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Beyond the Pandemic, Libraries Look Toward a New Era

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Many companies and public institutions were unprepared for the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown. There was one notable, perhaps even surprising, exception: the nation’s public libraries.

For more than a decade, these seemingly traditional institutions had been investing in a range of technologies and media. Libraries now balance two stacks: the physical with the so-called digital full stack.

With a wealth of electronic books, streaming platforms and of course Zoom, many were ready, with some adjustments, to provide services for their communities. But no one could have predicted that 2020 would create the moment when “our libraries, the most trusted civic institutions in the country, would become totally virtual,” said Anthony Marx, the president and chief executive of the New York Public Library, the nation’s largest library system after the Library of Congress.

But will virtual offerings eclipse physical locations?

Librarians across the country foresee institutions that will blend the physical with the digital, increasing their emphasis on their critical community role by offering free Wi-Fi and social services as well as a place where physical books and DVDs coexist with e-books and online platforms.

For example, the Midtown branch of the New York Public Library, the largest in the system, is waiting to reopen after a total overhaul. Renamed the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library, the location will now include classroom space and an entire floor dedicated to adult learning, such as teaching English and technology, Mr. Marx said.

The reimagined branch also has programming areas, a rooftop terrace designed for events, quiet spaces for patrons and sound studios for recording podcasts.

Other cities have similar plans, which often also include maker spaces for artisans, “which have grown like crazy,” said Anthony Harris, an architect with the design firm Gensler. Wish lists now often include 3-D printers and additional mobile hot spot devices that can be checked out to provide Wi-Fi at home for the many Americans who still lack broadband.

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“All of our goals will be just as important after we’re past this period as they were when we were planning. We will need these spaces,” said Michelle Jeske,the executive director of the Denver Public Library and the current president of the Public Library Association, a division of the American Library Association. The pandemic-induced recession could prompt greater need for physical locations, she added, as people come in for help with job searches or filing for unemployment benefits.

Although renovations already factored in technological advances, in a few instances, some tinkering was in order.

Before the pandemic, the big information and circulation desks that were often a fixture in library design had fallen out of favor, Jo Giudice, the director of the Dallas Public Library, said.

“We instead started using mobile desks that we could move around the floor,” she said. “But these are open on all four sides and we want to keep our staff safe. So now we’re moving these desks back to a wall because we don’t want people standing shoulder to shoulder.”

Ms. Giudice added that the library is also forgoing the communal tables that had become ubiquitous in office design across many industries.

“We were going to use larger tables that were hard-wired, but we’re instead going to have smaller public tables that seat one or two people that will have access to outlets, but not hard-wired, so we can move the tables,” she said. Smaller tables not only reflect coronavirus concerns, but also afford more flexibility for the use of the room.

Some of the changes enacted during the pandemic at first glance appear small, but are actually significant and will remain. Curbside pickup or grab-and-go services allow people to retrieve selections without stepping foot inside. A few libraries had already experimented with this option, but it is likely to become a mainstay in the future.

“We only had this option at one of our 29 branches in Dallas, at a location that served many senior citizens and where access was difficult for some,” Ms. Giudice said. “But it will remain with us. I think it will be a long time before people will be comfortable coming back in to a large building.”

“People like the option,” Ms. Jeske, of the Denver system, said, “so why not continue to keep allowing people to get books this way? It also removes barriers about access and convenience.”

The research arm of Gensler, the architecture and design firm, has been studying libraries for several years. In a 2019 report Gensler found that libraries were now “people-centered not collections centered,” a change that upended popular preconceptions, said Mr. Harris, who participated in the study, as well as a survey this spring of more than 200 librarians to determine how the pandemic has affected them.

Besides the obvious concerns of closed buildings and staff safety, Gensler asked librarians which attributes would “comprise the next generation of libraries.”

Those ranked the highest were community and social services; decentralized library space; more pop-ups and bookmobiles; low-touch kiosks; drive-up pickup; webinar-based story times and programs; technology-integrated conference spaces available to the community; and remote reference and information search services.

The increased reliance on digital works has also highlighted a problem that libraries face: the cost of technology. OverDrive, a popular platform, provides e-book downloads to library cardholders. The New York Public Library employs SimplyE, its own proprietary system, which Mr. Marx says embeds strong privacy protections for its users.

But the libraries still need to purchase a license for each e-book. Publishers typically charge libraries more than consumers, based on the assumption that the lending of e-books erodes profits, since they can be read by multiple users. (Typically, only one user can download an e-book at a time.)

Macmillan Publishers last fall prevented libraries from acquiring the electronic versions of its titles until eight weeks after publication. But with the pandemic, the publisher in March did an about-face. It declined, however, to respond to questions about its change of heart.

Amazon Publishing, an arm of the tech giant, had gone one step further in limiting access. While its physical books, along with their audio versions, are available for purchase, libraries cannot buy electronic books. Libraries protested and last October, the A.L.A. filed a report with the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives on the negative impact of the practice.

Alan Inouye, director of the association’s Office for Information Technology Policy, said it has “had a few calls with Amazon in 2020, but they didn’t see a way forward and I haven’t spoken to them since the pandemic began.”

In an email, an Amazon spokesperson said, “We believe libraries serve a critical purpose in communities across the country, and we are exploring ways to make Amazon Publishing e-books available to libraries in a way that best reflects the needs of libraries, patrons, and authors.”

Libraries are also embracing their role in providing community services, including having social workers on their staffs to help the homeless or those with emotional problems who may frequent the library.

That sometimes brings about design challenges, Ms. Jeske said. Denver law, for example, requires bathroom stall doors to be short, so that if an individual overdosed in the bathroom, he or she could be discovered and treated.

But smaller doors may be at odds with the desire to provide privacy. How those two competing concerns can be reconciled is still being worked out, Ms. Jeske said.

“We welcome everyone. We want to keep people in, not keep people out.”

Overall, there is a recognition that libraries are often the melting pot of a community, bringing together diverse ages, races and interests. “Given that the country is tearing itself apart,” Mr. Marx said, “perhaps libraries can help to repair our civic fabric.”

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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