Leveraging Libraries for Cultural Engagement

A Model from New York

David Giles

In a corner of the reading room in a public library near downtown Brooklyn, an artist/educator guides a group of children through the process of grinding up insects with a mortar and pestle and then using a muller to mix the resulting red powder with water. “By crushing the cochineal beetle,” she says, which lives on cacti in arid regions of Mexico and is still used as a natural food coloring for ketchup and many other processed foods, “medieval and early modern artists could produce this wonderful red color for their paintings.”

“And do you know something even more disgusting?” she asks. Because water causes it to turn brown after a while, artists “would mix the powder with their own urine, or pee, to preserve it.”

Over the course of a two-hour program, the group moves from crushing beetles to smashing saffron threads and malachite, producing decidedly unsynthetic shades of yellow and green. Because the program is happening on the library’s main floor, the group is constantly in flux, ranging from six to eighteen active participants. Most of them laugh at the word pee and ask probing questions about the various tools and materials — for example, about the price of saffron in the Middle Ages — but not everyone has time to stay, and some people around the room are doing other things. Several boys are occupying themselves at the public computers, and a caregiver and her toddler search the shelves for picture books.

Children participate in artist-led Colors of the World program at the Morgan Library and Museum at the Brooklyn Public Library, Pacific Branch, part of the Culture Pass program. Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Public Library.

For the Morgan Library and Museum, which has one of the largest collections of illustrated manuscripts in the world as well as one of the finest Gilded Age interiors in New York, this is, I imagine, a pretty dramatic change in scenery, not just the linoleum floors and barely functioning AC but the noise and movement and constantly flickering attention spans of many participants. In fact, this is the first time the Morgan has offered programs of this kind outside of elementary schools and their own walls. It is the first time doing it in a public space, where visitors come and go as they please and programs are free and open to all without required registration.

The Morgan is one of fifty institutions participating in Culture Pass, a public library service that lets patrons go online and check out free day passes and tickets to New York City’s museums, cultural hubs, and performance venues. As a part of Culture Pass, fifteen institutions have recently begun offering educational programs at public libraries. In addition to the Morgan’s “Colors of the World” program, in which the cochineal beetle features prominently, these educational offerings include everything from workshops on accessibility design (Cooper Hewitt) and environmental art and activism (Children’s Museum of the Arts) to artist talks (Brooklyn Museum) and oral history events (Brooklyn Historical Society).

For the majority of these organizations, the goal is to expand their reach in the city and make contact with audiences who are unlikely to leave their borough, or even their neighborhoods, to visit a high-profile museum or performance venue, either because they have never heard of these institutions or because, as has been found in surveys, they do not identify with them.1 In many ways, the public library is the perfect place to address these sorts of obstacles and other arts access issues. In New York, the populations with much lower rates of arts participation — that is, those with lower levels of educational attainment and lower household incomes, immigrants, and people of color — gravitate to the public library, where they can access the Internet, computer equipment, English and high school equivalency classes, and millions of books for free, and where they can sit down in public without having to purchase anything. With 214 public library branches across New York, every neighborhood has one, and despite some people’s assumptions to the contrary, they are normally busy. In 2018, New York’s three library systems — Brooklyn Public Library, New York Public Library, and Queens Public Library — greeted over thirty-six million visitors and hosted more than 260,000 public programs.

New York City residents can check out passes to musuems, gardens, archives, historic landmarks, and performance venues through Culture Pass. Between July 2018 and May 2019, over sixty thousand passes — valid for over 160,000 people — were checked out.

As one of the designers of Culture Pass, I could not be more pleased with the results so far. After launching in summer 2018 with twenty-nine participating organizations and seven thousand passes per month, we have grown to fifty organizations and eight thousand monthly passes. There are museums, gardens, archives, and historic landmarks in every borough, and we have recently started to incorporate performance venues, such as Second Stage Theater, The Public Theater, and The Shed. Between July 2018 and May 2019, over sixty thousand passes — valid for over 160,000 people — were checked out through Culture Pass, and though we know checkouts do not always equal visits, the anecdotal evidence so far is extremely positive: people are trading in their passes for tickets at the door at a high rate, and in many cases they are bringing family members and friends.

