Behind an Interesting Effort to Strengthen New York's Public Libraries


The Charles H. Revson Foundation has been a key player in strengthening New York City's public libraries in recent years, and we've reported in the past on its grantmaking in this space. 

Revson's efforts have been interesting enough to attract the attention of the philanthropy scholar Tony Proscio, who recently published a case study of Revson's library funding. Proscio wrote of the foundation's notable success in this work:

Revson helped a fragmented, under-appreciated, largely unfashionable segment of New York City life—its threadbare branch libraries—escape from years of budget cuts and neglect and start reclaiming their stature as a prime portal of opportunity for low-income, minority, and immigrant families all over the city.

And how did it achieve this outcome, exactly? Proscio said about Revson's strategy:

It used small grants and personal diplomacy to win the loyalty of the disparate key players... The foundation gradually brokered alliances among those players, made larger grants for research to document their needs and the role they play in the lives of ordinary New Yorkers, and then funded consultants who would help them pull together and present a forceful and effective message to the purse-string-holders at City Hall.

But at the center of this effort, Proscio notes, was a prize competition, the NYC Neighborhood Library Awards, which helped gather and publicize a host of compelling stories about the critical role that public libraries play in the lives New Yorkers struggling upward. Especially in large immigrant communities, these facilities serve as a place for language and citizenship classes, cultural events, and early childhood programs. 

Recently, Revson announced its fourth annual round of that prize, which holds out the possibility of support for any of the city’s 207 public libraries in all five boroughs. Anyone can vote for their favorite library in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, or Staten Island to help it win up to $20,000.

Revson is not the only funder behind the awards this year. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation is also a partner, here. This global funder—which has a big presence in Greece—isn't well known in New York City, but it does have offices on Madison Avenue in New York City and has been stepping up local grantmaking.

Last year, we reported on Niarchos making a Hive Digital Media Learning Fund grant to the New York Community Trust. This was part of Niarchos’ education grantmaking program, which is the funder’s largest program area overall. Other recent NYC grants from this funder can be viewed on Niarchos’ website.  

Five $20,000 awards will be granted, and five more finalists will get $10,000 each, thanks to these foundations. Other partners are the Brian Lehrer Show and the radio station WNYC. Revson has taken the lead and is the primary point of contact, even accepting nominations from the public by phone.

You can learn more about the library award guidelines here. Nominations are being accepted through March 13, and nearly 19,000 of them were received last year.

Related: Do Public Libraries Stand a Chance in New York City?