Saving New York’s Libraries

by |
05/11/2011 4:00 AM |

“We are trying to avoid a system that was in place in the 1970s,”where a single library staff rotates between two branches, each open just three days a week, explains Christian Zabriskie, a librarian in the Queens system.

Last year, Mayor Bloomberg proposed massive cuts to the City’s three public library systems. In response, the managers of New York’s libraries (and the librarians’ union) lobbied the City Council, along with the quasi-anonymous Save NYC Libraries group, which mounted a postcard campaign and a well-publicized 24-hour Read-in (“We Will Not Be Shushed”) at the Central Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. The budget finally passed by the City Council restored an unprecedented $61 million of the $77 million in slated cuts, but there were still layoffs, Saturday closures, and a book-buying freeze. And Bloomberg’s 2012 budget—previewed in February and officially unveiled on May 6—projects a further 22.5 percent cut in total library funding.

That’s why we’re here, on low leather couches in a Greenpoint bar.

The Save NYC Libraries campaign is an offshoot of ULU (“oo-loo”), Urban Librarians Unite, a “social group with a purpose”per Zabriskie, its founder, which every couple months brings together public librarians and their school and private-sector counterparts for discussion, drinks, and promises of Facebook friend requests on the morning after. “When the time came to organize,”Zabriskie explained to me over email, “it was very quick and easy to turn that group right around and make them active.”

Over my shoulder beyond the bar, on this April weeknight, two kids in matching headbands are playing ping-pong, the ball darting low across the blue table and only once or twice skittering to a stop at my feet. Right at 7pm, they switch sides, so the one in the Kevin Garnett jersey and Larry Bird hairdo has a better view of the TV showing the Celtics-Knicks game. These are not librarians.

This year’s postcards are ready—there’s a black and white photo, from the Queens Library archive, of an Asian-American boy reading a picture book to a younger boy, probably a little brother. They’re all addressed to Queens City Council member Jimmy Van Bramer, a library ally—last year, supporters sent postcards to their own councilmembers and speaker Christine Quinn; this year, they’re going for “that Miracle on 34th Street effect,”Zabriskie explains, handing them out. “Bars are good places”for distributing the postcards, one librarian offers. “It’s all fetishists,”agrees a young woman in thick black glasses, “who ask, ‘Do you climb the metal wheely ladder and wear fishnets at work?'”Another suggests that postcard-making is a good activity for kids.

Zabriskie, who has glasses and a blond-gray beard and ponytail, runs the meeting, updating perhaps a dozen women and a half-dozen men, passing around an empty pint glass for contributions to the campaign’s web-hosting fees, stopping when other librarians raise their hands. When one suggests a series of YouTube testimonials, he tells her, “run with it”—you get the sense a lot of work is done over email, between meetings. (“I’ve never been to one of these that didn’t become a drinking thing in eight minutes,”one librarian will tell me, about twenty minutes from now.)

They’re planning three events this year in early June, one in each library system (the BPL, the Queens Library, and the New York Public Library, which serves the other three boroughs), all within around a week of each other to encourage press attention. No one with ties to the NYPL administration is on hand, so discussion of permits and permissions is tabled, and attention turns to Queens, which, on an upcoming weekend morning at a branch close to Manhattan (for the media), will host a children’s rally—”little kids, little signs.”(The Queens Library is well regarded throughout the library community for its youth-services programming.) “We’ll need to get in with the moms.”

The Read-in, last year’s marquee event, will return to the Central Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library on June 11th (into the 12th) this year; librarians are encouraged to reach out to local authors they know from hosting readings. Children’s authors will be given slots in the morning; poets like to read late at night. Sign-up for civilian readers will be opened closer to the reading (it filled up quickly last year, as did the time slots for volunteers).

The BPL is eager to host the Read-in. Save NYC Libraries has been encouraged by the institutional support for their flashy advocacy, targeted to the press and the populace. (“We can say wilder things and say them louder,”Zabriskie says: “‘You can close libraries when you step over our cold beaten bodies chained to the door’ is an axiom to us which would sound crazy if it came out of the press office of a city library.”Last Halloween, they held a “Zombie Walk”across the Brooklyn Bridge to protest mid-year budget cuts.) Administrators also encourage a certain degree of proselytizing at work—”I don’t know of any well-run branch that doesn’t encourage advocacy at the workplace,”a children’s librarian from Battery Park tells me, though he allows that especially resource-poor branches may have less enthusiasm trickling down to the front desk.

This, indeed, is the problem, a couple of librarians allow, and it’s an increasingly familiar one in American politics: contrary to digital-age assumptions, attendance across all three library systems remains robust, in large part because of the services, like job training and tutoring and ESOL classes and health resources, that the libraries provide for the least politically empowered New Yorkers. Even something as low-impact as writing a brief note on a postcard and mailing it to a City Council member is easier, more natural, if you happen to be the kind of person who doesn’t need to go to the public library to check your email, or to have someone help you pick out age-appropriate English-language reading material for your son. The hope is that fetishists in bars—and readers like you—will pick up the slack.