This summer, Fox Chicago News, aired a story in which the reporter asked whether Americans still need public libraries. A tax activist interviewed on-air asserted that "the Internet, for example, has pretty much made libraries obsolete."
City Limits readers would not appreciate the shots I took against federal spending while working at a conservative research foundation. But as a former librarian in the District of Columbia Public Library system, I know public libraries remain an important and valuable community institution that deserves strong public support.
Working on Sundays at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, the only public library open in D.C. on Sundays, I saw many people using computers to work on college papers, resumes and job applications, or trying to find books for science projects. It was a busy place. But nothing prepared me for the sights I saw when visiting the Queens Public Library last month.
What's striking is to walk into the Corona branch at 3:30 PM on a Monday and see the children's room—mothers and children—completely packed. Teens and older adults are in the adult section, using computers, reading newspapers.
Corona's manager Vilma Raquel Daza, energetic and personable, is familiar with how her branch's users are changing. Nearly 80 percent of Corona's neighborhood is Hispanic/Latino (2000 Census) and it's clear the immigrants contribute to the economic vitality of the neighborhood with its many storefront businesses. More Chinese are using the library now, so Ms. Daza is considering holding a Chinese New Year's Celebration.
Ms. Daza puts a copy of the branch's October 2000 activities calendar in my hand. English as a Second Language classes are held twice weekly and so are Family Literacy classes. Bilingual computer classes also take place frequently. She says many working adults, interested in improving their English, ask to have classes on weekends but the budget has forced the branch to be closed then.
"We're the bridge," stresses Ms. Daza, "between the people and knowledge. This is a poor community and it has low resources. The people want to use the resources of the library."
Queens' citizens do use their public libraries. Statistics for Fiscal Year 2010 show over 23 million items circulated and over 14 million in-person visits were made. But people are not only visiting libraries for books or DVDs.
Libraries today have an expanded mission given that literacy—reading, knowledge about health and finances—is more important, providing access to technology and information more pressing, and communities more diverse. Outreach and programming are more important. In Washington, for instance, the Adaptive Services Division not only provides disabled citizens with access to materials, but links them with employers and with designers of technology systems interested in making their products more disabled user-friendly.
Queens' public library system is noted in library circles for being highly innovative in programming. Consider its HealthLink program. Because public libraries command high levels of trust from the public, especially in low-income and immigrant communities, they can reach out to people effectively. A partnership between the library, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Institute, the Queens Hospital Center and other medical organizations was forged because statistics show that Queens is well above the national average regarding late-stage cancer detection and there are concerns about diabetes and tuberculosis, too. HealthLink received a $2 million, five-year grant from the National Cancer Institute in September 2006.
That Monday morning, Ms. Daza and Eilleen Sabino, a public health specialist who works with the library system, had a meeting with several members of Corona's Community Action Council—local representatives of organizations that express community interests to HealthLink and participate in planning. Ms.Sabino explains that HealthLink strives to make sure its informational and health-related activities such as screenings are "tailored to the community." So, events held at Corona are fun and healthy, such as Zumba dancing lessons, while providing information about health and nutrition. The first session of Zumba dancing drew 49 people, packing the branch's activities room.
As of September 2010, HealthLink has reached over 12,000 people. Nearly 400 women have received mammograms. HealthLink takes credit with helping at least ten women obtain treatment for cancer. Twenty community action councils in medically underserved communities have been formed.
However, Ms. Sabino notes that the mobile mammography unit HealthLink relied on to provide screenings is no longer available through the Queens Health Network due to funding cutbacks. Cervical cancer screening for women 18 and up has also lost its funding. Working with community groups is tougher because, in the wake of the recession, the staffs are overburdened or staff positions have been cut.
I saw more during my four days observing Queens' public libraries. The Central Library has a job information library. At 12 noon on a Thursday, librarian Mark Donnelly delivers a talk about how his division can help job-seekers. At least 15 people attended. Time permitting, librarians will assist job-seekers in developing their resumes, and the Central Library will even fax resumes for users. The Queens Library offers classes for people considering starting businesses, and its webpage includes a database listing community organizations providing services ranging from academic counseling to youth development.
The Literacy Zone at the Long Island City branch had a large class of Advanced ESL students on a Friday morning. Some students remark that there is much less availability to public libraries and books in their native countries.
One Advanced ESL student from Guinea who is intent on improving her English writing and reading skills says the library staff "don't care where you come from or who you are. They just ask what you need. The library is really helpful."
Statistics compiled by the city's Independent Budget Office show that, over the last two fiscal years, the library systems serving the city (New York, Brooklyn, and Queens) have suffered a reduction in overall funding from the city over $15 million. The FY 2011 level of $285.5 million in city funding is significantly less than the FY 2009 level of $301.7 million.
The coming fiscal year is particularly dicey for many city agencies and institutions, including libraries, that receive city and state funds if the recession takes its expected toll on revenue and stimulus funding for education dries up. And the state's library association warns that New York State will probably have a gaping budget deficit in 2011-2012. Michael Borges, executive director of the New York Library Association, notes that library aid is distributed based on popualtion. Because the city has a disproportionate share of the state's population, he warns, the city's libraries could suffer a disproportionate share of the cuts.
Already, previews of the worst case scenarios for the city's public library systems can be found. Seattle's library system was entirely closed in late summer, a controversial move but one that city library officials insist is more cost-effective. Just across the Hudson, New Jersey's urban libraries are smarting from reduced revenue and reduced budgets. Trenton's four branch libraries have been closed since the summer, and their status remains uncertain. Hours at the city's Central Library have been increased but, notes Patrica Tumulty, executive director of the New Jersey Library Association, "in an urban area, it's branches which are the link between the library and the public."
After losing nearly 20 percent of its funding during the second half of this year, Newark's public library system has closed two storefront branches. Staff furloughs have forced the closing of the entire system on Mondays and Tuesdays. (Only the main library is open on Saturday.) A July 13, 2010 Library Journal article noted that Newark's public library system risked a 43 percent decrease in funding between the years 2008-2011. If funding does not improve, the library system may attempt more days open but it could come at the expense of closing more branches.
Queens' library system is particularly vulnerable to cuts in public funding. It's technically a non-profit corporation, but most funds come from the city and state. Plus, as an outer borough, its population base is predominantly lower-middle income people who really depend on the library. Fortunately, the city's public library systems have allies on the city council, including the speaker, Christine C. Quinn, and Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, former Chief External Affairs Officer of the library system, who now chairs the Cultural Affairs, Libraries, and International Intergroup Relations Committee.
Cuts may be unavoidable. But, when budgeting next year, New York city and state elected officials should keep in mind that public libraries, such as Queens' system, are serving the public well. They are not "pretty much obsolete."