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Cuts could trim libraries’ Saturday service

Budget cuts have already ended Sunday service, thinned staff


Ayana Yanai periodically visits the Morningside Heights Library to check out books for the fifth-grade student she tutors in reading. Yanai, a Columbia graduate student on a teacher certification track to teach English, seeks out advice from library staff on what might best appeal to her young charge.

“They're really, really helpful. They know a lot about what kinds of books are popular,” she said outside the branch library on Broadway last Saturday. 

“One of the staff introduced me to all these books. ‘Oh, if your student likes this, then how about these kinds of books?’ She introduced me to, like, 10 books, and I was like, oh, my God, it’s a lot. That was more than I thought,” Yanai said. 

She ended up taking five of those books on that occasion. And while she will be back for others, Yanai might soon not have the opportunity to do so on Saturdays. 

Leaders of the city’s three library systems have for months warned that if budget cuts instituted last year and funding reductions that together total nearly $60 million included in Mayor Eric Adams’ executive budget are enacted, Saturday service across the five boroughs’ 219 branches could be eliminated. With libraries already closed on Sundays as a consequence of the administration’s November cuts, universal six-day service could be compromised for the first time in nearly three decades.

Branches throughout the three systems — Brooklyn, Queens and New York, which has locations in Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island — have been closed Sundays since November, when the first of three projected 5-percent budget cuts imposed by the Adams administration on every city department and agency were enacted by the library systems.

The libraries were also obliged to stop hiring and to eliminate vacant positions, which has had ripple effects on staff and service to the public, the heads of the three library guilds said. 

“We need these cuts to be rolled back and we need more than that,” said George Sarah Olken, the president of the Brooklyn Library Guild. “Everyone loves libraries. Everyone wants libraries to be open more, except for the mayor.” 

The Sunday closures, he said, are “a loss to the community.” 

“And the workers of the library are the very same people who bring their kids to the library on weekends,” Olken said in a phone interview earlier this week. “But the other thing about Sunday service is that it's overtime, and so it's a lifeline for a lot of workers to make ends meet.” 

Olken, who ran the system’s bookmobile until he was elected to his union post in December, said thinning library staff meant that personnel is being moved around to different branches to fill service gaps throughout the system.

The Morningside Heights Library on Broadway in Manhattan. Like many others among the city’s 218 other libraries, it could now face Saturday closures.
The Morningside Heights Library on Broadway in Manhattan. Like many others among the city’s 218 other libraries, it could now face Saturday …

Adams hints at restoration

Although the Adams administration canceled the next two rounds of cuts instituted as part of its “program to eliminate the gap” and restored funding to some departments and agencies, none has been forthcoming to the libraries. So far, the mayor has not indicated that funding to the library systems, which are funded proportionally, would be restored. 

Although Adams said it was “very important” for libraries to remain open on Sundays, he has also explicitly deflected responsibility for the closures, pinning them on a choice made by library officials. 

“The administration did not determine that libraries should close Saturdays and Sundays. Everyone was given instructions to find efficiencies — they determined how,” Adams said during his weekly press briefing April 30, a point he has made several times in recent weeks when asked about the Sunday closures and funding cuts to the system. 

The mayor, though, did leave room for compromise with the City Council, some of whose members have highlighted the importance of libraries to communities. “Speaker Adams and I have successfully landed two budgets through some very difficult times, and we're going to continue to do so. We know how important libraries are,” he said at the press event, referring to Council Speaker Adrienne Adams. 

But John Hyslop, the president of the Queens Library Guild, said the budget dance that library officials have been obliged to engage in with administration officials has been a disservice to both staff and the public. 

He noted that a one-time, $15.7 million City Council allocation included in the FY 2024 budget gave library officials the green light to fill vacant positions starting last July, but that the system was forced to stop hiring a few months later following the Adams administration’s September announcement of the PEG cuts. “We've been operating on a shoestring through fiscal year 2024 because of his roller coaster budget cuts,” said Hyslop, an archivist by training who has been working at the library since 1996.

