Opinion: A creative solution to city libraries’ financial woes
No institution is doing more to help struggling New Yorkers transition to the 21st-century economy than the city’s public libraries. Far more than just repositories for books, the city’s 207 public library branches have become vital information portals, offering an array of educational programs and resources that enable New Yorkers to acquire the literacy, language and technological skills needed to get ahead.
Unfortunately, the libraries’ physical infrastructure hasn’t kept pace. Though demand for library resources has never been higher, branches across the city are suffering from decades of neglect and underinvestment. New York City’s three library systems need a combined $1 billion in repairs, which curtails their ability to serve patrons in the ways they need it most.
This is the financial reality our libraries face – but we can’t allow it to stop libraries from fulfilling their critical mission.
Our city’s three library systems do much more than lend books – they connect New Yorkers to critical, free social services. From English as a second language classes to citizenship programs, from municipal ID registration to job training, from early literacy programs to tech courses for seniors, libraries are serving more New Yorkers than ever before.
Paradoxically, as important as the city’s public libraries have become, they need our help more than ever. Thanks to decades of underfunding, our library systems are facing a maintenance crisis – none more than the Brooklyn Public Library. The library system faces more than $300 million in deferred maintenance costs, for which it receives only $15 million in city funding per year.
This capital funding crisis has created a litany of emergent repair needs. Ventilation and air-conditioning units stop working, forcing unscheduled closures. Elevators break down, rendering branches unusable for patrons with disabilities. And many branches are not technologically equipped for the modern era – for example, the Walt Whitman branch has just two electrical outlets for all its patrons.
As the Center for an Urban Future has documented in two separate studies, the state of the libraries’ existing infrastructure has greatly hampered their ability to deliver services and fulfill their potential for community development and individual empowerment. That is not only an embarrassment – it sets our city up for failure.
But the Brooklyn Public Library has found a path forward. By leveraging its assets, the system will be able to rejuvenate its network, providing state-of-the-art spaces for its patrons while protecting its status as one of the world’s leading library systems. As a longtime champion for the city’s libraries, I firmly believe this plan deserves our support.
In a competitive bidding process, the city Economic Development Corporation identified a developer to create a modern, state-of-the-art community library below market-rate condominiums in Brooklyn Heights.
As part of the deal, the Brooklyn Public Library will be able to replace an outdated and poorly planned library with one better suited to community members’ needs, at no cost to them. Much of the square footage of the current Brooklyn Heights Library is dedicated to a bomb shelter and office space, and the existing branch needs more than $9 million in repairs. The new branch will include bright, flexible space and a sensible layout, and will be owned by the city in perpetuity. The community will also receive 114 units of much-needed affordable housing as part of the project.
Moreover, the sale of the land will infuse the system with $52 million in capital funds to help it address decades of deferred maintenance in libraries across the borough.
Of course, this solution can’t replace the need for increased public investment in libraries. Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council laudably increased library funding in last year’s budget, and should do so again in the coming budget cycle. Only sustained, significant investment from our elected officials can truly change the state of New York City’s libraries, and give New Yorkers the spaces, programs and services they need and deserve.
Until the city takes these steps, the Brooklyn Public Library is smart to develop an innovative alternative for addressing its crumbling infrastructure.
Jonathan Bowles is executive director of the think tank Center for an Urban Future and editor of the report, “Re-envisioning New York’s Branch Libraries.”