April 24, 2018

Center for an Urban Future Re-Envisions New York’s Branch Libraries

Re-Envisioning-New-Yorks-Branch-LibrariesFrom the Andrew Carnegie–era temples of learning to the small cinderblock “Lindsay boxes” built during Mayor John Lindsay’s administration from 1966–1973, New York City’s 207 library branches are as varied as its population. And like much of the city, they are feeling the crunch of budget cuts and neglect. The Center for an Urban Future (CUF), a New York City-based public policy think tank, published a detailed report September 15 titled Re-Envisioning New York’s Branch Libraries. The 56-page report, funded by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, focuses on the physical and economic challenges facing the buildings that make up New York City’s three library systems: New York Public Library (NYPL), which serves Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island, Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), and Queens Library (QL). It lays out the many design, space, and infrastructure problems that need to be addressed, and explains the difficult processes required for the city’s libraries to secure funding and carry out various building and renovation projects. In addition, the report offers “20 actionable steps that city government and the libraries themselves could take to address these needs.”

CUF, founded in 1996, is concerned with strengthening local economies in low-income and working-class neighborhoods of New York and other urban areas. In January 2013 it published an initial report, Branches of Opportunity, examining the roles libraries play in New York City. The purpose of the new report, CUF Research Director David Giles told LJ, is to shed a light on the state of the library facilities that he feels the city has neglected in the past decades, and give libraries the chance to “elbow their way in to discussions in the mayor’s office.” CUF’s research team visited 50 libraries in all five boroughs and surveyed more than 300 librarians on the conditions of their branches, analyzing branch metrics and performance data as well.

Currently New York City’s library buildings require at least $1.1 billion in capital needs funding: $812 million for repair and renovation and $278 million for site acquisition and new construction. Out of 178 branches, 59 each have $5 million or more in needs, with issues that range from major physical and structural defects to a lack of program space and insufficient equipment. The average branch is 61 years old, and many suffer from poor light and ventilation, broken HVAC systems, and water leaks, leading to service disruptions and closings. Even libraries built in past 40 years are not designed for the populations they now serve, particularly seniors and teens, and often cannot accommodate new technology needs. Many of the buildings are too small—100 of the branches are 10,000 s.f. or smaller—and many existing layouts do not reflect the needs of either patrons or staff, including a lack of Americans with Disabilities Act compliance.

Initiatives for New York City libraries lag noticeably behind those of other major U.S. cities. Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco have all launched capital improvement campaigns over the past 20 years that repaired and expanded over half their physical buildings. New York has built only 15 libraries in that time.


Much of this problem, according to CUF, is the process needed for libraries to secure capital funding. Libraries have no capital budget, and receive most of their funding from the discretionary funds of individual City Council members rather than through a process of empirical needs assessment.

This means libraries are forced to shop projects to their local elected officials on an individual basis, starting with their local City Council representatives and borough presidents. Library repairs often have to compete with higher-profile projects, such as cultural offerings and parks, so funding levels tend to fluctuate widely. Within the system itself, prominent projects like the Central Library Plan, which was developed to renovate the iconic Schwarzman Building, get disproportionate attention.

The lack of an ongoing capital budget makes it difficult for libraries to plan efficiently for their long-term needs. As Queens Library Interim President and CEO Bridget Quinn-Carey told LJ, “We’ve been successful in the past, but this doesn’t allow us to plan comprehensively across the borough. A process that…enables us to have a plan for improvements and expansions would be welcome.”

During fiscal years 2004–13 New York City spent $503.7 million on capital improvements for public libraries, a 57% increase over 1994–2003. But, the report explains, “while capital expenditures for libraries increased under Mayor Bloomberg, this was largely the result of increased capital spending overall rather than a purposeful campaign by the administration.” Over the past 20 years, the portion of the city’s capital spending devoted to libraries has remained consistent at about one half of one percent of the total budget.

Giles told LJ, “We’ve got to change the funding system and there are no shortcuts to that. It’s something only the mayor’s office can do. They can decide to give the libraries a capital budget instead of starting from zero every year. Libraries deserve to be treated like city agencies.”


Fortunately, the de Blasio administration is already inspiring optimism in the library community. According to Marti Adams, first deputy press secretary for the Mayor’s office, “In his first executive budget, the Mayor and City Council increased capital funding for libraries, and Mayor de Blasio also ended the budget dance, which held library funding hostage in prior years.” The city will submit a new ten-year capital plan in January 2015, and Giles says, “I’m pretty optimistic. I think this mayor is discovering that libraries belong in the discussion with schools and affordable housing developments.” NYPL President Tony Marx agrees: “The path forward is very clear. Joint leadership from library and city leaders can make significant progress—and we’ve already seen the curve begin to bend. This year’s budget increased overall library funding for the first time since 2008 and we are encouraged by the conversations we have had and continue to have with our public officials about the capital needs of library buildings.”

The CUF report lays out a number of ideas for New York City’s libraries as they move forward, including bringing QL into NYPL and BPL’s joint floating collection system, which holds and processes the systems’ collection in a central location; creating a “Director of Libraries” position in City Hall; developing a hub-and-spoke system with smaller spaces extending the reach of centralized branches; encouraging libraries to manage their own construction projects; making libraries an important component in disaster planning; and involving communities more deeply in library planning. Currently, the New York City charter doesn’t take libraries’ capital improvement plans to voters. At a time when both NYPL and BPL have been criticized for making large-scale decisions to sell branches without providing adequate transparency to the public, it is clear that stakeholders need to feel more involved with libraries’ planning process.

Giles feels that the report’s message is reaching the desired audience. “We’ve been talking to City Council members and people in the administration, and people have been talking about it. There’s a real interest in coming up with solutions.” He hopes that the library community will find inspiration in CUF’s ideas. “There is a need for libraries to get better at transparently engaging their communities and envisioning the future,” he told LJ.” We took a stab at envisioning the libraries going ahead. Libraries need to do that for themselves, need to come up with strategy for…where they want to go and how they can get there.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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