Public libraries have struggled in New York City over the last five years, as Mayor Mike Bloomberg–in an annual ritual known wearily as the “budget dance”–has consistently proposed significant cuts, only to have the City Council restore much but hardly all of the damage.
The unsustainable nature of the strategy, which wastes library resources in planning for contraction and results in inevitable shrinkage of service, has become clear, fueling a new call from legislators and library workers for baseline funding to ensure library service.
For now, the country’s largest city, with the most famous single library building, offers Sunday service at only eight buildings in its three systems. Weekly hours of service, as described in a report (Branches of Opportunity) released in January by the think tank Center for an Urban Future, trail well behind most large cities.
The situation could get much worse. The administration’s proposed 35 percent, $106 million cut portends “the end of public library service as we know it,” pronounced Queens Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer at a Council committee hearing March 8.
Van Bramer, formerly Queens Library’s Chief External Affairs Officer, not only chaired the hearing but at one point intervened–as if assuming his previous role–to protect his former boss, Queens Library Director Thomas Galante.
Galante, Brooklyn Public Library President & CEO Linda Johnson, and New York Public Library President Tony Marx delivered a grim joint statement, detailing the progress they’ve made on several fronts but warning of the devastating effect of cuts, which would represent a total 51 percent decrease since 2008.
Van Bramer called the proposed budget “shameful,” adding, “I really look forward to a day when we not only don’t have an administration that does this, but we baseline your funding.”
Brooklyn Council Member Vincent Gentile elucidated the potential loss of jobs: 720 from NYPL, 421 from Brooklyn, and 428 from Queens, and the potential cut in hours, from an average of some 43 hours a week to fewer than 22 hours.
“We just need the city of New York,” Galante commented, “to find a more creative way to negotiate a budget than slashing the heck out of us.” He called the recurring phenomenon “Groundhog Day.”
Marx noted that the libraries have “been doing more with less,” citing a 20 percent reduction in discretionary funding of his system. In an incredulous tone, he asked rhetorically, “Detroit does a better job on libraries?” (The CUF report said Detroit had better hours in 2011, though that no longer seems true.)
Brooklyn Council Member Steve Levin, noting that he’d been in office only since 2010, asked how long the situation had persisted. Galante said it’s gotten worse in the last five or six years.
“It makes me question the Bloomberg administration’s commitment to the library system, in a very fundamental way,” Levin observed (as noted in the video), then posed a pointed question to the trio of directors: “Do you believe the Bloomberg administration fundamentally supports the library systems?”
The panelists laughed uneasily, perhaps recognizing the conflict between the evidence in the budget and their reliance on that administration.
“I’ll jump right in, what the hell,” proposed Galante, with a daredevilish tone.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” interjected Van Bramer. “Let me save Tom Galante from himself, right here. I used to be able to do that… Do not answer the question, Tom.”
“Step away from the mike,” cautioned Johnson, sharing in the nervous laughter. “Step away from the mike.”
“From my perspective,” Levin pronounced, “it doesn’t look like they do.”
Later in the hearing, representatives of the library unions echoed such concerns. Eileen Muller, president of Local 1482, Brooklyn Library Guild, declared, “it’s not a matter of money, it’s a matter of priorities.”
“This budget process for libraries is broken,” added John Hyslop, president of Local 1321, Queens Library Guild. The unions on March 13 held a rally outside City Hall supporting baseline funding.
“We are proposing city legislation to allocate 2.5 percent of existing citywide property tax levies for dedicated, baseline public library funding,” declared DC 37 Executive Director Lillian Roberts. “Having a permanent funding stream would free the library systems, staff and patrons from the annual round of budget cuts and restorations that now take place and provide more stable delivery of services to communities citywide, which are using public libraries at an ever increasing rate.”
Bloomberg’s three terms come to a close this year. Several candidates are competing in both the Democratic and Republican primary races, but library funding has not yet become an issue.
Library funding–if not library administrators–has seen some new support from a grassroots group, Citizens Defending Libraries, who’ve collected more than 8,000 signatures on a petition, Save New York City Libraries From Bloomberg Developer Destruction.
The petition not only calls for adequate operating funding but also warns that past and planned deals to sell valuable real estate will wind up shortchanging library users–another issue that resulted in some contentious testimony at the hearing.
Brooklyn journalist Norman Oder is a former LJ executive editor.