"Due to staff shortages, preschool storytime is cancelled for Friday, June 24th, 2011."
You might cue the maudlin violins and rainstorms if this sign behind glass were fiction, and just a few years ago, it could have been. But this summer, in the Brooklyn Public Library system, it's very real.
As a result of the budget deal reached late last month by Mayor Bloomberg and the City Council, library branches won't close, as originally feared, and hours of operation have not been reduced to a crippling degree. Most of the $88.2 million the mayor wanted slashed across the New York Public Library, Brooklyn Public Library, and Queens Library systems—a nearly one third reduction—was restored in the deal. But still the NYC library system, which has had its budget gutted 40 percent from the fiscal years of 2009 through 2011, will still see further reductions, with most branches dropping from six to five days of service, and belts tightening elsewhere. Like last year, when draconian cuts were also threatened, the library system still has no standardized minimum service levels or consistent, basic funding. Funding fluctuates year to year, and with a looming city budget deficit for 2012, much of the funding that was restored could again be threatened.
On a slate-colored day, in the same Bay Ridge library branch where storytime was revoked, David Bonilla isn't weighing the numbers. He is reading a magazine, like he does almost everyday.
“Libraries are important to me is because I can relax and read a magazine or read some books or use the computer," Bonilla, a frequent library patron, said. This is the Swiss Army knife quality of the public library, which is often ignored: for no cost, you can get almost anything. Books, DVDs, internet access, childcare, English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, tutorials on Microsoft PowerPoint, business counseling, and knitting classes, among many others, are open to everyone, free of charge.
Despite all this, Mayor Bloomberg's budget director Mark Page suggested, at a contentious City Council Finance Committee hearing on June 6, that libraries were losing relevance in the digital age.
A Harvard-educated budget director in the Bloomberg administration, with a salary of $200,000 a year, does not need to check out books or use the internet for free. He doesn't need to look for a job. To him, the library may seem like a quaint relic. His boss, a man far wealthier, does not require any public assistance, either.
But the NYPL's 90 branches offer 3,600 computers with internet access. Last summer, the NYPL held 1,562 teen programs with nearly 2,400 attendees. There have been 24,000 requests for services including résumé assistance, online job postings, and access to thousand-dollar career databases for free since the Job Search Central at the Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL) at Madison Avenue and 34th Street opened last year. In 2010, the Brooklyn Public Library had more users than ever before. Over a million Brooklynites are cardholders. So far in 2011, a book or item has been borrowed 19 million times from the Queens Library, from a collection in 70 languages. 10,000 children and teens participate daily in Queens Library after school programs. These aren't numbers of an irrelevant, outmoded institution.
Recent cutbacks in New York City and nationwide have taken public services once deemed too vital to pare. In California, 70 state parks will be shut down permanently. Colorado Springs, Colorado has darkened a third of its street lights. And in crime-plagued Camden, New Jersey, mass police layoffs ensure that crime continues to surge. Page's comments reflect a disconnect between budget cutters and the many citizens who consider government services like the library as indispensable as police protection or the subway.
The American democratic ideal, that anyone can freely access information for intellectual and social empowerment, is no longer an ideal when a librarian clicks open the double doors and the neighborhood shuffles in—it is real, and it is continually in some form of fiscal peril. Shrinking funding for libraries mean fewer jobs for librarians, fewer tools for people to use to seek jobs, and a gaping hole left in communities that depend desperately on the library for free services.
Recently, at the Brooklyn Public Library's central branch at Grand Army Plaza, four volunteers and one instructor led their weekly computer skills class.
"This is the title, this is the subtitle."
"Hit tab again, it gets promoted to a main point."
"Highlight the text you'd like to italicize."
"You need a hierarchy of bullet points there."
Sunlight splashed in from a wide window facing Eastern Parkway. The fifteen students, predominately middle-aged, were learning how to use Microsoft PowerPoint. They were abuzz with questions as sprightly volunteers raced over to explain how to construct a presentation.
Portia George, laid off in mid-April, could not understand how New Yorkers were supposed to function with shrinking library hours and services. Seated at a computer at the front of the room, she rehearsed her presentation on author Toni Morrison for an upcoming project.
"There's such a huge need for libraries," George said, describing the lines that pile up around computers. "The way people line up to use the internet and print, you'd think they were coming to a party." She explained that the libraries are crucial for job-seekers and a way for people to learn new skills. This class, she said, helped her—at no cost—to brush up on PowerPoint, a program that is increasingly integrated into many white-collar professions.
"It's great," she said.
"Who is hurt most when libraries close? Poor people and children," said Christian Zabriskie of Urban Librarians Unite, whose Save NYC Libraries campaign spent months rallying support, preparing for proposed cuts similar to the ones they also fought to a stalemate last year. He and other librarians organized a human chain to surround the Bryant Park library in Manhattan and a 24-hour read-in to raise awareness about the budget cuts and the services that libraries provide.
"When libraries close, those people have that much less access. If you use the library for the internet, for cultural resources, or for job training, when that's gone, you're left swinging in the wind."
Zabriskie emphasized that if branches were to ever close, thousands of young children would be left without a place to go during the day when parents are working. Programs like the Canarsie branch's "Read, Play, Grow," where children can play with toys and listen to stories to bolster literacy skills, are an essential free resource to parents of that area.
Jason Carey, director of marketing for the Brooklyn Public Library, echoed Zabriskie's concerns.
"We are a gateway to access and information for all Brooklynites. If we aren't able to open our doors, we are cutting our services off to people who need it and want it," he said.
Though this year’s cuts were not as severe as originally anticipated, the perpetual precariousness of the library's budget means that fiscal struggles are far from over. And the disconnect between those who need public services and those who want to cut them is far from gone.
"This was a big win for us," Zabriskie reflects. "But it's not the end of the struggle. We can't have this budget fight every year." Every further round of cuts, he believes, "will be harder to recover from, because people are telling us we're irrelevant."