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Cultural Capital

What Happens When NYC Defunds Libraries

Libraries are already short-staffed. What will happen if their budgets are cut even more?

6:06 PM EST on January 20, 2023

The exterior of Brooklyn Public Library.

Photo credit: Rhododendrites / Creative Commons

When Mayor Eric Adams announced budget cuts last month, one public resource taking a hit stood out—the City's libraries, which are being targeted for $33 million in reductions over the next year and a half. According to leadership at the City's three library systems, this austerity plan would leave libraries with curtailed hours and services. Librarians across the five boroughs, who have been threatened repeatedly with cuts before, don't know how much less the system can operate with, as staffing shortages have already left workers scrambling to fill other people's roles. Meanwhile, library usage has almost fully rebounded to pre-pandemic levels.

The proposed cuts are part of the mayor's Program to Eliminate the Gap (PEG) plan, first announced in September, which will reduce budgets for the New York, Brooklyn, and Queens library systems by $13 million this year, and over $20 million the next fiscal year. 

"New Yorkers need the services we provide," said a Brooklyn Public Library worker, who requested we not use their name because they were not authorized to speak to the media. "Not just internet access, resume and career coaching, immigrant services, and more, but also simply just a place to be, somewhere that's air conditioned in the summer, heated in the winter, with free restrooms and water fountains. How many spaces like that are left anywhere?"

In an interview with the New York Times, Adams said he took "no joy" in slashing funds from libraries, but insisted that it was the right call, because of worries about a recession, coupled with the drying up of federal pandemic relief money.

"We made tough fiscal decisions in spite of the people who continually attacked us for it, but the decision was right for New Yorkers," Adams said.

Whether New York is actually facing a massive reduction in revenue is debatable. But this new round of cuts comes on the heels of a disastrous budget for the public school system and CUNY, and tens of thousands of vacant positions in a variety of agencies.

The PEG report indicates that the library systems, and many other City agencies, should be able to make up the budget deficit by simply not filling currently vacant positions—but that doesn't mean services wouldn't be affected. As a city comptroller report notes, "eliminating currently vacant positions reduces head count but does not take into account whether mission-critical services are adequately staffed." 

Library workers say their offices need more time to understand the impact of these cuts on staff and services. But if the libraries cease hiring for currently vacant positions, the impacts may be severe.

Across the three library systems, many positions left open are still unfilled. A worker at the BPL's Central Branch said that If the library can't go forward with hiring, "it would be truly terrible," indicating that around a third of the positions on her team were currently vacant. 

"My location has been understaffed since the pandemic," said a Brooklyn librarian at another branch. "People keep leaving because they can make more money and have less stress elsewhere." 

Much of the programming offered by City library systems is actually funded with state and federal money, while most of the City's library budget goes toward salaries. But the outside funding for library programming depends on having enough City-funded salary lines to support them. If no one's able to staff those programs, they won't get funded, and will cease to exist.

The librarians and clerical staff who keep libraries open and make programming possible make around $60,000 and $45,000 per year, respectively. Library leadership, on the other hand, can make millions of dollars a year.

"We're not able to use private donations for salaries, all of it comes from the City,” another librarian noted. "So it's not like a billionaire could step in and save the salary situation, even if they wanted to."

(Clay Banks / Unsplash)

Librarians worry that the proposed cuts, coming in the midst of their contract negotiations, could be used as leverage to drive down wage increases during union negotiations.  

Aside from staffing, cuts to the collections and programming budgets impact the way most people use the library. "If we're not able to buy as many copies of books, the holds list gets crazy, and then people will have to wait forever to read the book they want, and get frustrated," a BPL librarian explained. This is particularly the case now, with the Prince Harry tell-all, which has one of the longest holds lists ever.

"I worry about bargaining for the public good," she said. "When the library services degrade, people get fed up and say, 'I'm done with the library,' and then our usage goes down—those stats are directly tied to our funding."

Nearly everyone Hell Gate spoke with referenced the importance of maintaining libraries as community spaces. "This is the last free, non-commercial space that we have— anything that limits that is threatening the concept of public space in general," a BPL librarian said. "Like how the new Moynihan train hall has no benches—anti-homeless features hurt everyone." Another BPL librarian added, "The library acts as a community hub, which is so important at a time when people are so isolated to begin with. There are these little bits of interactions that people have that really add up. I see caretakers checking in with each other at story time—just these little connections that make life better."

A former NYPL librarian told Hell Gate that she saw generations of neighbors walk through her branch's doors. "We sometimes joke that we provide service from cradle to grave—although that's a little dark," they said. "People come in and take out 50 children's books at a time. I always tell new parents that they don't have to buy their kids books, especially ones that they might read just once or twice—they can get them from the library. And then they can spend that money on childcare or food, everything that's so incredibly expensive right now.” 

The former NYPL librarian added, "I used to work at a branch in the East Village. As the neighborhood was gentrifying around them, so many older folks would come in to hang out with the people they knew, visit the staff they knew. They planned their lives around the book and DVD hauls they took out. It gave me hope for getting older, honestly." 

At the Mulberry Street NYPL branch on Tuesday night, Zoe Head said she was looking up spaces to practice speaking Italian for an online class. "This is the only space where you can do work to move your life forward where you don't have to pay anything," she said. "Everyone's like, 'Why don't you study at a coffee shop?' But I don't want to pay for an $8 latte every 45 minutes."

The library branches across the systems also supplement K-12 and CUNY libraries, which send their students to the branches. Although there is a state mandate stating that K-12 public schools must have a library and a librarian, most do not. "I recently partnered with a public school with a class of 46 fifth graders," said an NYPL children's librarian in Manhattan. "They needed to use our children's non-fiction section to write research papers, because they don't have a library in their school. It was pretty challenging, and we ended up focusing on that class of 46 students when there were other patrons to take care of too."

Libraries in New York and around the country are playing headlining roles in clashes between far-right activists and supporters of Drag Story Hours, in conflicts over queer-themed book displays, and in countless instances of censorious book bannings nationwide. 

Librarian Lia Warner sees a connection between the proposed budget cuts and the recent conflicts instigated by the Proud Boys and other far-right agitators at Drag Story hours at a Queens Public Library branch in Jackson Heights.

"The book banning efforts are linked to defunding public institutions," agreed Emily Drabinski, president-elect of the American Library Association and a librarian at CUNY. "If you look at who the leading advocates are on book bans, you'll see that they’re also leaders in the 'school choice' movements."

"I worry about there being an atmosphere of fear," said a BPL librarian, referencing the Drag Story Hour protests. "I've heard others say that we should take a break from the Drag Story Hours, but that just lets them [the right-wing agitators] win."

And she said the culture war spotlight can help, too. "You know, this story is part of the budget cycle and the news cycle every year—funding gets cut, and then restored, and then cut. But this is the first time I’ve ever seen coordinated political action around cuts to the library budgets," she said. "We've made the general public see libraries as a beacon of hope out of this nightmare." 

[Top photo credit: Rhododendrites / Creative Commons]

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