By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Any library patron or employee in New York City has got to wonder whether Mayor Rudy Giuliani has ever checked out a book. In his combative budget address on January 27, he proposed tax cuts and a merit pay system for city employees, notably teachers. And, in what seems to be an annual ritual, he actually proposed a $42.6 million cut for libraries along with reduced funding for museums and performing arts groups.
Those proposed cuts likely will be restored by the city council, but that still won't address the fact that nine of 34 Bronx branches of the New York Public Library (NYPL) lack children's librarians. This means there's no trained staffera librarian must have a master's degreewho knows what books to buy, what stories are appropriate for children, and how to build trust with kids and their parents, not to mention how to conduct crucial outreach to neighborhood schools.
The Bronx deficit is part of a larger pattern affecting the NYPLwhich operates in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Islandand its sister library systems in Brooklyn and Queens. While the three systems are busier than ever and reasonably stocked with books and computers, they're hemorrhaging their most precious asset: staff. Some 25 percent of the librarians hired in the last year by NYPL have already left, and half leave within the first three years. In Brooklyn, four branchesthree of them in low-income neighborhoodshave seen branch managers arrive and depart. Morale across the systems is low.
The culprit: low salaries. Librarians in the three systems start at $31,296, while their counterparts in city school libraries earn $36,045which is why schools find it easy to recruit children's librarians from public libraries. Moreover, public libraries in the New York suburbs, as well as in cities like Atlanta, San Francisco, and Seattle, offer starting salaries of some $5000 to $13,000 more.
"By any measurement, New York City public librarians are underpaid," Dr. Paul LeClerc, NYPL president, told a city council committee recently. Directors of all three libraries, heads of three unions, and other librarians also testified, thereby forging an unusual alliance between labor and management. A week later, the council, in near unanimity, passed a resolution decrying the loss of library personnel and the resulting negative impact on library service.
That resolution, of course, has no binding power, and the sticking point remains the Giuliani administration, which for two years has balked at a salary adjustment for librarians. According to library union leaders, Commissioner of Labor Relations James Hanley did not want such discussions to be ammunition for the larger, more powerful unions representing teachers, police officers, and firefighters, all of whom have raised questions of salary parity with other jurisdictions.
"We are unable to develop a core staff with the depth of experience required to, among other things, supervise branches, develop and maintain collections, work on grant-funded projects, and provide outreach," five NYPL administrators wrote in an urgent memo to a superior last August. "We are 'bleeding' staff."
Anne Hofmann, chief librarian of the Donnell Library Center on 53rd Street, across from the Museum of Modern Art, recently lost "an outstanding reference librarian" who at NYPL took home only $742 every two weeks, spent more than that for rent in a shared apartment, and was still in debt for graduate school. "It's demoralizing for the staff, who see their colleagues leaving," says Hofmann, who notes that many library school graduates come to NYPL for its highly regarded training, "then go off to other jobs."
The libraries' plight is so unique that Lee Saunders, administrator of District Council 37the umbrella union for city workerssays that DC 37 supports an adjustment in base salary for librarians. It would cost the city only $9.5 million to provide a 15 percent base increase for library staff, which would bring the starting librarian salary to about $36,000.
"It's not the type of item that is going to cause fiscal chaos," says Queens councilmember Walter McCaffrey, who has become the council's point man on this issue. Cutting libraries "is the political equivalent of touching the third rail," he adds, citing their diverse constituencies. "Do I think the administration will be more sensitive in an election year? I think it should [be]."
Meanwhile, unionized librarians and support staff have begun wearing "Save Our Libraries" buttons, and recruiting some of the city's authors and intellectuals to sign a letter joining the appeal to support pay raises.
If the library is a "bedrock of democracy"as former NYPL president Timothy Healy once statedthat democracy, at least in New York City, is now threatened, whether at the venerable central research library in Manhattan or at branches serving immigrants in the outer boroughs.