Save the libraries!

New York’s public libraries are facing an unprecedented and potentially devastating budget crisis. Whether or not you live in New York, you can help. To skip this post and take action, click here, here, and here.

WHAT’S HAPPENING

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed executive budget for the upcoming fiscal year drastically slashes public funding for the city’s three library systems — the largest cuts in the libraries’ history. The budget reduces funding for the Queens Library by $16.9 million (bringing total reductions to $28.3 million since 2008). The Brooklyn Public Library faces a $20.6 million cut. And the New York Public Library stands to lose a staggering $37 million. If approved by the City Council, these devastating budget cuts would take effect as soon as the beginning of July.

HOW IT AFFECTS LIBRARIES

The New York Public Library would close 10 branches, reduce 6-day service to just 4, circulate 6 million fewer items, and cut back on essential (and free) programs and services — including Internet access, voter registration, job search assistance, tax form assistance, and classes on literacy, entrepreneurship, retirement planning, and English for non-native speakers — as well as lay off nearly a quarter of its staff. (See NYPL president Paul LeClerc’s article in the Huffington Post for details, including a filmed testimonial from Patti Smith and other video tributes.)

The Brooklyn Public Library would close 16 libraries, severely limit weekend hours, lay off hundreds of staff workers, and cut funding for essential materials and services — resulting in 6 million fewer library materials, 15,000 fewer public programs, and 725,000 fewer free public computer sessions.

The Queens Library would lay off over 400 employees (with a total reduction of nearly half its workforce over the last 18 months). 14 library branches would close completely. 34 branches would be closed 4 or 5 days a week. The staff and funding for an about-to-be-opened Children’s Library Discovery Center would have to be drawn from the Library’s already thin resources, further reducing service in other locations. And of course, dramatic reductions to desperately needed materials and public programs are to be expected. (Details here.)

WHY THIS MATTERS

Because — as should be evident to anyone who’s actually set foot in one — libraries are not just warehouses for dusty and irrelevant old books. They’re living spaces, full of people perusing everything from the latest bestsellers to newspapers to classics to obscure titles unlikely to be carried by Barnes & Noble. They’re reading The Hungry Little Caterpillar or Harry Potter to their wide-eyed kids. They’re getting expert help from librarians with their research for school or work. They’re holding neighborhood association meetings to discuss local problems. And they’re attending free public events of all kinds, from children’s story hour to adult literacy classes to resume-writing workshops to conversations with famous authors and artists in packed auditoriums. The libraries are centers of community. To hobble them, or shut them down completely, is to impoverish the life of the city.

Because libraries are one of the great social equalizers. Not everyone has an iPad or Kindle; not everyone has the spare cash to buy all the books and DVDs they desire; not everyone has Internet access at home; and not everyone can afford to go to college, and enjoy the intellectual environment that higher education makes easily available. But the public libraries stand open to all, offering the accumulated information of the world to all, and saying to minds great and small (as well as small minds that may yet be great): Here is an open door to knowledge — and therefore to opportunity, and to power. All you need is a desire to enter.

Because, as even Google’s director of technology admits, a chat with a reference librarian — whether in person or by phone or online, 24/7 — is still better than a Google search.

Because chances are good that the novel or biography or history you’ve just read was written with the help of libraries and librarians. And even if you’ve never used a library in your life, many of the world’s great leaders, thinkers, activists, authors, scientists, artists, and entertainers have. They were inspired to pursue their professions partly because of something they read during childhood afternoons spent in libraries. They used information from libraries in the course of their work to produce the books, films, scientific advances, and social and political movements that have undeniably enriched our lives. And the people who will transform our lives yet again, the ones who’ll solve the energy crisis or find the cure for cancer, may well be in your local library at this very moment — reading, thinking, and open to epiphany.

Because as Archibald MacLeish said, “What is more important in a library than anything else — than everything else — is the fact that it exists.” Libraries, which ensure free and universal access to information more than any other public institution, are at the very heart of a democracy. As such, their funding and continued existence should be absolutely non-negotiable. Along with public schools, libraries should be held up as the embodiment of some of our core democratic ideals — the ideals that we honor, as President Obama has said, “by upholding them not just when it is easy, but when it is hard.” Libraries connect us to the great minds of the past and nourish the great minds of the future. They supply the intellectual oxygen to a democratic society. Needless to say, cutting off that supply when it’s needed most is short-sighted in the extreme.

As a recent Internet meme started by Eleanor Crumblehulme declares: “Cutting libraries in a recession is like cutting hospitals in a plague.” I can’t really put it much better than that.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

If you’re a New Yorker, click on the links below to send an email to your elected officials. If you’re an out-of-towner, your messages will still be sent to Mayor Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. The Queens Library page also has a petition that anyone can sign. And of course, wherever you are in the world, you can donate.

New York Public Library
Brooklyn Public Library
Queens Library

Update: According to a librarian at BPL, New Yorkers should also call 311 and file a complaint about the proposed budget, and ask that funding for libraries be restored. The more phone calls flood the system, the more the powers that be will sit up and take notice. So go call!

Update 2: You can also text NYPL to 27722 to give $10. A $10 donation will be added to your mobile phone bill. Go to mGive.com/A for details. Message and data rates may apply.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for helping out. Please spread the word.

(Image credits: Lars Klove for the NY Times; Daniel Solis)

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