Residents of the Far Rockways Rally to Save the City's Public Library System

Dennis Walcott (left) and Council Member Donovan Richards read to children
Dennis Walcott (left) and Council Member Donovan Richards read to children

After six straight years of cuts, $43 million was added back to the budget for New York City’s libraries in 2015. Celebrities from Ethan Hawke to John Legend came out in support of New York Public Library system, signing a letter calling on the city to boost funding. Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city council, perhaps glamoured or shamed or both, eventually relented, promising to make capital investments and renovate the 217 neighborhood branches. The new funding meant every library could be open six days a week, more staff could be hired, and some after-school and English-as-a-second-language programs expanded.

So it might have seemed odd that on Monday, there was a rally held over library funding.

To kick off the event, Councilmember Donovan Richards, Queens Library President Dennis Walcott, and members of the community held story time for children at the Arverne Community Library in the Far Rockaways. The normally rambunctious grade school children were quiet and well-behaved, enjoying snack packs and juice boxes. The bright yellows, greens, and oranges of letters on the wall saying “Children’s Room” and the colorful spines of books that lined the bookshelf, the beach and boardwalk theme all added to the vibrancy of the library, which was destroyed after Sandy damage and only reopened less than a year ago.  The day’s selection was “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs,” a fable about the peril of taking half-measures—just like, one might argue, the city’s library infrastructure plan.

The problem: even with the additional $43 million, that’s still $22 million less than the budget in 2008, says Joanne King, spokeswoman for the Queens library system. And the money for this year was not “baselined,” or guaranteed. “In the Mayor's executive budget proposal for the coming fiscal year, he baselined half the money,” she says, meaning only half the funds will be allocated, and that the other half may or may not get doled out.  In the meantime, libraries across the city are coping with broken-down computers and overwhelming demand for their beleaguered academic and after-school programs.

The Center for an Urban Future, a public policy non-profit based in Manhattan, compared New York City’s public library system with library systems throughout the nation’s 10 largest cities. In their 2015 study, they found that New York City’s public libraries rank 7th, just in front of San Jose and Houston, when it comes to service hours. And the analysis points to lack of funding as part of the issue.

Advocates like those at Arverne would like to see the full 2008 budget restored to what it was before the $65 million in cuts. (And that doesn’t even account for inflation.) There appears to be plenty of money in city coffers to make up the difference: When De Blasio revealed his $82 billion executive budget for 2017 fiscal year last month, it included a proposed $50 million capital fund outlay for an indoor pool on Staten Island.

Back at the rally, it was clear the extended hours are needed. The Arverne branch sits directly across from the Ocean Bay public housing developments, and the kids who live there regularly pack into the library to brim.

“There’s not an available computer most times because they’re always being used, says Councilmember Richards, who is on home turf in the Rockaways, adding that the current six-day week prevents some of the orthodox Jewish community, who keep sabbath on Saturdays, from getting acess to the computers on the weekends. “ We hope to get to seven-day service to provide for that demographic community as well,” he explains.

“We are asking for $66 million for all the systems. Not just for Queens, but throughout the city,” says Queens Library president Dennis Walcott, who was appointed just two months ago. “That allows us to maintain what we have, but also build on it.”

Walcott hopes additional funding will be provided for capital work, as a number of libraries throughout the system are in need of major repairs and infrastructure work. On the day of the reading and rally, he says every computer in the Arverne Community Library was occupied.


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