Op-Ed: NYC Libraries Face Underfunding, Shrinkage and Sale


We speak almost reflexively of our libraries as intrinsically democratic institutions offering knowledge and opportunity to all who visit.  Libraries also support our democracy by providing us with an informed, educated electorate.  Happy coincidence: Libraries are good politics, because the public values its libraries, wanting their proper funding to be a top priority.

Those who seek to control politics and power regularly seek to limit what we read. In recent weeks we have read about the history textbooks so bizarrely edited under the influence of the Texas State Board of Education that they euphemistically describe the slaves forcibly brought to the United States as immigrating “workers.”  The government in South Korea (yes,South Korea) announced that history will now be taught from a government written and issued textbook, called “The Correct Textbook of History,” because the government viewed the alternatives, provided by eight different publishing companies in the private sector, as too left-leaning.  If the history you’ve been reading hasn’t been too censored then you probably know that southern colonies in America had laws against slaves learning to read and write.  Conversely, the best indicator of the future size of the prison population is how many 10- and 11-year-olds can’t read and write.

One bulwark against such infringing containment of our freedoms?: Robust libraries, not libraries streamlined and pared down to the minimum that somebody else has `wisely’ decided from on high are what we need to know.

New York City library usage is up substantially, 59% in terms of circulation (that’s mostly the physical books generally preferred by the public) and 40% programmatically.  Notwithstanding, ever since the Bloomberg administration we are so underfunding New York City Libraries that library administration officials tell us the best course of action is to implement a retrenching program of self-cannibalizing library sales in order to make ends meet.

More people visited New York City public libraries than every major sports team and every major cultural institution combined.  Nevertheless, as New York Times columnist Jim Dwyer pointed out, in the last 8 years at least $620 million has been spent on just three sports arenas, 1.37 times the amount spent on libraries serving seven times as many users.  Library spending is an infinitesimal portion of our city budget, a fraction of a percent.  We are a wealthy city with surpluses.  Yet city administration and library officials implement sales entailing huge irrecoverable public losses: the sale of centrally-located Donnell, the similar proposed sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library, the near sale of Mid-Manhattan, the Pacific Branch, the shrinkage of Red Hook’s Library, the effort to get rid of the recently built 34th Street Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL).

Library activists, like Citizens Defending Libraries of which I am a co-founder, have succeeded in fending off some disasters, but library officials still want to sell the rest of SIBL (much of the book shelf space was already sold) and proposes a consequent consolidating shrinkage of Mid-Manhattan.  We are still fighting to bring the books back to the research stacks at 42nd Street Central Reference Library.

Removal of books accompany these shrinkages, most famously from the 42nd Street Library, but also occurring at multiple other libraries where disappearing books are being transported off-site or worse.

Other communities like Austin, Texas, a prime example of a tech city, are expanding their libraries, yet we are shrinking ours.  Why?: To create real estate deals that benefit developers, not the public.

These real estate deals hamstring us with respect to the future: Proposed replacement libraries at the bottom of privately-owned residential buildings can never be enlarged afterwards. That includes two plans afoot now: the proposed replacement Sunset Park library and the “replacement” Brooklyn Heights central downtown library to be drastically shrunk to just one-third its current size at the bottom of a 400 foot luxury condo tower.  Ironically, the central destination Brooklyn Heights Library (enlarged by one-third in 1993) is supposed to be shrunk to essentially the same size as the proposed Sunset Park Library. . .  while, the Sunset Park plan proposes a necessary enlargement instead of a shrinkage (a response to recent public scrutiny?), fast growing Sunset Park might well soon need further future enlargement and has other related community education needs.

Why do we face self-cannibalizing library sales that don’t benefit the public and shrink our library system?  That involves something undermining our democracy: money in politics, the wedge that too frequently puts elected officials like Mayor de Blasio on the other side of what the public wants and demands.