In what follows, I will talk more about how Culture Pass functions and how we have partnered with participating institutions to target underserved neighborhoods. I will also explain more about how the museum programs work in the library setting and how they complement the libraries’ own pedagogical emphasis on play, curiosity, and discovery.

Libraries as Social Infrastructure

In large urban centers, public libraries are often likened to parks because of their footprint, to community centers because of their local character, and to public schools because of their formal or systematic organizational structure. However, the library is unlike any of these other institutions in that it is simultaneously a public space, service, collection of resources, and educator. Importantly, the library is mostly indifferent to the specific purposes and ends of its users. It inspires and empowers, rather than teaches, and works with external partners to further their own goals rather than imposing its own. Though still imperfect, I think the term social infrastructure best captures this porousness and democratic openness.2

In the case of Culture Pass, library infrastructure is both digital and physical. The primary point of access is a website (https://culturepass.nyc) that patrons can use to scroll through descriptions of participating organizations, learn more about their collections and performances, and see on an interactive map where they are located in the city. They can see when passes are available over a three-month period for every organization. They can reserve a pass for a day that is convenient for them and then, when they are ready, download it to their phone or print it out to take with them.

This digital system has several important advantages. From the patrons’ standpoint — we hope — it is intuitive and convenient. In fact, unless you need assistance or access to a printer, you do not need to step foot in a physical library. From the organizations’ standpoint, it is extremely flexible, giving them lots of control over how many passes to make available every month. Organizations are asked to contribute an average of at least a hundred passes per month, but they can strategically black out certain dates, such as holidays, special events, or days with free admission.

And just as important, the system allows the libraries to work with each organization to target up to 50 percent of their passes to particular neighborhoods. Given the disparities in arts participation rates across the city and our growing understanding of the social impact of arts exposure, this was a critical feature for both the libraries and museums as well as our funders.3

CULTURAL ASSETS IN NEW YORK CITY. The Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP) study found that cultural assets are unequally distributed throughout the city’s neighborhoods with significantly fewer cultural resources located in low-income communities and communities of color. According to the study, “cultural resources in the city are extremely unequally distributed. Manhattan below 125th Street and neighborhoods near downtown Brooklyn have extraordinarily high levels of cultural resources, while many neighborhoods in all boroughs have far fewer. If we break the city’s neighborhoods into five strata based on their overall economic status, we find that the wealthiest have many times more cultural resources than other parts of the city.” Courtesy of the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, from the 2017 CreateNYC Cultural Plan.
Sources: SIAP 2017: Cultural asset index, NYC DCP 2014: NTA summaries, NYC DCP 2017: Boroughs and neighborhood tabulation areas.

A 2017 study by the Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP) at the University of Pennsylvania found that New York neighborhoods with high concentrations of cultural organizations, artists, and other arts assets tended to have better health outcomes, more personal security, and higher scores on school tests, especially when they lacked other advantages, such as high household incomes.4 Cultural participation, the authors hypothesized, creates tangible economic and social opportunities by exposing residents to a broader array of potential identities, skills, career paths, and more (what Amartya Sen and other social scientists have termed “functionings”); it also contributes to a neighborhood’s level of collective efficacy, they argued, by creating and strengthening social connections between its members.

Unsurprisingly, the SIAP study found that the distribution of arts assets and access is unequal. Rates of cultural participation, the authors showed, correlate with household size, income, race, and ethnicity, but the single biggest factor was geography, specifically how far one lives from Midtown Manhattan. “Manhattan below 125th Street and neighborhoods near downtown Brooklyn have extraordinarily high levels of cultural resources,” states the report, “while many neighborhoods in all five boroughs have far fewer.”5

