Participation in NYC Public Libraries’ Tech Trainings Soars

A new report by the Center for an Urban Future has found that participation in the technology training programs offered by New York City’s public libraries increased 81 percent in just three years. The classes on offer cover everything from basic computer literacy to coding. In some cases demand far outstrips supply; for example, one program currently serves 400 people but has a waitlist of 5,000. The report concludes that public libraries could and should play an important role in increasing digital literacy and shrinking the “tech talent gap.”

The author of the report, Jonathan Bowles, also suggests that the programs could help diversify New York City’s tech workforce, although the data is not yet there to definitively back him up.

Bowles points out in the report that while growth in the city’s tech sector has far outstripped the overall job growth in the economy, growing 71 percent from 2004 to 2014, the tech sector remains overwhelmingly white. Only 20 percent of the tech workforce is black or Hispanic. Bowles suggests that if more low-income black and Hispanic New Yorkers had the digital skills that technology employers required, the talent gap would shrink.

Civicist reached out to Bowles to see if they knew how many of the participants in the public libraries’ tech trainings were black or Hispanic, or if they had any way of tracking whether participants were able to find jobs in the tech sector after completing a training. The answer was no to both.

“Our aim here was to do a fairly short data brief that would merely introduce this topic—the role of libraries in providing tech training,” Bowles explained in an email. “My sense is that most people don’t think of libraries when they think of tech training, but I think the numbers we found suggest that there could be an important role (or may already be an important role) that complements some of the other efforts going on in this space.”

The other efforts Bowles is referring to include Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Tech Talent Pipeline initiative and programs like Girls Who Code and Access Code.

“That said, my strong sense is that these programs are serving a very diverse mix of New Yorkers,” he added. “Except for a handful of more regional branch libraries, the city’s libraries tend to serve people in their communities. And in so many of the communities served by these branches, the bulk of residents are not white.”

Bowles writes in the report that the majority of the programs that have seen the largest amount of growth are outside Manhattan, and of the ones in Manhattan, three are in Harlem, one on Roosevelt Island, and one in Chinatown.

In addition to offering tech training programs, the three public library systems that serve New York City have also begun lending out Wi-Fi hotspots to New Yorkers without a home internet connection, in an attempt to shrink the city’s digital divide.

The Center for an Urban Future report makes a strong case for the importance of libraries in the city’s broader tech ecosystem, but impact will be hard to gauge without knowing who the participants are and how they are able to put their newly-acquired tech skills to use.

The report is just one in a planned series, and Bowles confirmed for Civicist that they hope to do more research on the topic and publish a “deeper dive” later this year.