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Back in the Stacks: NYC’s Public Libraries are Fully Open Again After 16 Months

Issue 265

Zion DeCoteau Aug 2

“Libraries are one of the last places on earth — not to be overly dramatic— that you come and sit all day, you don’t have to buy anything and you have access to all the world’s wisdom,” says Fritzi Bodenheimer, the press officer for the Brooklyn Public Library.

New York City’s public library systems continue to operate at reduced hours, but Bodenheimer says full hours should soon be restored.

Nearly all Brooklyn, Queens and New York (which encompass Manhattan, The Bronx & Staten Island) Public Libraries, re-opened all their services during July but haven’t returned to pre-pandemic operating hours. Any locations that were temporarily repurposed by the City or are under renovation remain closed. Masks remain required in all public library locations.

“The libraries are one of the most important institutions we have in society. It’s a joy to see other people enjoying books,” said Garrett, who greets library patrons as he sells his own poetry books in the shade provided by the marble lions at New York Public Library’s iconic flagship building.

Library services were scaled down dramatically at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic but bookworms were still able to check out books through the contactless grab-and-go service.

“I actually have been coming to the library throughout the pandemic. I’ve been taking out books, placing holds on them, picking them up.” said Melissa, a Crown Heights native visiting the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Branch at Grand Army Plaza.

City libraries have been reeling from significant budget cuts and layoffs since last spring. City council’s 2022 preliminary budget report found that in January, The New York Public Library furloughed all part-time hourly workers. The agency also resorted to a hiring freeze on all “non-critical” positions.

“Space in the City is becoming more and more privatized and the library exists as a place where all people can cross paths.”

New York City’s public library systems will see their funding restored in the City Council’s 2022 budget, dodging an initially proposed $22 million in cuts.

“The over $22 million previously proposed cut in operating money at stake would have meant reducing our collections budgets, shortening library hours and operating below pre-pandemic levels, right when our city needs us most,” said Queens Public Library President Denis Walcott in a statement.

“I really missed having a place to go and browse books and work quietly,” Lucie, a Park Slope resident who works for a publishing house, told The Indypendent.

In addition to loaning out books and offering archival resources, libraries act as cultural and even professional centers. At Brooklyn Public Library’s central branch, members can use Adobe Suite on Macbook desktops to work on creative projects. New York, Brooklyn and Queens public libraries offer robust programming schedules that include events such as lectures, concerts and movie screenings and online language classes.

Though the pandemic prevented users from going inside facilities, it didn’t put an end to library programming. According to Fritzi Bodenheimer, the pandemic-induced closures brought an uptick in some program participation. “We actually had more participants in our virtual programs and outdoor programs than we had in a normal year,” she said.

With facility interiors having been restricted for nearly a year, Brooklynite R.W. says we shouldn’t take libraries for granted. “I’m also really impressed with how important the library is even in the age of the internet. You see people filling the place up and you would expect that maybe in the age of the internet it wouldn’t be used but instead it’s used even more than before,” they said.

Before the onset of the pandemic, Cortelyou Library in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn was an animated community space. On any given weekday afternoon, one would find people of all ages using the public resources — students studying, elderly neighborhood residents flipping through newspapers, after-school tutors hushing groups of children and teenagers congregating in the library’s front patio.

The Tompkins Square Library, which overlooks Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, was a popular place pre-pandemic for people to seek refuge from the streets, especially on colder days. Unhoused New Yorkers who frequented the location were generally welcomed by the library staff, although bathrooms at the branch are not available for public use.

As patrons return to their neighborhood libraries, Fivel Rothberger, a filmmaker from Ditmas Park, appreciates how library systems are at the conceptual center of bolstering public infrastructure. “I’m into sharing knowledge and a sense of togetherness — that’s really important to me. I’m a socialist so it’s really important to share resources,” he said.

As pandemic restrictions loosen, New Yorkers are reminded how much access to free knowledge and cultural programming exists in their city. By having a library card, a member can obtain free tickets to most of the city’s cultural institutions once a year through the “culture pass” program, such as Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the Whitney and Guggenheim museums, the Museum of the Moving Image and the Bronx Opera Company.

Other venues that can be accessed for free or for a suggested donation even if you don’t have a library card include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian. Both Manhattan’s SummerStage and Celebrate Brooklyn offer excellent outdoor summer concert series free of charge in Central Park and Prospect Park, respectively. New York City Parks offer free preservation and tree planting excursions.

“Space in the city is becoming more and more privatized and the library exists as a place where all people can cross paths, which is less and less of a possibility in the current definition of this city. Different classes crossing paths in public spaces used to be common, but now a lot of that is being foreclosed upon,” said Devon Gilliams, a labor organizer and bibliophile from Brooklyn. “We’re emerging from a long period of isolation and to be able to engage physically with people is more important than ever in order to facilitate the exchange of ideas. I always think of the importance of physical spaces when so much of our lives are online, spaces of respite in a stressful time when our existences are clearly more precarious.”

For detailed info on library hours and services, visit nypl.org/locations, bklynlibrary.org/locations and queenslibrary.org/about-us/locations or call your local branch.

Amba Guerguerian contributed to this article.

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