For Culture Pass, we used SIAP’s four social wellbeing clusters — concentrated disadvantage, diverse and struggling, concentrated advantage, and Midtown advantage — to inform our targeting strategies. These clusters encompass ten different metrics or dimensions of wellbeing, including household income, insecurity, health access, housing burden, school effectiveness, institutional connections, and cultural assets.6 Though some Culture Pass organizations had reasons to focus on a narrower range of neighborhoods, most worked with us to make additional passes available in neighborhoods categorized as concentrated disadvantage or diverse and struggling, the categories with the lowest and second-lowest rating for social wellbeing. In other words, when passes in the general pool were depleted, patrons from these neighborhoods could draw down another set of targeted passes, giving them more time and opportunity to participate in the program. Our assumption, which proved true, was that patrons in more advantaged neighborhoods would check out passes at a higher rate (and more quickly) than everyone else and that this targeting mechanism would help level the playing field. Overall, between July 2018 and May 2019, over fourteen thousand passes were reserved in neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage, twenty-four thousand in diverse and struggling, nineteen thousand in concentrated advantage, and four thousand in Midtown advantage. After controlling for population size, we found that passes were reserved at a lower rate in neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage (5.48 passes per one thousand residents) and diverse and struggling (6.47) than in concentrated advantage (9.82) and Midtown advantage (16.05). Nevertheless, we are proud of the overall number of reservations in our less advantaged neighborhoods. In fact, for many museums, including the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, Wave Hill, the New York Transit Museum, and the American Natural History Museum, 70 percent or more of passes came from these more disadvantaged neighborhoods.

The Value of Interpersonal Interactions and Patient Human Contact

For the libraries, lending day passes to museums is a completely natural idea. Libraries have long used digital platforms to lend out ebooks, magazines, audio materials, and movies. They regularly lend out various types of equipment, including laptops, Internet hotspots, musical instruments, and energy audit kits. In the 1950s, Brooklyn Public Library lent out paintings by notable local artists; anyone with a library card could choose a piece of art, check it out from the library, and hang it in their living room for a limited period. However, since most residents associate libraries with physical books, marketing Culture Pass and explaining how it works were critical to its success. To do this, a consistent Culture Pass identity was created using the work of a local illustrator, along with a short explainer video and thousands of physical pamphlets, posters, buttons, and stickers. In fall 2018, advertisements ran on city bus shelters and LinkNYC kiosks in our targeted neighborhoods. The Brooklyn, New York (serving Staten Island, Manhattan, and the Bronx), and Queens library systems all marketed (and continue to market) the service online with regular social media posts as well as with brochures in every branch. In some branches, librarians created “know before you go” book displays featuring catalogs, monographs, and other books relevant to new and ongoing museum exhibitions.

Children show off artwork created during the artist-led Civic Kids program at the Children’s Museum of the Arts at the Brooklyn Public Library, Saratoga Branch, part of the Culture Pass program. Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Public Library.

Yet, when it comes to engaging new audiences, one cannot underestimate the value of interpersonal interactions and patient human contact. This is where the physical infrastructure of the libraries plays a particularly important role. For many people, especially those who do not speak English well or are living temporarily in a shelter, finding out what the library has to offer can be a challenge. It is not enough to build a collection of resources and expect people to find what they need. Staff have to broadcast these resources widely in neighborhoods and work individually with many patrons to not only steer them in the right direction but help them decode the systems and technologies on which they are increasingly based. In this way, library staff help vulnerable patrons access online government assistance programs, green card applications, and jobs listings. Culture Pass is no exception. Every day, staff work with patrons to understand what Culture Pass is, who the organizations are, and how the reservation system works. In my experience, staff are preternaturally unflappable and patient when it comes to answering these sorts of questions. Not long after we launched, I overheard a staff member in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, patiently explaining to a confused patron the difference between E-Z pass, New York’s cashless toll program, and Culture Pass.

Staff also include Culture Pass materials in their visits to schools, hospitals, senior centers, and neighborhood fairs and festivals. With over three thousand public-serving staff across all five boroughs, this default level of public engagement is relatively high. Nevertheless, the libraries have started to deepen this engagement even more with a wide variety of programs designed and implemented by the museums themselves.

Museums, Libraries, and the Convivial Approach to Education

In the 1970s, the popular social critic and philosopher Ivan Illich distinguished between what he termed manipulative and convivial approaches to education.7 He argued that manipulative forms of education, exemplified by many K–12 schools and universities, are coercive and tend to be overly focused on process and measurable outcomes. Convivial forms, by contrast, are self-activated, spontaneous, and focused on communities of shared interest.8 Though Illich only briefly mentions libraries and museums in his most popular book on the subject, Deschooling Society, both seem to me to be paradigmatic convivial institutions.

