Not Your Grandfather's Librarian

The new director of the New York Public Library is focused on education and innovation - and visiting all the branches

30 Oct 2019 | 02:14

Man in a hurry: Brian Bannon has only been on the job for a few weeks, but the new director of the New York Public Library (NYPL) has already been to more than half of the Library’s 88 branches.

Bannon had a long relationship with New York as visitor; now, as he settles in as a resident, he said his first priority “is to visit all of the Library’s branches” in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island. “The best way to learn a city is through its libraries,” he emphasized.

According to Bannon, “You can’t really know anything about a community until you embed yourself in it.” Every neighborhood library has unique needs, he added, although all libraries are connected through their core values, including access, education, and lifelong learning.

Talking to Bannon is a speed test: ask a question and he will spill words in a torrent. In a nearly hour-long phone conversation, he shared almost nonstop about growing up in a rural area in the Pacific Northwest; working for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation connecting far-flung communities to the internet; going from the Seattle Public Library to San Francisco’s and, then, on to the Chicago Public Library system. Some of the educational programs he implemented there were replicated in other cities. He initiated free personalized online assistance and expanded in-person homework help.

Interest in Social Justice Issues

Bannon is especially proud of his experience in developing digital skills training, community-based learning, and educational advancement for children, families, and adults. He said he’s excited about bringing his experience in over 20 years of innovation in librarianship to the NYPL, “the gold standard.”

Bannon received his bachelor of arts degree at Pacific Lutheran University, where a professor recognized his interest in social justice issues and suggested libraries as a career. He went from majoring there in psychology and LGBT studies, to a master’s degree in library and information science at the University of Washington Information School.

At the NYPL’s welcome reception for him, Bannon held court in a stylish, well-tailored suit. He sports horizontal eyeglass frames with rounded edges that frame his friendly brown eyes. He immediately took my iPhone and produced a wide-grinned selfie.

Bannon’s formal title is the Merryl and James Tisch Director. The newly created position was funded by their $20 million gift. Asked about his donation, James Tisch said, “It’s all about education.” Bannon’s new position makes him responsible for the educational strategy of the Library’s neighborhood branches, as well as their operation and direction.

Renovations Underway

Currently, the Library is in the middle of $600 million in capital projects in the branches. Of that, about $340 million is geared for Manhattan. The big one is the total renovation of the Mid-Manhattan Library diagonally across from the main building on Fifth Avenue. NYPL’s largest and busiest circulating library, closed since 2017, is being transformed into one that is state-of-the-art.

An employment skills center will occupy a full floor, with another level providing job-search help and small-business support. There will be separate areas for children and teens, and a free public roof terrace. The Library makeover was made possible by a landmark $55 million gift from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), partnering with the NYPL and the City of New York. The 100,000-square-feet SNF Library is set to reopen next year.

Full renovations are also due for the Fort Washington branch and the 125th Street Library. The Epiphany branch, on East 23rd Street, will see a restored facade, while the Muhlenberg on West 23rd will see improvements in elevator and fire safety, as well as heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC). On the Upper West Side, the Bloomingdale Library (100th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues) will enjoy a $3 million renovation, adding a teen space among other significant improvements.

On the Upper East Side, the 67th Street branch will see a new roof and HVAC upgrades; its planned reopening is in November. The Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center will get upgraded lighting. Manhattan is also getting a Bookmobile, to serve communities impacted by the capital work currently disrupting branch services.

According to a Library spokesperson, branches like St. Agnes, which had a full renovation within the last ten years, and Morningside Heights, which had relatively recent improvements, won’t get attention this time.

Bannon’s stated primary focus will be on education, but before setting out long term strategies, he said he wants to complete his first round of visits to the branches: getting input from the staffs for context and backstory; seeing what activities are already offered at the different locations, and talking to the people who use the libraries, listening to what they say and how they feel.

“Our branch libraries are central tools for community learning,” he said, and “it takes time to learn about them experientially.”

The high regard that Bannon is held in the library field was emphasized in NYPL President and CEO Anthony Marx’s comment: “Nabbing Brian,” he said, “was something of a coup.”

“Nabbing Brian was something of a coup." NYPL President and CEO Anthony Marx