Let's get this out of the way: Binyamin Solomon is black and he's Jewish and he lives in Crown Heights, and none of those things are the subject of this story. While his overlapping identities make him a member of an interesting if minuscule minority, Solomon also belongs to a much bigger demographic: the nearly 3 million New Yorkers without broadband Internet access at home.

That predicament spurred Solomon to membership in still another group, regular visitors to the city's libraries. As often as five times a week, he spends ninety minutes or more at the Eastern Parkway branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, which along with the New York Public Library and Queens Borough Public Library systems operates some 214 branches throughout the five boroughs. Eight years ago, Solomon started using the library's computers, becoming more familiar with them through the help of library staff. "It's because of them I know as much as I know now," he said in a recent interview.

When he saw a promising job ad in a newspaper last year, he updated his resume on a library computer and printed it there for five cents a page. He got the job, as a security supervisor at the Hudson Yards construction site. Now he stops at the library on his way home from work to send email, check Facebook and scout the occasional item from an online store.

A growing need

Thanks to people like Solomon, demand for public library services has risen dramatically in the past decade, even as repeated budget cuts have forced libraries to operate with smaller staffs, reduced hours, shortened weeks and shrinking capital investments. Libraries have been challenged both to expand and to contract—forces felt throughout the systems at every level by staff and patrons alike. In places, record appetite and resource constraints not only cap the potential for further flourishing but threaten to render an incomparable, innovative and vibrant institution less so.

After years of advocacy campaigns to restore money lost in annual spending cuts, library advocates are pushing the city for deeper—and more consistent—funding to help address some of the key issues they face: how to balance multiple and evolving roles, overcome disparities within the system, and maintain and invest in infrastructure for years to come.   

A report on the libraries issued last year by the Center for an Urban Future entitled "Branches of Opportunity" found circulation had risen by 59 percent from a decade before, and attendance at library programs was up by 40 percent. Data from the three library systems shows circulation in FY13 was down from that FY11 record of 69 million materials, but still accounted for 60.8 million items checked out.

Program attendance at branches in all three systems last year surpassed 2.5 million, while New York Public Library branches—libraries in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island—logged more than 14 million visits. The Brooklyn Public Library system recorded nearly 300,000 wireless sessions in FY13, nearly triple the number recorded three years before, and issued more than 167,000 new library cards, while the Queens library also topped 100,000 in new cards issued.

*    *    *    *
Program attendance, system-wide

Source: MMR
*    *    *    *

Far from being replaced by the Internet and e-books, the CUF report established that libraries are more important than ever in the digital age, an essential institution helping to bridge the city's digital divide and enable people from every demographic to develop skills and resources they need to navigate an information-based economy. Along with access to computers and the Internet, the library branches offer job search and resume-writing workshops; early literacy, English language, GED and citizenship classes; and other programs vital to education, employment and survival for people who may not find those needs met anywhere else.

Robust demand is visible as libraries have expanded their uses and embraced a new role as community hubs. Once seen as repositories for books and quiet spaces for reading, libraries bustle with programs each week, from toddler story times to open-mic nights, poetry readings for speakers of various languages, knitting and crochet groups, storytelling workshops, movie screenings aimed at teens and seniors and homework help sessions for schoolchildren.

*    *    *    *
Find your branch
If you haven't visited recently,
stop by your neighborhood library branch to see this story for yourself.
Search for locations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island.

*    *    *    *

When the new Mariners Harbor branch opened in Staten Island in December, city probation officers attended the grand opening, saying they planned to introduce their charges to its computers and programs. The library, which was built after a decades-long push by residents for a branch they could walk to, now gets two requests a day from community groups to use its community room, says branch manager Elizabete Pata. "That just goes to show you how coveted that space is," she says.

Pata sees teenagers clustered around the branch's Apple computers (it is only the second NYPL branch to have them) and its lounge-style seating, but many are also avid readers, she says. "We're getting to know everyone by name. We have literally had this one girl"–Pata thinks she is a third grader from nearby P.S. 44—"come in every day," on her own. "It's already more of a community center, in that aspect, just a safe place for kids to come after school."

"No other institution is more accessible to people," said City Councilmember Vincent Gentile, who has served as chair of the Council's libraries committee, in an interview. "It's the perfect system we can use to appeal to different constituencies across the board, whether it's businessmen, or children, or boomers who want to start a new career, seniors, or someone looking to learn a new language. And it's for free."

Much of libraries' value rests in the "across the board openness of the resource," observes Katya Schapiro, children's librarian at Brooklyn's' Bay Ridge branch. "It's a really rare thing," she says. "Everybody can walk in. Everybody gets the same service."

Resources lag demand

Despite the growth in demand, city spending on libraries has decreased in recent years, with annual budget cuts bringing city funding down by nearly 20 percent system-wide since FY09.

*    *    *    *
Share of Brooklyn branches open six days a week

Source: MMR
*    *    *    *

Budget reductions caused staffing at libraries to drop by a similar percentage, from 4,500 employees in FY09 ago to some 3,800 last year. Days of service have been cut and hours trimmed from the days left. Five years ago, every branch in Brooklyn and Queens was open six days a week; last year only a half of those in Brooklyn and a third of libraries in Queens had six-day service.