Educational programs at museums and libraries rely on self-selection rather than conscription and shy away from formal, outcomes-based curricula. Not coincidentally, their educational programs tend to prioritize play and conversation, movement and performance. The public library’s approach to early learning, for example, has long emphasized motor skill development, singing, and dialogical reading. Storytime is just as much about modeling interactive behaviors for parents as it is entertaining children or introducing them to books as a medium.

Convivial institutions are critical in our educational ecosystem for the simple reason that when not in school, children spend most of their time with and, arguably, learn most of what they know from family members and friends. Educated families reproduce their privilege, in part, through continual conversation and extracurricular experiences; they talk to their children at dinner, read to them before bed, and take them to museums, performances, and movies on weekends. As the children receiving these sorts of investments begin to score higher on tests and other performance measures, formal schools often end up only magnifying these inequalities.

But how do you level the playing field when the educated and well-to-do seek out these opportunities and others do not? How do you expose parents to the educational benefits of museum going and the sorts of exploratory engagements they facilitate when they have never experienced these things themselves and serious obstacles such as time and money stand in the way of their visiting?

Offering free day passes and aggressively marketing them in neighborhoods with low cultural participation rates are obviously one way to address this problem. But with so many organizations already cooperating on cultural access issues, some of us at the libraries thought there was an opportunity to take Culture Pass one step further by offering select museum programs in the libraries themselves, both as a way of directly exposing more people to these programs and as a way of marketing the day passes in our targeted neighborhoods.

To our delight, the response from our funders and many museums was enthusiastic. In the spring and early summer of 2019, fifteen of the fifty participating Culture Pass organizations offered 140 programs for 2,224 participants in libraries across New York. Over 80 percent of these programs were in neighborhoods categorized as concentrated disadvantage or diverse and struggling by SIAP, and many of the rest were in transit zones, like the Pacific Library near Downtown Brooklyn. Pacific is a good example of a library in an area of concentrated advantage that still attracts large numbers of patrons from all over the borough, especially those visiting nearby courts and social service offices.

Like the Morgan Library’s “Colors of the World” program, many of these museum programs took place out on the reading room floor or in a community room with open doors. The programs were advertised online and with flyers, but many, if not most, of the participants drop in after visiting the library for other reasons. Many stay for the whole program, while others come and go as they please. This is how it works for most library programs. Like the institution itself, the programs are powered by the interests and whims of the patrons who participate in them. Many of the best library programs can stretch over days or even weeks, with participants taking on different roles. One example is a project-based program at Clarendon Library in South Brooklyn, in which a cohort of school-age children and teenagers take on different roles building an interactive display for summer reading; the younger participants construct an upright arcade out of cardboard, while the older ones code a simple game using the programming language Python.9 The Morgan Library program displayed a similar logic, with the smaller children gravitating toward the messier activities of medieval paint production, and the older ones concentrating on painting their illuminated manuscripts.

Beyond the Morgan, Culture Pass programs ranged widely, from hands-on art and design classes, in which the participants construct their own art pieces or architectural models, to community research projects and artist talks. Wave Hill, a garden and cultural center in the Bronx, worked with teenagers and adults at the Kingsbridge Library in an urban ecology program. The participants learned about the city’s tree census, including its methodology and importance in environmental justice, and then went out into the neighborhood to collect data on the trees in their community. Over several different programs drawing on different curricula and materials, the Children’s Museum of Manhattan introduced school-age children to simple machines, human anatomy, and Greek mythology. The Brooklyn Historical Society offered a series of popular oral history events designed to document the lives of Brooklyn’s Muslims. And so on.

Learning from the Past, Looking to the Future

When it comes to a partnership this large and sprawling, there is still a lot to do and learn. At a time when many foundations and policy makers want to see more rigor and data rather than less, the convivial approach to education is far from fashionable. We still have more to do when it comes to measuring pass redemptions at the door and have only anecdotal information so far about who is using the passes and whether the programs are an effective way to market them.

