Why New York Needs Its Libraries

07/05/2011 12:00 PM |

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.”