City Looks to Close the Book on More Library Funding
Anyone who thinks of libraries asrepressively quiet zones filledwith musty books need only walkinto the St. Agnes branch of the NewYork Public Library system to be instantly proven wrong. While the Upper WestSide branch boasts its fair share of quietspots as well as, of course, books, it isalso a bright, modern community spacewhere locals of all ages come to usecomputers, take classes and participatein group activities they simply can't findanywhere else.
Library usage in the city keeps goingup-in the last fiscal year, St. Agnes hadnearly 300,000 visits, and the entire NYPLsystem had 15.1 million-but fundingcontinues to drop precipitously. Now theNYPL system is facing severe budget cutsagain; the 2013 proposed budget slashes$36 million, a 32 percent decrease that,if implemented in the executive budget,would surely mean reduced hours, staffand services all around Manhattan.
"More patrons than ever are comingthrough our doors, checking out morematerials, attending more programs andaccessing more information," said Dr.Anthony Marx, president of the NYPL, ata City Council hearing last week. "Thiscumulative cut means that [fiscal year]'13 funding, excluding inflationary reimbursements,would be a full 44 percentlower than the FY '08 adopted budget."
It's a particularly cruel irony that thesame economic crisis that squeezes thelibrary budget is the same force sendingNew Yorkers into those libraries indroves. Library advocates point out thatthe loss of hours and staff would meanfewer librarians to help people find and fillout job applications, fewer free activitiesfor cash-strapped parents to bring theirkids to and fewer English as a SecondLanguage 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 whoruns the organization Urban LibrariansUnite. She said she has probably helpedover 1,000 people in the past six monthssearch for jobs, write résumés and applyto positions online. Last year, 440,500people attended job-related classes at thecity libraries.
"When people don't have any otheroptions, they know they can come to thelibrary for help with dignity," Comito said.City Council Member Gale Brewersaid that while it's still a little early in theprocess of fighting over the budget, sheexpects to receive a slew of constituentfeedback urging her to help preserveUpper West Side libraries-last year, shereceived over 2,500 letters.
"We receive more lettersfrom people concernedabout librariesthan any other item,"Brewer said. "I happento also be addicted toSt. Agnes. I go in mostweekends, I read the papers that I haven'tcaught up on. There areno seats available in thecomputer spaces."
Brewer said she'sconcerned that even iffunding is restored in theexecutive budget, theUpper West Side branches-which include St.Agnes on AmsterdamAvenue, Bloomingdale on West 100thStreet, Riverside at West 65th Street andthe Library for the Performing Arts atLincoln Center-will still suffer withoutincreased funding."We need more librarians,we need to be openmore hours, [have] morebooks, more computers. Idon't understand a literatesociety not making that apriority," Brewer said.
The steady decline in funding hasforced libraries to get by on shoestringbudgets and operate with military-likeefficiency to avoid cutting services."The cuts have definitely been tough,"Angela Montefinise, director of publicrelations and marketing at the NYPL,wrote in an email. "We're down 500employees since , and yet we stillmanage to have an average of six-day servicearound our system. We have workedextremely hard?to ensure that publicservice is not impacted by these cuts, butthere's only so far we can push to maintainthat level of service as resources continueto decline."
According to the NYPL, about $100million of their $259 million adoptedbudget for FY 2012 comes from privatedonations, a number they say remainsconsistent. It's the city money that fluctuatesand that the system is constantlynegotiating.
"I call it, in the words of Yogi Berra, 'Déjàvu all over again,'" said Council Member
Vincent Gentile, chair of the LibrariesCommittee. "It seems like every 10 monthsor so, we're back to where we started."
"Last year, we had to close a gap of $3million [after larger cuts were restored tothe budget]," he said. "Now it's come tothe point to that we're looking at a gap of$96 million," the total combined amountfor the NYPL, which covers Manhattan,the Bronx and Staten Island as well as theresearch libraries, and cuts to the Queensand Brooklyn library systems.
Gentile said that the libraries shouldreceive a baseline budget-somethingthey can count on every year-but thathe doesn't see that happening in thisadministration."The fact that we haven't baselined itreally leaves everybody with no ability toplan and no ability to have some sense ofsecurity," he said.
Maureen Sullivan, president-elect ofthe American Libraries Association, saidthat urban libraries around the countryare suffering similar budget restraints andthat lawmakers need to be made awareof the tremendous return on investmentthat libraries offer in terms of public servicesand community benefit.
"I think there's really a need for thefinancial people, the policy makers tounderstand what people who work inlibraries do and how people in the communityuse libraries," Sullivan said. "It'scritical to recognize that the public libraryis often the only resource available forthose in our communities who are notyet using the technology or don't have theability to get the information," for thingslike online employment resources.
While job search resources are critical,local libraries also serve as cultural andsocial havens for Upper West Siders. Ona recent bright weekday morning at St.Agnes, seniors crowded around the computers,people of all ages browsed thebooks and worked on laptops and dozensof children scampered around the newlyrenovated first floor, designed to accommodatekids and their caretakers. Threemoms of young toddlers met in a corner,where they regularly gather fortheir group's meet-ups.
"I couldn't imagine not havingthis available," said Lissa Toole, who organizes thegroup. "The library is a hugehelp."Samantha Berman, whoused to come to St. Agnes as alittle girl and loves bringing herchild there now, said that if thelibrary had to further reduce itshours, it would be tough on herand other mothers. "We wouldlike it to open at 10 a.m.," shesaid. "If they decrease thehours, it would be like a wasteof that [new] construction."
"Yes, 11 a.m. is late for alibrary," Toole chimed in. Currently, St.Agnes is open 43 hours a week, openingat 11 a.m. Monday through Wednesday,noon on Thursday, and 10 a.m. Friday andSaturday. It closes at 5, 6 or 7 p.m. anddoesn't open on Sundays."As a parent, you want to encouragereading from the earliest moment,"said Alena Morrissey, another mom whowants her toddler to be surrounded bybooks as much as possible.
All threemothers said they would be at a loss fora new location to meet if they didn't haveSt. Agnes, and noted how crowded all thearea libraries are.As the budget back-and-forth beginsin the coming weeks, the City Councilmay restore some of the library budget,but advocates are still worried that evenwith minimal cuts, the system will be stretched too thin.
"They talk about basically cutting themost vulnerable folks in this city whodepend on us for access to ideas-thebedrock of democracy, the bedrock of aneconomy," Marx said in his Council testimony."That would demonstrate feweritems being circulated, libraries beingclosed, youngsters being deprived ofaccess to books and programs. It really is a horror show."
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