The annual "budget dance" in which the Bloomberg administration proposed vast cuts to the libraries' budgets—$106 million last year—forced systems to forgo long-term planning and instead forecast multiple "contingency" scenarios for hour and staff reductions while they waited to learn how much funding City Council members could restore.

"The largest cut in the budget every year happened to be the libraries, and it was always the biggest lift to get the money back," Gentile said. Last year, for the first time since 2008, the Council restored the total amount of the proposed cut.

Repeated cuts also meant staff and administration scrambled to devote time and energy to advocacy campaigns pressing for funding restoration, and to accommodate a "do more with less" mandate in every aspect of library operations.

"Right now the library is not hiring from the outside," says Gary Behary, program manager at the Flushing Adult Learning Center, which runs the branch's English for Speakers of Other Languages and other programs. "We've had our book budget cut the last few years, and the past couple of years we've had page and TA [staff who put books back on shelves and teacher's aides] cut. We're trying to use volunteers to fill those gaps, but it has been difficult."   

"We really are operating at a bare-bones budget for the most part," says Mariners Harbor manager Pata, who previously worked at Staten Island's South Beach branch. "Everything we do is very frugally budgeted—the crafts for kids; the training we do is in-house. The library staff wears a lot of hats."

Constraints felt

At libraries around the city, the tension between increased demand for services and recent history of tightened belts can be felt not just in shorter hours and fewer days of service but also in long waits for computers, lotteries for classes and slow Internet connections.   

"They're terrible," John Pawson, 67, a retired attorney, says of the hours at the Bay Ridge branch he otherwise praises for "absolutely terrific" services. "They're short hours Saturday and they're closed Sunday. I think the public would be better served if they had extended hours."

*    *    *    *
Your turn
Tell us about your recent experiences with the city's library system.
Do libraries still matter to you?

*    *    *    *

When Solomon visits Eastern Parkway, he registers for a computer session and settles down to read a newspaper. With a handful of computers reserved for adults, typically an hour passes, "sometimes an hour and fifteen minutes, depends on how crowded it is," before he gets his thirty minutes on a machine.

"One or two more computers" at the branch would help, he believes. "I think it would be better if they could have at least six," he says. "That way the wait time wouldn't be so long."

There are some 600 spots in a given year in the English language programs at the Flushing Adult Learning Center, but "demand is ten times that," says program manager Behary. When Nuanna Has, 46, a recent immigrant from Thailand, stopped by the center hoping to enroll, library staff helped her register for a lottery which is held every three months to select students; those who don't get in are referred to other programs. Susan Li, 43, who emigrated from China twelve years ago and has been a stay-at-home mother, is among the lucky ones. Recently she sat at a table in the center reading book on Sojourner Turth, her "own interest," not a class assignment. "I need to work, so I need to speak English," she says. "When I have free time, I come here to study by myself."

When Bay Ridge branch manager Kim Grad notes that her busy branch "has only so much bandwidth," she isn't speaking metaphorically. With an aging Internet infrastructure, "Literally, our computers run rather slow at times." The recent tripling of wireless sessions throughout branches in Brooklyn has contributed to that toll.

"With all of the increased demand for Internet services, it seems like the bandwidth is struggling," she says. "It takes longer to upload things…It slows down in general the work of the building."

Push for funding

As the library systems await the first preliminary budget from the new de Blasio administration, advocates for libraries are pushing for funding hikes and increased public investment, particularly to restore hours and days of service, and capital funding for long-range planning. Library hours, which average some 43 per week in Brooklyn, 46 per week at NYPL branches and 39 hours a week in Queens, could be increased to an average of 50 hours citywide with an additional $50 million in city funding; 60 hours of service could be achieved with $100 million, according to Julie Sandorf, president of the Charles H. Revson Foundation, which funded the "Branches of Opportunity" report (as well as this story).

*    *    *    *
City library funding

Source: IBO. Adjusted for inflation.
*    *    *    *

"Our priority is to get funding back to be open six days a week," says Joanne King, spokeswoman for the Queens library. She notes that for the ESOL program, "We have every class filled every time we can schedule one. What we need is increased hours."

Councilmember Gentile said he intends to introduce legislation that would allocate 2.5 percent of property tax revenues to library funding, enabling the systems to "plan more than 10 or 12 months ahead." That so-called "steady funding" proposal also has support from library unions.

"We have a commitment in the City Council to keep library funding up and library doors open," Gentile said, a result, he said, of library committee public awareness campaigns to remind council members "of the value of libraries as a whole to the city but also to their individual districts."

The library systems, which are not city agencies but city-supported 501(c)3 non-profit organizations, can receive donations and philanthropic gifts. In December, the New York Public Library's website included a request for donations before year's end, and branch web pages at many locations contain calls for community members to organize "Friends of the Library" chapters. The New York Public website now features a petition drive asking patrons to "help continue this essential legacy by urging Mayor de Blasio and city leaders to support" the library with "enough city support" and "capital funding to update the infrastructure of our buildings."

"We're always going to have to do an advocacy campaign, I would imagine," says Pata, the Mariners Harbor manager. "But hopefully there will be a day when libraries don't have to explain why we're important and why we need funding."

*    *    *    *
Easy reading
Download a pdf version of this investigation.
*    *    *    *

This story launches an ongoing project looking at the potential for New York's libraries to fill a critical gap in our civic infrastructure, as well as the challenges and difficult choices the library systems face. It is supported by the Charles H. Revson Foundation.