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) tells us that 5,717 tickets were issued at the door for Culture Pass participants between July 2018 and June 2019, and we know that 6,747 passes were reserved during that period. But since each pass is valid for two people, the redemption rate could be as low as 42 percent or as high as 84 percent. Most likely it is somewhere between 50 and 70 percent, but we do not know for sure. Similarly, we know that 56 percent of MoMA’s passes were reserved by patrons in underserved areas, but we do not know anything more about who these patrons are. Because libraries care deeply about personal privacy and have systems in place to decouple personal information from transactional information, getting detailed demographic data about users is a challenge.

Still, the reports we are receiving from participating organizations and patrons are overwhelmingly positive. The Brooklyn Historical Society, for example, reports that since July 2018, 14 percent of visitors to their main location in Brooklyn Heights were Culture Pass patrons.10 Stephanie Wilchfort, CEO of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, testified before New York City Council about the remarkable impact Culture Pass has upon the diversity of their local audiences and communities: “Of our Culture Pass visitors, 60 percent are Brooklynites. The largest proportion, about 35 percent, come from our core communities in Central Brooklyn: Bed-Stuy, Brownsville, Crown Heights, Flatbush, East New York, and Prospect Lefferts Gardens. Another 14 percent come from South Brooklyn, and 10 percent from North Brooklyn. We are delighted that 25 percent of our Culture Pass visitors are our siblings in Queens, many of whom may not have previously visited our museum and our neighborhood.” The Children’s Museum of the Arts (CMA), in Manhattan’s West Village, recounts the direct impact of the program: “From its very beginning, there have been so many patrons inquiring about and using Culture Pass, in particular, many first-time visitors who might not otherwise come to CMA. It has broadened our community.”

Patrons tell us all the time how surprised they are to see so many museums and performance venues in one place, including major cultural attractions in every borough. Even experienced cultural consumers can learn new things. How many residents know that New York has a world-class museum of Tibetan art on Staten Island, for example, or that Louis Armstrong’s longtime home in Corona is open for guided tours? Galleries at organizations like the China Institute and the Society of Illustrators are hidden gems that even savvy residents can easily overlook. Yet, in the hubbub that is New York City’s cultural ecosystem, we are most concerned with those who rarely have opportunities to visit these places. It is for them that we want Culture Pass to be not just a useful information resource or even an open invitation but a literal extension of the museums themselves and their many resources and programs.


Culture Pass is made possible through generous funding from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, Charles H. Revson Foundation, and The New York Community Trust. Culture Pass Community Programming is supported in part by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

  1. See Betty Ferrell and Maria Medvedeva, “Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums,” American Association of Museums Press, 2010, 13, https://www.aam-us.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Demographic-Change-and-the-Future-of-Museums.pdf.
  2. For further discussion of libraries and social infrastructure, see Eric Klinenberg, Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life (New York: Crown, 2018); and Shannon Mattern, “Library as Infrastructure,” Places Journal, June 2014, https://placesjournal.org/article/library-as-infrastructure/.
  3. New York City’s 2017 cultural plan, CreateNYC: A Cultural Plan for All New Yorkers, addresses cultural asset and participation disparities in New York and recommends a bigger role for the city’s libraries in cultural programming; https://createnyc.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/CreateNYC_Report_FIN.pdf.
  4. Mark J. Stern and Susan C. Seifert, “The Social Wellbeing of New York City’s Neighborhoods: The Contribution of Culture and the Arts,” March 2017, Culture and Social Wellbeing in New York City, https://repository.upenn.edu/siap_culture_nyc/1.
  5. Stern and Seifert, “The Social Wellbeing of New York City’s Neighborhoods,” II-27.
  6. Stern and Seifert, “The Social Wellbeing of New York City’s Neighborhoods,” III-45.
  7. I want to thank Tom Benson, president of the International Association for Senior Debate and president emeritus of Green Mountain College, for introducing me to Ivan Illich and the importance of this distinction.
  8. See Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (New York: Harper Colophon, 1983), 52–57.
  9. See Now>Next: 2018 Brooklyn Public Library Strategic Plan, Spotlights, “Books and Raspberry Pi,” https://www.bklynlibrary.org/strategicplan/spotlights?spot=spot-books-and-raspberry-pi#.
  10. The date range for this figure is July 2018 to April 2019.