On May 8, more than a hundred New Yorkers rallied for a somewhat surprising cause — to save the New York Public Library from being dramatically redesigned and downsized. Last year, the New York Public Library system announced a $300 million plan to renovate the flagship branch on 42nd and Fifth Avenue and to close two circulation libraries in order to save the city budget $47 million. A vocal patronage of researchers, public advocates, and library users has raised concerns with the plans, contending that the proposal is a draconian solution to budgetary woes at the expense of an institution that serves as a primary resource for scholars, writers, and citizens.
The NYPL renovation plan has been criticized both for closing two circulating branches and for gutting the primary 42nd Street research library by moving research stacks offsite to New Jersey, meaning a waiting period for researchers to access those resources that have to be transported back in to the city upon request. In exchange, the city has the ability to sell the closed branches as real estate assets to developers, bringing in short-term revenue for the city, which has been decried as a money-grab and a selling-out of the famous library. But these criticisms are the easy ones for the library plan promoters to respond to and defend against. The branches being closed have been struggling. Researchers would only have to wait an extra day and library officials even revised the plan to create more space for books beneath the new circulating library that allowed them to keep 3.3 million volumes onsite — sending only 1.2 million offsite.
At the core of the debate are two truly competing priorities — the reality of budget constraints set by dwindling public funding, and the viability of publicly shared resources aimed towards education and research. We are operating in a time when resources are increasingly moving online and to digital content and where the value and timeliness of written references are called into question. Particularly for younger generations, libraries have had to adapt to technology and changing expectations about how to find and use information.
Yet, libraries act as a transformative institution for numerous Americans who are unemployed or underemployed, providing free resources and community opportunities for citizens at over 16,000 public libraries nationwide. Public libraries welcomed more than 297.6 million visitors in 2010 and circulation, program attendance, and computer use are trending upwards. David Vinjamuri pointed out in a Forbes article earlier this year that more than half of young adults and seniors living in poverty used public libraries for their Internet services at a cost to taxpayers of just $42 per citizen each year nationwide. In New York alone in 2010, public use of Internet access increased 6.4% from 2009 and is one of the fastest growing services in public libraries nationwide. Additionally, New York City libraries have seen a 40% spike in program attendance and 59% increase in circulation over the past decade according to a report from the Center For An Urban Future.
The NYPL planned renovations do not necessarily mean these impacts will be halted, yet the trend of starving libraries and public educational resources of funding is not likely to dissipate without an outcry heralding the value of public libraries. Selling off public property to real estate developers provides a short term infusion of cash to city coffers, but critics remain skeptical that the financial savings and efficiencies promised from the consolidation and modernization will be achieved. Library cuts in general are criticized for being short-sighted, as public library systems are uniquely suited to serve populations with limited access to the internet, the under and unemployed, seniors, and city economies.
Fewer branches means less access. Library officials contend that redeveloping the branches they plan to close would cost them the money committed by Mayor Bloomberg for modernizing the NYPL system and are bad budget investments for the city when compared to the current plan. This argument undermines what should be the greater discussion— what library system do we want in this country and what should we be willing to sacrifice for budget dollars?
Libraries are a place of book discovery and access to information and research. They anchor communities, support diverse populations, bridge the digital divide, and promote reading and education. Opponents of the NYPL renovation plan are fighting to keep these priorities front and center during budget battles — and we should support them. While it is important to transform libraries into modern institutions that are reactive to the changing needs of citizens, it is also critically important to preserve the very nature of public use libraries.