David Boe / AP

NYC public libraries urge reversal of recession-era funding cuts

Libraries seek more than $1 billion to repair crumbling infrastructure in 217 buildings

The New York Public Library and its two sister library systems, the Brooklyn Public Library and the Queens Library, say that New York City owes them the mother of all overdue fines: more than $1 billion to repair buildings and infrastructure which have fallen into disrepair. A March report from the three library systems said many of their combined 217 branch locations suffer from overcrowding, water damage, faulty air conditioning, and a host of other maladies.

On top of a $1.4 billion capital investment, the three library systems are also requesting an additional $65 million per year for operational expenses — just enough to get them back up to their funding levels from before the Great Recession hit, said New York Public Library vice president of government affairs George Mihaltses.

“We’re down about 1,000 workers and we’ve had to squeeze out efficiencies over the past few years to keep our doors open,” due to a series of budget cuts since 2008, said Mihaltses. Last year, New York put $323 million into library coffers, but Mihaltses said that’s still $65 million short of their pre-recession draw.

The scope of New York City’s library infrastructure may be well beyond that of most other U.S. cities, but libraries across the nation have been feeling a budget crunch for years, American Library Association president-elect Sari Feldman told Al Jazeera.

“I think libraries across the country are really struggling to find the money that they need at a time when they’re busier than ever,” said Feldman.

The onset of the Great Recession devastated tax revenue hauls across the country, causing city and state governments to cut funding to libraries. The most recent Public Libraries Survey from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), published in 2014, found that funding for U.S. public libraries decreased in real dollars by 7.2 percent between 2002 and 2012.

There was not a commensurate drop in demand for library services. There were 20.7 percent more in-person visits to public libraries in 2012 than in 2002, the ILMS survey found; all told, there were 1.5 billion in-person visits to public libraries in fiscal year 2012, or 4.1 million per day.

That’s because more people are coming to rely on the library for Internet services, said Feldman. Even those who have Internet access at home may visit the local library to use the computers because they have faster broadband and trained staff on hand to assist them with tasks like applying for a job.

“Some of the activities are less transactional than circulation of material and require more support, so the demand is increasing,” said Feldman.

In their efforts to meet that rising demand and reverse some of the structural erosion at its branches, New York City’s three major library systems have for the first time ever launched a joint campaign to boost library funding: Called Invest in Libraries, the campaign has attracted public support from the novelists Judy Blume and Junot Diaz.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposed fiscal year 2016 budget would allocate $314 million to the libraries, a spokeswoman for the city’s Office of Management and Budget told Al Jazeera over email. But the proposed budget would also add $300 million to capital funding, a sum she described as “unprecedented."

Mihaltses described the $300 million as “a great start."

“Definitely more needs to be done,” he said. 

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