Funding cuts loom for NYC libraries

The Columbus Library computers are an important community resource. Photo: Diana Ducroz
A grassroots campaign to fight the spending reductions reveals New Yorkers love for their “de facto community centers”
By Diana Ducroz

On a muggy June afternoon, the Columbus Library on Tenth Avenue at West 51st Street is a calm, cool refuge from the noisy streets outside. Vanessa Watson, an office associate, has worked at this branch for longer than she wants to say. She has watched the community transform as more families with children move in to the neighborhood. Residents of this once predominately Irish-American neighborhood now request books in languages such as Chinese and Russian.

The library itself has changed, too. Once mainly a place to borrow books, it now provides extensive programming and services for children, seniors, immigrants, job seekers, students, the homeless, and people with special needs. In a typical week, the Columbus Library hosts several dozen events and classes. In the basement TechConnect computer lab, anyone may take classes in computer skills, basic to advanced, for free.

“We are here to serve everyone. No one is left out,” Watson said. “No library is big enough for all the programs we would like to do.”

Possible Cuts in Service

New York City’s public libraries are de facto community centers, the crossroads of the neighborhoods they serve. Like branches across town, the Columbus Library does its best to keep up with the changing needs of its community, limited only by available resources.

But in a time of rising costs and increased demand, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposed $92.5 billion city budget for fiscal year 2020 allocates $387.1 million for public libraries, a drop of $11.7 million from the previous year’s amount. The city’s three library systems — the New York Public Library, Brooklyn Public Library, and the Queens Borough Public Library — have instead requested an increase of $35 million in expense funding, as well as another $963 million in the 10-Year Capital Plan for repairs, renovations, and expansion of aging and overburdened facilities.

Library representatives warn that cuts to funding could force libraries to reduce services, with weekend hours the most at risk. To help them in their campaign to restore and increase funding, the three library systems have asked New Yorkers to post ‘sticky notes’ of support online in addition to sending emails and letters to city officials.

Love Letters to Libraries

Since launching in March, the “Invest in Libraries: Libraries Make NYC Stronger” campaign has generated over 70,000 letters to city hall and collected over 5,000 digital sticky notes, as New Yorkers from all over have sent in their little yellow love letters expressing their feelings for their libraries.

The campaign has garnered some high-profile supporters, such as Sarah Jessica Parker and writer Jennifer Egan, but the notes from everyday New Yorkers are the heart of the campaign.

In note after note, people from all over the city talk about their library as a place of refuge, of connection, of learning and exploration, as a home away from home, a place not only to escape their troubles but also to find the help to rise above them.

Notes left by users of the Columbus Library follow the same themes. A patron named John wrote “Columbus Library is a lifeline of education for the community, especially those who are of limited financial means and cannot easily access the internet, books or other media because of cost.”

Another user, Jennifer, posted “From my earliest memories as a child, the library has been a sacred and special place where all are welcome. As an adult, I want my children to have the same fond feelings I had growing up!”

For Rebecca, “It’s this exhilarating feeling of walking down an aisle of books and knowing there are so many stories waiting to be picked and I’d have the chance to read them all. The library is my second home.”

Laboratories for Learning

Amy Geduldig, assistant director of media relations for the NYPL, believes the campaign is having a positive effect, not just on the potential outcome of the budget negotiations, but on the supporters themselves.

“It expands beyond the neighborhoods, but it also focuses on them, so it’s a really collaborative effort from New Yorkers across the city,” Geduldig said. The online visibility of the notes reinforces to viewers not only “how people appreciate their libraries and the programs and services that they use, but also just how widespread it is.”

The deadline for budget approval is July 1, when the new fiscal year begins. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said on Thursday that negotiations over the library funding are still underway. Johnson has been a staunch advocate for an increase in library funding.

“Libraries are one of the most egalitarian things, not just about NYC, but about society. Libraries are a gateway to new immigrants. Libraries are laboratories for learning. Libraries are places for children and for seniors,” the Speaker said. “Libraries are essential to a healthy democracy and a healthy society, and that is why we’re fighting so hard for libraries.”

Johnson’s comments echoed many of the sentiments written on the sticky notes. Some patrons of the Columbus branch take it even further. “For me, the library has been a way to escape to a better place within the pages of a book that allowed me to pick and choose a better narrative for my life. It has been a safe haven,” said a patron named Nataly.

“If I could stay in the library from morning to the nighttime I would,” wrote another, named Sally.

Vanessa Watson loves the Columbus Library just as much. “This little branch is kind of a gem in the neighborhood, one of these little tiny gems that you don’t see until you look close,” she said. “A jewel, a jewel that is very precious.”