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Julie Sandorf: The Library is the Stable Beacon

Posted by Yves Etheart

Revson Foundation President Julie Sandorf

Created in partnership with the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and the Charles H. Revson Foundation, the NYC Neighborhood Library Awards invite New York City library lovers of all ages and backgrounds to tell their stories about the outstanding impact their library has had on their neighborhood and community.

For Julie Sandorf, the president of the Revson Foundation, her library love started in childhood on Long Island, when she and her mother would go to their local library all the time. She observed that when she tried to replicate the experience with her own daughter, her local library in Morningside Heights was only open three days a week—so it’s great now that, thanks to the Mayor’s Office and the New York City Council, all libraries are open six days a week!

“The Revson Foundation started the NYC Neighborhood Library Awards to shine a spotlight on the vast reach and importance of branch libraries and the unsung heroes of New York, the City’s frontline community library staff,” said Sandorf. “New York City’s libraries attract over 40.5 million visitors annually—more than all of the City’s professional sports teams and major cultural institutions combined. The branch libraries are beloved community institutions and we have simply provided a megaphone to amplify the immutable connection New Yorkers have with their libraries.”

Sandorf and her colleagues didn’t anticipate the phenomenal response that the Awards would generate from the public—the number of nominations they’ve received has increased from 4,000 in the first year to nearly 19,000 last year, and over 9,000 people in Queens have nominated their public libraries over the past three years. But they’re certainly delighted to receive them, and Sandorf was sure to mention that “we read every single nomination!”

Not Just a Vote, but Telling Stories
Sandorf feels that the appeal of the Awards is that it’s not just a simple matter of voting for a library, but the opportunity for people to tell the story of how their library has made a difference in their lives.

“Everybody has a library story. Anybody you talk to, and you mention ‘neighborhood library,’ they will tell you their story. We receive nominations from every single neighborhood library in New York City, and the diversity of reasons why people love their neighborhood library is extraordinary. Everything from seniors having a place to go and interact with people of all ages, to the libraries’ open doors to immigrants—whether you’re documented or not, and that has always been the case—to ESOL classes, to being a primary source of high-speed internet for over 3 million people in New York City, to book clubs and reading groups, to access to foreign language materials, arts, and culture.”

Sandorf has seen three common stories that have frequently emerged from the thousands of nominations the Awards committee receives. “First is the idea of the library as a safe haven to children and young people after school, often written by parents who work full-time. Then, for the millions of New Yorkers who can’t afford access to knowledge, or culture, or the internet—the libraries are life-savers, particularly in lower-income communities. And then, across the board, but particularly in neighborhoods in transition in this city, the library was the one place where long-time residents and newcomers rubbed shoulders and got to know each other.”

“The library really is the true civic square, especially in a place like New York, where neighborhoods have experienced tremendous transition over the last 20 years,” said Sandorf. “The library is the stable beacon. That rang true from the Lower East Side to Greenpoint to Corona to Jackson Heights to the South Bronx to Inwood—libraries are the place that people can come and not only be welcomed with open arms, but get to know who their neighbors are. For instance, there was one young immigrant mother who didn’t know anyone in the neighborhood. She started taking her toddler to reading programs at the Sunnyside Library, and those reading programs became the social network for her to meet other mothers in the neighborhood. It’s really incredible!”

Sandorf ended our conversation by reflecting on the legacy of Andrew Carnegie, the philanthropist who was one of the earliest and most generous champions of the City’s libraries.

“Carnegie once said, ‘Whatever agencies for good may rise or fall in the future, it seems certain that the Free Library is destined to stand and become a never-ceasing foundation of good to all the inhabitants.’ I feel that Andrew Carnegie’s vision of the neighborhood library is important now more than ever, and that it’s alive and well.”

Watch Julie Sandorf speak about how important libraries are to the city of New York.