Anyone who thinks of libraries as repressively quiet zones filled with musty books need only walk into the Webster Library branch of the New York Public Library system to be instantly proven wrong. While the Upper East Side branch boasts its fair share of quiet spots as well as, of course, books, it is also a bustling community space where locals of all ages come to use computers, take classes and participate in group activities they simply can’t find anywhere else.
Library usage in the city keeps going up—in the last fiscal year, Webster had over 250,000 visits, and the entire NYPL system had 15.1 million—but funding continues to drop precipitously. Now the NYPL system is facing severe budget cuts again; the 2013 proposed budget slashes $36 million, a 32 percent decrease that, if implemented in the executive budget, would surely mean reduced hours, staff and services all around Manhattan.
“More patrons than ever are coming through our doors, checking out more materials, attending more programs and accessing more information,” said Dr. Anthony Marx, president of the NYPL, at a City Council hearing last week. “This cumulative cut means that [fiscal year] ’13 funding, excluding inflationary reimbursements, would be a full 44 percent lower than the FY ’08 adopted budget.”
It’s a particularly cruel irony that the same economic crisis that squeezes the library budget is the same force sending New Yorkers into those libraries in droves. Library advocates point out that the loss of hours and staff would mean fewer librarians to help people find and fill out job applications, fewer free activities for cash-strapped parents to bring their kids to and fewer English as a Second Language courses, one of the many types of free class the NYPL provides.
“Especially in an economic downturn, libraries just become more necessary,” said Lauren Comito, a librarian who runs the organization Urban Librarians Unite. She said she has probably helped over 1,000 people in the past six months search for jobs, write résumés and apply to positions online. Last year, 440,500 people attended job-related classes at the city libraries.
“When people don’t have any other options, they know they can come to the library for help with dignity,” Comito said.
City Council Member Gale Brewer said that while it’s still a little early in the process of fighting over the budget, she expects to receive a slew of constituent feedback urging her to help preserve local libraries—last year, she received over 2,500 letters.
“We receive more letters from people concerned about libraries than any other item,” Brewer said. “I happen to also be addicted to [Upper West Side branch] St. Agnes. I go in most weekends, I read the papers that I haven’t caught up on. There are no seats available in the computer spaces.”
Brewer said she’s concerned that even if funding is restored in the executive budget, local branches—which include, on the Upper East Side, the 96th Street Library, the Yorkville Library, the 67th Street Library and the Aguilar Library—will still suffer without increased funding.
“We need more librarians, we need to be open more hours, [have] more books, more computers. I don’t understand a literate society not making that a priority,” Brewer said.
The steady decline in funding has forced libraries to get by on shoestring budgets and operate with military-like efficiency to avoid cutting services.
“The cuts have definitely been tough,” Angela Montefinise, director of public relations and marketing at the NYPL, wrote in an email. “We’re down 500 employees since , and yet we still manage to have an average of six-day service around our system. We have worked extremely hard…to ensure that public service is not impacted by these cuts, but there’s only so far we can push to maintain that level of service as resources continue to decline.”
According to the NYPL, about $100 million of their $259 million adopted budget for FY 2012 comes from private donations, a number they say remains consistent. It’s the city money that fluctuates and that the system is constantly negotiating.
“I call it, in the words of Yogi Berra, ‘Déjà vu all over again,’” said Council Member Vincent Gentile, chair of the Libraries Committee. “It seems like every 10 months or so, we’re back to where we started.
“Last year, we had to close a gap of $3 million [after larger cuts were restored to the budget],” he said. “Now it’s come to the point to that we’re looking at a gap of $96 million,” the total combined amount for the NYPL, which covers Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island as well as the research libraries, and cuts to the Queens and Brooklyn library systems.
Gentile said that the libraries should receive a baseline budget—something they can count on every year—but that he doesn’t see that happening in this administration.
“The fact that we haven’t baselined it really leaves everybody with no ability to plan and no ability to have some sense of security,” he said.
Maureen Sullivan, president-elect of the American Libraries Association, said that urban libraries around the country are suffering similar budget restraints and that lawmakers need to be made aware of the tremendous return on investment that libraries offer in terms of public services and community benefit.
“I think there’s really a need for the financial people, the policy makers to understand what people who work in libraries do and how people in the community use libraries,” Sullivan said. “It’s critical to recognize that the public library is often the only resource available for those in our communities who are not yet using the technology or don’t have the ability to get the information,” for things like online employment resources.
While job search resources are critical, local libraries also serve as cultural and social havens for Upper East and West Siders. On a recent bright weekday morning at St. Agnes, seniors crowded around the computers, people of all ages browsed the books and worked on laptops and dozens of children scampered around the newly renovated first floor, designed to accommodate kids and their caretakers. Three moms of young toddlers met in a corner, where they regularly gather for their group’s meet-ups.
“I couldn’t imagine not having this available,” said Lissa Toole, who organizes the group. “The library is a huge help.”
Samantha Berman, who used to come to St. Agnes as a little girl and loves bringing her child there now, said that if the library had to further reduce its hours, it would be tough on her and other mothers. “We would like it to open at 10 a.m.,” she said. “If they decrease the hours, it would be like a waste of that [new] construction.”
“Yes, 11 a.m. is late for a library,” Toole chimed in. Currently, St. Agnes is open 43 hours a week, opening at 11 a.m. Monday through Wednesday, noon on Thursday, and 10 a.m. Friday and Saturday. It closes at 5, 6 or 7 p.m. and doesn’t open on Sundays.
“As a parent, you want to encourage reading from the earliest moment,” said Alena Morrissey, another mom who wants her toddler to be surrounded by books as much as possible. All three mothers said they would be at a loss for a new location to meet if they didn’t have St. Agnes, and noted how crowded all the area libraries are.
As the budget back-and-forth begins in the coming weeks, the City Council may restore some of the library budget, but advocates are still worried that even with minimal cuts, the system will be stretched too thin.
“They talk about basically cutting the most vulnerable folks in this city who depend on us for access to ideas—the bedrock of democracy, the bedrock of an economy,” Marx said in his Council testimony. “That would demonstrate fewer items being circulated, libraries being closed, youngsters being deprived of access to books and programs. It really is a horror show.”
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