NYC's 'Saved' Libraries Experience Deja Vu

NYC’s ‘Saved’ Libraries Experience Deja Vu

by Olivia LaVecchia

Just after that one significant law passed on Friday night, Mayor Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn met up downtown to make another important announcement: A balanced, on-time budget for Fiscal Year 2012. Details of that budget are still emerging, but the official press release boasts, “We saved … libraries.” But “saved” is relative. While no sources are sure of actual numbers yet, the agreement should prevent branch closures and lay-offs, though service is still likely to drop from six to five days.

Make no mistake, this was a much better outcome than many library supporters were expecting. But this year’s wrangling also represents the continuation of a debilitating cycle that leaves libraries in the lurch every year, stuck counting on budget negotiations to provide not just cash for flex spending, but a basic operational baseline. Which means that, when the city’s scrounging for pennies wherever it can find them, those operational costs turn dangerously subjective: Between 2009 and 2011, the four libraries that comprise the NYC system — Research, New York, Brooklyn and Queens — saw their budgets slashed 40 percent; this year’s cuts chip further. “It’s an ongoing problem,” says City Council Member Gail Brewer, an ardent library supporter. “Every year, the mayor cuts the libraries, and we always try to restore it. It’s part of the budget dance.”

According to Christian Zabriskie, “This year the budget dance wasn’t a waltz, it was a mosh pit.” Zabriskie, a Queens librarian as well as the founder of the advocacy organization Urban Librarians Unite, describes the funding wars as “taking up an enormous amount of energy and an enormous amount of capacity that we could be focusing on helping our public.”

The 2012 budget battle started shaping up back in January, when Bloomberg announced a preliminary budget proposal with cuts that Zabriskie calls “draconian”: $88.4 million — a 28.6 percent reduction from FY ’11 across the public library systems, which losses would have resulted in an estimated 40 branches closed, 1,000 positions laid off, and serious reductions in operating hours. But the numbers were scary not just because they were so deep, but because they were so familiar: The preliminary FY ’11 budget had contained similarly drastic decreases. Supporters had protested, and at the last minute, the City Council had swooped in and saved the day, restoring much of the libraries’ funding. Now, just months after that victory, recently won funds were again on the chopping block. As Linda Johnson, the interim executive director of the Brooklyn Public Library, noted in a May 23 budget hearing, “I am particularly frustrated that $17 million, or two-thirds of [this] cut, is the funding BPL fought for and the Council and Mayor restored just 11 months ago.” (The two-thirds Johnson’s referring to is of the BPL’s portion of the cuts specifically, which weighed in at $24.1 million — budget numbers get confusing fast).

And this time around, it was harder to rally the troops. Though the past few years of budget back-and-forth have given library systems and their advocacy groups an arsenal of fighting tactics, stalwarts like the 24-hour “Read-In” and the postcard-writing campaign attracted less attention (though the latter still received nearly 140,000 submissions). “Everyone knows the budget stinks and everyone’s tired of hearing about the budget,” Zabriskie says. “What last year was seen as a really fascinating, wild thing, this year just did not seem to be sparking anywhere near the same amount of interest.” To combat the jadedness, organizers tried to come up with new, more aggressive strategies, like the mass “hug” of the NYPL’s Schwarzman Building, and a VYou campaign in which supporters recorded videos explaining their library’s importance to them. By the time the cycle swings around next year, activists will probably have to set up French-A-Librarian booths to get any attention.

The idea behind such public displays of affection was to lend faces to library usage and circulation numbers which, against the odds, are on the upswing. At the BPL, 2010 marked a record number of users, and circulation reached almost 20 million items, “[t]he highest level in BPL’s history and a 13 percent increase over FY ‘09,” according to Johnson’s testimony at a March 24 preliminary budget hearing. Part of the reason the libraries have been able to keep on is that, as any recent visitor knows, they’re offering a lot more than books these days: Essential literacy, tutoring and job-training programming have taken on central, and valued, positions. (Not to mention cutting-edge digital projects). In her March testimony, Johnson defined three of the BPL’s primary focus areas as service to immigrants, service to teens, and access to technology.

This demographic may be another reason library funding is such an easy target for budget cuts. Because the people in City Hall aren’t the ones who need many of the services the library provides, there’s a disconnect between the perception of the library’s usefulness and its actual impact. In a June 6 budget hearing episode that’s been oft-repeated among library advocates, City Budget Director Mark Page said that libraries are losing relevance in the digital age. But to Zabriskie, Page can’t pass judgment: “For a man who makes over $200,000 a year, and can buy books and computers, maybe libraries aren’t essential. But for a lot of New Yorkers they are very, very much a big deal.” (An acerbic blog post at drives the point home further).

On April 8, when the City Council responded to the Mayor’s FY ’12 preliminary budget, it proposed a solution to these past few years of budget woes: To create a baseline off of which future proceedings could work, instead of leaving the libraries in limbo from year-to-year with no funds guarantee. “It is time for the City to create an operations policy for the three public library systems,” the report proclaims, “setting standardized minimum levels of service in each borough and providing adequate baseline funding to meet this mandate. Currently, there is no operations policy guaranteeing a minimum service level so that all boroughs have adequate and equal access to library services.”

This is a very good idea. As Zabriskie says, “It would be a huge, huge, huge step forward in stabilizing libraries and library funding.” But it’s likely too big a step for the current budget climate; instead more of an anchor on the opposite end of the spectrum from Bloomberg’s proposed FY ’12 cuts. For now, the libraries have scraped by for another year. But come January, when the Mayor’s staring down an estimated $5 billion deficit, maybe instead of proposing familiarly steep cuts to the libraries he’ll prioritize breaking the cycle.

Olivia LaVecchia is an Awl summer reporter.

Photo courtesy of savenyclibraries, used with permission.