“They can use it for a school performance, or prom if they want a tie,” said young adult librarian Michelle Lee, who came up with the idea for the Riverside branch of the New York Public Library.
Most libraries around the country provide much more than books: They have computers and printers, and some even have telescopes and microscopes for patrons to check out. Several lend American Girl dolls, allowing kids to check out the highly coveted and pricey toys for a few weeks at a time.
And starting in August, a New York library branch began experimenting with new offerings: neckties, bow ties, handbags and briefcases intended for people with limited resources who are heading for job interviews, auditions or any other event for which they need to dress up.
“They can use it for a school performance, or prom if they want a tie,” said young adult librarian Michelle Lee, who came up with the idea for the Riverside branch of the New York Public Library. “It doesn’t matter what size you are – anybody could use them.”
The concept came to her in 2016, when Lee was teaching a free class at the library about job seeking and résumé making. She told the high school students in attendance: “You want to look professional. You shouldn’t be bringing a backpack to a job interview.”
Their reaction surprised her.
“For a lot of them it was eye-opening, because they never thought about it,” Lee said. “One of the students said he didn’t have anything like that. The other kids were like, ‘I don’t have nice things.'”
She realized the students needed more than a résumé class.
“It got me thinking if the library could help,” she said.
She felt that she already had the teens’ attention because many of them use the library as a hangout spot after school, often doing homework on computers, borrowing laptops or reading comic books. It’s also a gathering spot for younger children and their caretakers after school — Lee estimates there are about 200 young people at the branch on any given day.
“There’s not a lot of places in the city where kids can gather in a free spot indoors and just be,” Lee said.
So she drafted a proposal for the ties and handbags and submitted it to the library’s Innovation Project, a program that allows library staffers to suggest ideas and solutions to problems they come across, with a budget of about $3,000 or less each. After a submission period, the staff voted Lee’s project a winner.
With funding from the Charles H. Revson Foundation, which sponsors the Innovation Project, Lee bought 12 handbags and briefcases new from Amazon, priced from $40 to $120. The ties and pocket squares were donated – including by an employee at Bloomingdale’s.
In August she placed bar codes on them, folded and displayed them nicely, and plans to start advertising at local high schools and colleges now that school has begun.
Lee said she thinks the lending program will be useful because many teens — and adults — use the library to work on résumés or apply for jobs. The library already refers patrons who need business attire to organizations that lend clothes. She figured that allowing people to check out ties and bags would fill a need.
“A lot of them will ask for envelopes or folders to carry into the interview,” Lee said. “We didn’t really have them. But now we have something nicer they can check out.”
Library patrons with less than $15 in fines are eligible to borrow the ties and bags for a three-week span. If they’re late returning an item, a daily fine of 25 cents applies until the fine hits $12. After that, the item is considered lost and the borrower has to replace it.
But at that point, it’s really the honor system.
“It would be on their record,” Lee said. “It’s not like we’re going to chase after them.”
So far, they’ve had a few customers.
Panarat Imcharoen, 45, a native of Thailand, came into the Riverside branch in late August to take an English class. One afternoon, she noticed a large, black Kenneth Cole handbag and checked it out for her sister, Nongyao Imcharoen, 50, who is looking for a job and wants to move to New York.
“I was surprised; I didn’t know before you can borrow men’s and women’s bags,” Panarat said. “That’s a good idea if someone needs it.”
Her sister, who lives in Florida, has come to New York looking for work as a hostess, but she hasn’t had any luck. She said her sister was frustrated with all the things she had to carry as she crisscrossed the city looking for work — comfortable shoes, a change purse, pens and job applications. She didn’t have money to purchase a larger handbag.
So Panarat was excited to give her sister a beautiful new, large purse that could fit all her stuff, even the shoes. At least for a few weeks.
“You can put a lot of stuff in there,” Panarat said. “She was using a not professional purse. This one looks nice.”