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Punching Down on Libraries: Budget-cutting Mayor Targets Beloved NYC Institution

Issue 279

Mayor Adams wants to cut funding for the city’s libraries by $36 million despite a fierce public backlash.

Katie Pruden May 8, 2023

There’s a public library in every single neighborhood in the city, across all five boroughs. More than 200 locations ­altogether. Whether it be Queens (QPL), Brooklyn (BPL) or New York (NYPL), which encompasses The Bronx and Staten Island, the library’s employees, resources and physical spaces serve the public beyond providing books, free wifi and nice architecture. 

If you fill out a form, librarians at BPL will personally pick out recommendations for you based on what you like. Using the new Queens Name Explorer, you can find out about the history behind the names of local parks, streets and schools. 

When thousands of asylum-seeking migrants arrived in the city last June and were denied public services that they had been told they would be provided, the libraries responded to this crisis. In the past, libraries have provided free online and in-person classes, programs and workshops for non-native speakers, as well as services such as ActionNYC, which provides legal help for immigrants. Over the past year, NYPL has also hosted 11 immigration resource fairs and created 5,000 “Welcome Kits” in partnership with New York Immigration Coalition.  

The mayor’s cuts could lead to fewer operating hours and weekend closures at some branches. 

Catalina is a Data Program Assistant at the Pacific Library in Downtown Brooklyn. She said she appreciates “meeting new people and seeing how I can help them. Trying to help them find the closest thing that they are looking for and then seeing the outcome is what motivates me to be here.” 

However, these services could come under tremendous stress in the face of Mayor Eric Adams’ proposed 2024 city budget, which cuts millions from education, social services and more. 

In his preliminary budget released in January, Adams proposed library cuts totaling $36.2 million. In April, Adams called for city agencies to cut their budgets by another 4%. That left the libraries facing a total of $52.7 in budget cuts. However, in the face of growing public backlash, Adams retracted the second cut in late April, while still leaving intact the initial $36.2 in cuts.

The NYPL, BPL and the QPL already face $1 billion worth of repairs for aging library infrastructure. In a joint statement the three ­library systems said, “Further cuts would make a bad situation even worse.”

Library attendance has returned to pre-pandemic levels, and new card users are signing up at a rapid clip. In Brooklyn, 143,000 new library cards were issued last year, according to BPL President Linda Johnson. The mayor’s cuts would affect the essential operating ­subsidy, which pays for costs such as utilities and staffing. A reduction in staffing could lead to fewer operating hours and weekend closures at some branches. 

New York City’s libraries are, on average, open fewer hours than many of the nation’s largest library systems in the nation, including Chicago, Dallas, San Diego and San Antonio, and most of the large counties in New York State, according to researcher John Surico who wrote a 2021 report, “Branches to Recovery: Tapping the Power of New York’s Public Libraries to Ensure an Inclusive Recovery and Rebuild a More Equitable City,” for the Center for an Urban Future.

“Right now we should be making the libraries as close as possible to being open as many hours as possible, given that there are so many resources, but they are so hindered by the times that they are open,” said Surico, who called on the City to make an annual investment of $1 billion — about 1% of the budget — in its library systems to ensure that New York City branch libraries lead the nation in weekly hours of operation. This would more than double the current library budget.

In his report, Surico notes how the libraries were able to substitute a variety of services from what the pandemic took away, such as providing for students overcoming a loss of hands-on learning with tutoring or helping unemployed individuals with career services. 

“This is not a time to just restore the budget to its normal level; this is really the time to expand the budget and the libraries’ role in so many different facets of the city’s operations,” he said. 

A patron browses in the Bloomingdale Branch Library in Manhattan. Sue Brisk

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Dash has lived in Brooklyn for 40 years. He often goes to the Pacific Library near the Atlantic Yards subway station in Downtown Brooklyn, because he does not own a computer and sometimes needs help with technology. If the library’s operating hours were to be affected, he said that it would “hurt a lot of people, especially the seniors and the students. Where are they going to go? If anything they should expand the hours, not cut them.” 

City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams has said that she opposes the proposed cuts; however, what will happen is uncertain after she oversaw last year’s $469 million in cuts to public schools that could have been covered, according to New York City comptroller’s office, with leftover stimulus money. 

“I am absolutely dead set against any cuts to our libraries, much less $36 Million,” said Councilmember Tiffany Cabán (D-Astoria). “What’s especially outrageous is that [it is] pennies to the City. It’s less than one third of 1% of the NYPD’s $11 Billion budget.”

According to the city’s Independent Budget Office, city library funding for 2023 was higher than in 2022 — around a $6 million increase for each of the three branches. However, in 2024 and beyond, the funding will decrease substantially, getting to what it was before the pandemic, in 2019 and not adjusting for inflation. 

For many years, mayors have proposed cutting funding for libraries — there’s at least one in every Councilmember’s district — in order to wrest concessions in other areas of the budget. Wary of this game of chicken and the danger it poses, the presidents of the city’s three branch library systems in 2015 launched Invest in Libraries, an annual budget-season campaign to rally public support for the libraries when they come under attack.

This year, Invest in Libraries launched a letter writing initiative that sends  pre-written testimony to the mayor and City Council members. BPL has almost reached their goal of 20,000 letters. They’ve spread the word using the hashtag #investinlibraries on Twitter, which hundreds of people have responded to, sharing why the public libraries are important to them. 

Urban Librarians Unite, a group of librarians advocating for the existence of city libraries, used the hashtag to tweet, “Censorship can happen all at once, or a little at a time. The results are the same.” Though New York may not be affected by the book bans that have been sweeping through Republican-controlled states, threatening an institution that has made banned books available digitally to teens across the country might be seen as another form of censorship. 

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Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada is the president of the American Library Association. Founded in 1876, it is the world’s oldest and largest library association.

“Often the public doesn’t understand the power of their voice,” she said. “I think that often a lot of money goes to police and firefighters, because they have strong unions and community support. We can have the same exact things for libraries, we just need the communities to help rally around us and demand that we have the resources that we need.” 

Library attendance has returned to pre-pandemic levels, and new card users are signing up at a rapid clip.

How we access information has changed exponentially since the NYPL, BPL the QPL were each founded in the 1890s. And the library as a public space has evolved, too. 

On a recent Friday, Gloria visited the Pacific Library while waiting to pick up her grandson from school. Born and raised in Brooklyn, she said she’s been going to the library since she was five years old. “I remember carrying lots of books,” she said. “The libraries used to be places where you got books, but now it’s a very multipurpose kind of place. I think it’s serving the community.”

In 2019, the Flushing Library in Queens saw 1.7 million visitors. Imagine if libraries were open every day, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and who they could be helping. But this doesn’t seem possible when year after year, the libraries are on defense and will continue to be as Adams administration priorities change.

So what would it take for New York City’s libraries to escape endless cycles of looming austerity and retrenchment and to truly flourish? In addition to his recommendation that the library’s annual budget be more than doubled to $1 billion per year, John Surico suggests creating a Mayor’s Office of Libraries in order for patrons to have a more active position in the decisions that affect them. 

For now, library users will have to rely on their elected officials. 

“I got a lot of outreach from people across the political and ideological spectrum in terms of how they were very uncomfortable with seeing the cuts,” said Chi Ossé (D-Bedford Stuyvesant), chair of the committee that oversees libraries. “I’m hoping, with those feelings that they shared with me, as well as the advocacy campaigns that I’m going to be pushing with my partners in the library systems, we will be pushing against these cuts.”

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