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Hard Times by guest blogger Richard Reyes-Gavilan, Chief of the Central Library

Jun 1, 2009 10:56 AM | 0 comments

Library Budget Cuts -- A Recurring Theme

In the summer of 1995 New York City’s public libraries were hiring en masse.  I’d just moved back to the city after having spent a few years in Texas earning my MLS.  Mayor Giuliani, fixated on the quality-of-life issues that—until September 11, 2001—had defined his administration, held firm on the plan for six-day service across the city’s 200 branches.  Finding work was easy.  Everyone was happy. Just a few years earlier, in 1991, the city, in the depths of recession and long-mired in a crack-fueled crime epidemic, was a miserable place.  I’d just finished college and couldn’t find any meaningful work.  Without any money, my friends and I were still somehow getting mugged regularly.  Libraries were suffering in ways not seen since the city’s near-bankruptcy days of 1970s.  Family faces book famine, 1954In February 1991, Brooklyn Public Library laid off 77 staff members in response to a 10% city budget cut.  Most of its branches were open only two days per week.  The Central Library, for the first time in its 50-year history, was forced to close on Mondays.  In a symbolic protest, schoolchildren locked the library’s door with a chain of paper.  A sympathetic op-ed piece in the New York Times articulated the problem nicely.

In the competition for clemency in budget cuts, the three library systems that serve New Yorkers with food for thought cannot quantify their contribution to improving urban life as other departments claim by fighting crime, extinguishing fire, coping with disease and appeasing hunger.  The library is about quality of life, that tenuous attribute that makes the difference between the city as a random congregation of masses and the city as a civilized expression of society.

Although library service was decimated in the 1970s, two factors that contributed to some semblance of budget restoration included strong community advocacy and the Federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), part of President Carter’s economic stimulus program.  According to the Times, Mayor Abraham Beame felt “intense pressure” to restore library funding: “One city official said that there has been no subject of greater concern to letter writers to the Mayor’s office than the library cutbacks.  Mr. Beame is expected to seek re-election this year.”  Ultimately, the Mayor committed 500 CETA positions to the city’s public libraries.  However, no level of service cut compares to what Brooklyn Public Library endured during the depression of the 1930s.  Hits to service hours and the collections were ongoing concerns for the Library’s chief librarian Milton J. Ferguson.  “The day is not distant when the Brooklyn Public Library will be a library almost without books,” complained Ferguson in 1935.  Milton J. Ferguson talks, Mayor Laguardia turns away

The Library’s primary strategy to mitigate collections cuts was to limit borrowing privileges.  For a short time in 1933 the number of books a patron could borrow was reduced from six to two.  And what were people reading at the time?  According to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “none of your light, frothy, sex-imbued fiction.”  Instead, “practical books with which readers try to prepare themselves for their jobs—when they do get them.”  Sound familiar?  Less familiar sounding is the apparent popularity of books on Soviet theory: “Books on the Russian experiment are always called for.” The 1931 BPL budget called for 13% to be spent on collections, and a surprisingly high 8% on binding, which underscored the Library’s emphasis on preservation. Ferguson worried about the physical toll that double-digit increases in circulation were having on the collections.  “The cross-word puzzle ‘lottery’ has been particularly hard on dictionaries and encyclopedias.  Volumes made of iron could not pass the ordeal unbent." Further complicating matters for the Library at the time was the ongoing struggle to complete the new Central Library, which by 1936 had been sitting on Grand Army Plaza, only partially built, for a quarter century. 

For his part, Mayor La Guardia was unsympathetic.  He indicated his support for the new Central Library, but was clear that his priorities were elsewhere.  “I hope the time will come, in my time—limited as it is—when we can complete the library.”  But, referring to the competing need for new schools and hospitals, the Mayor told a delegation of library supporters, “the need is more critical.”  Brooklynites would need to wait five more years for the eventual completion of their Central Library. In 2009 hard times for the Library once again appear imminent.  Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed 22% cut would result in a staggering loss of service including the elimination of one in four full-time Library jobs.  Emails in support of the work of the libraries have been flooding the Mayor and City Council.  Help us make Mr. Bloomberg, also up for re-election, feel the pressure that Mayor Beame did in 1977.  Contact your elected officials and echo the 1932 sentiments of Judge Edwin L. Garvin, President of BPL’s Board of Trustees:

Some persons may hold the view that the public library is a sort of luxury to be indulged in when money is easy, but to be put aside when the economic shoe pinches.  The period of depression has proven quite the contrary.  People have flocked to the libraries in greatly increased numbers, finding there recreation of the highest type at a minimum of cost, and also means of study in preparation for the old job which will surely some day again need its faithful servant, or for the new job which will give the individual a better opportunity to earn a living and to enjoy life.

Line of children outside Brownsville Children's Branch, 1930s