Closed Books

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Normally, Saturday afternoon is peak time at the Jerome Park library, and this December day is no exception. About 20 kids have lined up outside, waiting for opening time. At 1, the doors open and the kids file in and stake out their turf.

Without a computer at home, 16-year-old Miguel Peña relies on the library’s Saturday hours for Internet access. Peña says he used to go to the Bronx’s main library, but he gets more work done here, at this smaller neighborhood branch. “Less people, more silence,” he says.

Still, this modest space fills up quickly. Within half an hour, about 50 people are working on the computers, doing research at the tables and lining up to ask questions at the counter. And by one hour after opening time, all the slots for computer access for the day are full. It’s a typical Saturday for this busy branch.

But one Saturday afternoon this fall, the doors stayed shuttered, with only a note on the door announcing that the library would stay closed all day. Three other Bronx branches–Clason’s Point, Sedgwick and Edenwald–never opened that day either. There just aren’t enough librarians to keep all the libraries open.

Normally, the library system staves off closings by temporarily dispatching staff from one branch to another to pinch-hit when a librarian gets sick or quits suddenly. But the system is now strained to the breaking point. The New York Public Library, which covers Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, is short of staff. Branches often operate with skeleton crews, overworking their few librarians or relying on paraprofessionals, who do not have library science degrees, to take on the responsibilities of librarians. This year, the library has had to close branches 23 days in the Bronx, and 31 times in Manhattan.

Staffers and residents say the impact is felt most powerfully in the city’s poorer neighborhoods, where people have few other options for books, Internet access and help with reference questions. It also deprives families of one of the library’s most crucial functions: providing a safe, respectable place for kids to hang out.

“This is a clear indication that libraries are in a freefall,” says library union president Ray Markey, of DC 37 Local 1930. “People of New York are being denied not just quality service, but any service at all.”

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The New York Public Library system is one of the most admired in the country, with a well-deserved reputation for excellence and service. Last year, members of the public visited the library 10.7 million times, asked 6.4 million reference questions, attended more than 500,000 free programs and checked out 12.7 million books.

But both librarians and administrators admit that recruiting new staff and retaining hires is a big problem. The number of librarians has dropped from 586 to 522 in the past five years, says Markey.

The biggest problem is money. Salaries start at $31,000, and librarians say that raises are far below what they can get elsewhere. Harriet Shalat, head of the library’s famous telephone reference service, is making $46,000 after being with the system for 33 years. She says her Los Angeles counterpart starts at $42,000.

Library administrators recognize the problem, and they have backed a proposal for a 15 percent increase in librarian salaries. But such a move would also have to be authorized by the city. The Giuliani administration has said that it will consider such a salary increase, but only in conjunction with an increase in the work week that would effectively cut the raise in half.

In part because of low salaries, about half of new hires leave the system within three years, many for the business world. At the Lower East Side’s Hamilton Fish branch, supervising librarian Jayne Pierce says she has watched six trainees leave her children’s section for jobs outside the public libraries in the past five years, the last two to make salaries on par with her own. She says that such rapid turnover deprives library users of expert help. “There are some things that you only learn with experience,” says Pierce, whose newest trainee, hired in June, has no intention of going to library school.

Because outer-borough branches can be crowded and chaotic, and sometimes hard to reach by subway, librarians often don’t want these jobs, making recruiting there particularly difficult. “When staff is hired, they try to spread it around, but there are branches where staff is hard to fill,” says union vice-president Lynn Taylor. “They can’t send their new hires to those branches, because they would quit. Those are the tougher jobs, where it’s mostly kids.”

These are the neighborhoods that can least afford to lose what they’ve got. About a third of branches in the Bronx have no children’s librarian. Yet school overcrowding means that many public schools have also converted their libraries into classrooms, leaving students with almost no options. Meanwhile, working parents rely on the library as a safe haven for their kids, leaving them there until they return from work. One mother, a lunch lady at her son’s school, says she brings a group of schoolchildren to Hamilton Fish nearly every day to tutor them until their parents can pick them up.

Officials say that the occasional closings are spread out across the whole system, but some librarians disagree. “They generally will tend to close branches that aren’t in [central] Manhattan, because [a Manhattan closing] would really be very poor public relations,” says Christine Karatnytsky, who works at the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. “So what they will do is close rooms in branches in Manhattan. In the branches in minority neighborhoods, they’ll just shut them down.”

In the Queens Public Library system, branches stay open despite understaffing, choosing to allow long lines rather than closing their doors. But for the NYPL, Director of Branch Libraries Norman Holman says that safety and quality concerns play in the decision to temporarily close branches. “We want enough people there to support each other,” he says. “It could have the effect of eroding confidence in the library, and we want to prevent that.”

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Less than a year after she joined the NYPL’s Jerome Park branch, trainee Sophie Obertance is already on her way out the door. “I was so excited about becoming a librarian before,” Obertance says. “The New York Public Library seemed so prestigious, and in reality, it’s just awful.”

Obertance says she arrived expecting to have a children’s librarian as a mentor. Instead, she’s had to assume the responsibilities of that job herself. Every afternoon, the library was packed with kids, and some nights she stayed after the library had closed, waiting for parents to come for their children. “If we were to close during the week, I don’t know what would happen to all these kids,” Obertance says.

Tired of doing a librarian’s job for a trainee’s pay, Obertance recently turned in her resignation. “Management just doesn’t realize how important these salaries are,” she says. She points out that the Board of Education offers librarians a good deal more. “The public libraries,” she says, “just can’t compete.”

Markey says he doubts the NYPL would permanently close any of its branches. But he does worry that the library system will be forced to fall back on hiring staff without professional credentials. “The doors of the libraries might be open,” he says, “but they won’t be staffed by people who have been trained to provide these types of quality service.”

Obertance agrees. “It’s going to have to get a lot worse before it gets better. I think the branches are actually going to have to close before anything will change,” she says. A little boy runs up to her, concerned: “Miss O, are you leaving?” She nods, and he hugs her before he leaves. “I don’t care about the money,” she says. “I’m more upset about leaving the kids. But eventually, the money will matter.”