By Megan Bungeroth
with additional reporting by
When people think of libraries, they think of taciturn old librarians, stacks of musty books and repressive quiet zones where the smallest sound is met with a harsh shush! The reality couldn’t be further from this image. Walking into the Battery Park City Library on North End Avenue, the first thing you notice is that it’s bright and sunny, with large open windows. Dozens of kids are playing quietly in a children’s area. Adults are sitting at computers doing research alongside young students doing their homework. It certainly isn’t filled with an oppressive air of silence—the library is a surprisingly vibrant community center.
Library usage in the city keeps going up—in the last fiscal year, the St. Agnes branch on the Upper West Side had nearly 300,000 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 proposed 2013 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 month. “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.
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 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 Downtown residents. On a recent weekday afternoon at Battery Park City, a mother played with her young child in a foam play area. Behind her, several nannies talked amongst themselves as their charges read books or used computers. On the other side of the library, teens surfed the Internet or read books. A quick jog upstairs brings you to the library’s quiet area, where Tammy Keller helped her daughter go over her homework.
“I bring my daughter Olivia and her friends here, and it’s a bright, wonderful space. We do homework here, go to story time and check out books. If anything happened, we’d still come here, but we wouldn’t be as happy.”
Back downstairs, Lolita Atilola organizes a Spanish story time with two dozen infants and their parents. Through song, dance and puppets, Atilola immerses these young children in the Spanish language.
“Some parents take their kids here because they want them to learn about their roots or their culture. Others do this because they want their children to have an early exposure to another language,” said Francesca Coraggio, who manages the library.
Liza Polanco, 50, is a nanny for two children who are here for the Spanish story time. “If they closed the library or cut its hours, I don’t know what we’d do. Lots of children come here. We come here every week for the readalongs, the story times and all the other activities. They had animals at the library once,” said Polanco, as the children piped up their experiences with the animals.
“They had an owl here and it was the coolest thing ever!” said the little boy with Polanco.
“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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