New School Vibes Among the Old School Stacks

How libraries can pave the way to an equitable tech sector.

At the Washington Heights Branch of the New York Public Library, renovated in 2014. (Credit: New York Public Library)

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With more attention drawn to the lack of diversity and inclusionary practices at tech companies in recent years, diversity funds and boot camps have proliferated to solve the issues of diversity and inclusion in tech. For Brandy McNeil, all of that wasn’t nearly good enough.

“What we weren’t seeing is people of all ages and races represented in these programs,” says McNeil, associate director of technology education & training at the New York Public Library. “It doesn’t look like the city of New York.”

These types of programming are relatively superficial approaches to addressing disparities. Upon closer inspection, a typical boot camp student, for example, is 30 years old, has 6.8 years of work experience, and a bachelor degree, according to a study by Course Report.

“I was looking around and seeing what was happening in technology and saw a lot of barriers to entry for people,” says McNeil. “Most of the coding schools require you to pay 10 to 15 thousand dollars to complete, or they want you to do it full-time.”

Since joining the New York Public Library in 2011, McNeil has successfully recruited and developed a team of effective professionals and support staff for the library system’s tech education program, known as TechConnect. Her team has overseen the design and build-out of seven state of the art computer labs across the system’s 217 locations. The TechConnect program now offers over 80 technology classes reaching marginalized and underserved communities of color — and it’s all free of charge to participants.

“What’s so great about our program is that it’s able to reach all areas and all demographics,” said McNeil, who won a 2017 Library Journal Mover and Shaker award in recognition of that progress so far. “We are putting tech training right in the community … It’s about connecting people to technology. No matter the age, people need digital skills.”

Across New York City’s three public library systems, tech training program attendance increased by 81 percent from 2012 to 2015, according to data collected by the Center for an Urban Future, a NYC-focused nonpartisan research and policy organization. Of the 50 branches with the fastest growing tech training program attendance over that period, the majority were outside of Manhattan — the Bronx had 14 of the top 50, while Brooklyn’s public library system had 15.

“Libraries are these important civic institutions that are flying under the radar,” says Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future. “Our research found that libraries were busier than ever, not just to check out books, but a portal of opportunity.”

Over 155,000 students have participated in tech training programs across NYC since 2015, according to the Center for an Urban Future. Tech training programs at libraries range from high-level computer programming courses that mimic the style of a coding boot camp, to basic computer classes that teach skills such as word processing and email.

“You can’t go into a library in New York City without noticing that it’s a place for people on the wrong side of the digital divide,” says Bowles. “Libraries are playing a pivotal role in the tech training.”

The tech scene in NYC — charmingly nicknamed “Silicon Alley” — is booming, increasing the need for workers to have or develop digital skills for the good-paying jobs that encourage upward economic mobility. New York City’s growing tech sector employed 117,147 people in 2014, a 71 percent increase from ten years ago.

Are NYC’s library tech training programs having any effect on who’s getting those jobs? At last count, sixty-two percent of the NYC tech sector employees are white, 16 percent are Asian, 11 percent Latino, and 9 percent Black, according to the Department of Labor. By comparison, in California’s Silicon Valley black tech workers account for only 2.2 percent and Latinx for only 4.7 percent of employees.

And yet, Silicon Alley’s workforce still doesn’t quite yet reflect the diversity of the city. McNeil and her team still have a lot of work to do, but it’s clear to Bowles that the city’s libraries are already playing a key role in moving that needle.

“The libraries are really the only places that are providing digital skills at scale,” says Bowles. “No one else is doing that.”

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Jenna is a digital strategist based in New York City using media and design to tell stories. Her experience in digital media and communications has reached organizations in Chicago, Silicon Valley, and Oakland where she built and executed social media campaigns and led communications strategy. She holds a B.A. in  Public Relations & Advertising from DePaul University and an MS in Data Journalism from Columbia University. 

Tags: jobslibrariestech hubs

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