within BPL (Looking to hire a sidekick? Don’t forget to fill out form 137X!) opened in a formerly vacant suite of three rooms in the renovated Carnegie building. The center is run by 826NYC and staffed by volunteers who provide completely free after school tutoring for children aged 6-18 during the school year.
Thirty-four percent of Brooklyn children live below the poverty line. Forty-six percent of Brooklyn residents speak English as their second language. There are so many kids in need of, well, everything, and there is a library within half a mile of of all citizens, so theoretically you can reach most of these children through existing library spaces. Rapidly gentrifying Williamsburg was selected partly because there is a significant population of creative professionals and college students in the gentrifying neighborhood to tap as volunteers. Neighborhood libraries often host one or two after school homework helpers but overburdened public librarians have a hard time supporting and retaining volunteers along with their many other duties. The tutoring center used all the resources already within the borough and the building- a safe meeting place, research materials, the kids who already hang out there, and the adults who want to help.
In one of my many many lucky breaks, I was working as a children’s librarian at the Williamsburg branch when 826 and BPL partnered to open the tutoring center. I took over as project manager partway through the planning stages- translating between the tiny nonprofit (four staff people) and the huge Library system which has a different department for every function: Finance, Volunteers, Buildings, Marketing, Grants, Events. My part was quite small, but it is easily the project of which I am most proud.
“If even one child goes to college because of this, all the time and stress is worth it.” said Gary Shaffer, a former BPL librarian who started the partnership by approaching 826 founder Dave Eggers at The New Yorker Festival. I agree. A scrappy nonprofit with extremely high profile talent behind it can move in ways that a 60 location institution just can’t- so the relationship between the two was symbiotic. Although 826 may have thought we moved slowly, the space makeover and opening took barely eight months and $16K. This is unheard-of speed and thrift for a project in a public institution.
In my dreams, every library in every neighborhood and town has a writing/tutoring center with original art by Marcel Dzama and a dedicated rotating group of community volunteers personally invested in the success of all children. If we could use the drive and inventiveness of 826 and combine it with the dedication and resources of our existing public libraries and librarians, our libraries would be more nimble, creative, community driven, and focused.
If you know anyone who is considering a library or teaching career or who simply wants to get to know their neighborhood in a new way, please suggest that they volunteer with 826NYC or their local library.