That inability to hire along with the Sunday closures, he said, were difficult to bear. “That was very hard for the staff. It's hard for customers because sometimes Sunday is the only day people can go,” he said. 

The budget process, Hyslop said, is “annoyingly complicated because every year the city plays games with the library's budgets. We never know what we're going to get until June.” 

The stacks at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, among several that closed Sundays following budget cuts in November.
The stacks at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, among several that closed Sundays following budget cuts in …

Deborah Allman, the president of the New York Public Library Guild, said the role libraries play within the city’s ecosystem should spare its officials from making its budgetary case every year. “I would like to see the library's budget baseline in the city's budget,” she said in a phone interview last week. 

“Eventually, you can't keep not funding libraries and closing locations,” Allman said. “You can’t operate on fumes. I’m sorry, something has to give.”

Allman, a children’s librarian by training and former branch manager who has spent 36 years in the system, said thinning staff increasingly means that programming, including children’s story time and reading and writing tutoring, as well as English classes for newly arrived immigrants, is either being cut back or, when even a single librarian is absent, even canceled. 

“These are educational programs that we’re cutting,” she said. 

‘The most democratic spaces’

The library systems’ FY 2025 budget hearing is scheduled for May 21. The joint hearing of the Council’s Committee on Finance and the Committee on Cultural Affairs, Libraries, and International Intergroup Relations will be presided over in part by Manhattan Council Member Carlina Rivera, a staunch library supporter.  

At the outset of her committee’s preliminary budget hearing in March, she called libraries “an essential presence in every neighborhood of New York” for youths, seniors and immigrants. 

“The doors to the library are open to everyone and libraries are a critical component of moving our society forward,” Rivera continued. “Our library system protects our right to speak and expression and promotes a vibrant civic society and human flourishing.”

Noting her disappointment at the November PEG cuts, Rivera said she was “further disappointed” that while other agencies have some of their funding restored in the January plan, the libraries’ was not. “And now the libraries might be forced to adopt five-day service, cutting another day of service. New Yorkers deserve better and these cuts are unacceptable.”

Speaking at the March hearing of the Council’s committee, the president and CEO of the Brooklyn Library System, Linda Johnson, said that, if instituted, the cuts risk compromising the fabric of the city. “Libraries are the most democratic spaces in our city,” she said. 

“We are not blind to the city’s financial troubles but libraries ought to be held harmless,” she told the committee. “As you know, investments in our libraries yield strong returns. Given the difficulties facing our city, we should be increasing these investments, not slashing them.”

Should the cuts — $22.1 million in baseline funding as a result of the administration’s PEG, and an additional $20.5 million in mayoral funding and the $15.7 million Council allocation — remain in place, their impact would be “untenable,” Johnson said. 

Already, she said, the system has absorbed cuts in seven-day service, reduced spending on library materials, programming and maintenance and eliminated vacant positions — all at a time when the demand for library services is increasing. 

Increased demand

According to the Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report, which covers the performance of city agencies and departments in the first four months of the fiscal year, July through October, attendance at the Brooklyn system’s branches spiked almost 42 percent, to 1.87 million, in FY 2024 compared with the year before. Program attendance increased 49 percent. 

Queens branches saw attendance swell almost 17 percent, to 2.14 million, while program attendance went up 27 percent. NYPL attendance climbed by more than 9 percent, to 2.66 million, and program attendance more than 28 percent. 

Lauren Comito, the executive director of the Brooklyn-based organization Urban Librarians Unite, an all-volunteer organization of librarians and advocates, said library staff has been overworked and overrun. But the very nature of librarians’ profession means they persist, she said. 

“Honestly it just becomes exhausting because the work doesn't go away and the need doesn't go away just because you're open fewer hours. There's still children who need to learn how to read and people who need to find housing and use the computers, and elderly people who need to read the newspaper and people who need you to sit with them and help them learn how to use computers,” Comito, a neighborhood library supervisor in the Brooklyn system, said. “We're a helping profession and we try to make up for it.”


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