There are thousands of books in the children's room at the High Bridge library, but it's hard not to notice the empty shelves. At one end of the room, where a colorful mural depicts the high arches of the nearby bridge connecting the Bronx and Manhattan and a dark green reading rug mimics a grassy hill beneath a wood and fabric tree, a bank of powder-grey metal bookshelves lines the walls, and more than half are empty. Only a few of the remaining shelves are over half full. Most contain short stacks of books and foot after foot of empty space, with an occasional title displayed facing outward.

Those shelves at High Bridge are more vacant than most, but recent budget cuts and rising circulation have made for slimmer pickings at many city libraries. Since 2002, citywide circulation has grown by nearly 60 percent, but over the last decade the number of books, periodicals and e-content materials available to circulate increased by a much smaller number – 16 percent in the New York Public Library system, which serves Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx. Though rates of circulation growth varied between the NYPL and the separate Queens and Brooklyn Public Library systems, all three systems have seen major cuts to their book budgets since 2009 even as the cost of materials continues to rise.

Each budget decrease "really affects the number of items you see on the shelf," says Charlene Rue, deputy director of collection management for BookOps, a new shared division of the New York and Brooklyn public libraries that oversees the acquisition and distribution of materials for both systems.

The branches have had holes in their stacks before—in the early 1990s, the NYPL's then-president Paul LeClerc warned of a "sclerosis of the collections" after several years when funding for books plunged but circulation grew after hours of operation, which had been cut to two or three days a week at many branches, were restored to five days.

But major new factors are at play now, including technologies that are changing the ways readers access books and altering how libraries acquire and manage their collections. Books are as important as ever to libraries and their patrons – a survey last year by the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project found 80 percent of Americans 16 and older consider borrowing books is a "very important" library service. But their place is evolving as they share physical space and funding with classes, community rooms, public programs and computers and other digital resources that also support libraries' broad literacy mission.

For many patrons of New York's libraries, getting any book in the library's holdings has never been easier. Others grumble about what they don't find on the shelves.

The half-full on half-empty

Emptier shelves are in part an indicator of libraries' success at getting people in the door and providing materials they want to check out. Gesille Dixon, who as library network manager oversees 16 branches in the Bronx, says she attributes the sparsely-filled shelves at High Bridge and similar ones at the Mott Haven branch to the introduction of a new after-school tutoring program in September. "Items are circulating," and as fast as they come in, they go out again, making it a challenge for staff to keep the shelves stocked, Dixon says.

Jenny Gomez, a teacher in an unaffiliated after-school program who spends hours at the Mott Haven branch each day with her students, has noticed a change since the tutoring program, an NYPL pilot, began.

"I see a lot more people grabbing books," she says. "They need them for their projects."

What's on the shelves matters to Gomez, who does all her reading at the library, where she can focus; at home her mother and two sisters usually have music playing or the television on. She doesn't check out books, and has never requested a book from a different branch library.

"I'm like the old-fashioned," says Gomez, who at 23 has been a regular at the branch for a decade. "I just look to see what kind of books I'm interested in and I read it."

The flip side of rising circulation in a time of reduced budgets is "[fewer] things are there for people to discover," says Christopher Platt, director of BookOps.

Not every branch is low on materials. Those near commercial or transit hubs, such as the New Utrecht and Dyker Heights branches in Brooklyn, or the main locations open on Sundays, like Bronx Central, tend to accumulate a surplus since they are a point for easy returns. "We have a lot of branches that are inundated with materials, says Dixon. Librarians throughout the system can "shop" for books by scouring the listings at these overstocked locations via the library's computers and have them delivered to their own branches, she says.

The libraries have what they call "floating collections," which allow books checked out at one branch to stay at the branch where they are returned, says Platt. The idea is that if one person in a community wanted to read a book, likely another will too. It's a way of "keeping shelves interesting to browse," he says.

Funds for buying new books in steep decline

Each of the city's three library systems differs in its capacity to fill its shelves. Queens has roughly 6.5 million print and digital circulation materials to fill its 62 locations. NYPL circulates roughly 5 million materials throughout 88 branches. BPL has some 3.5 million materials circulating across its 60 locations.

But for all three systems, money for new materials has been in steady and steep decline. As overall budgets for the libraries shrunk by 16 percent from fiscal year 2009 to fiscal year 2013, funds for books and digital materials were cut by more than half. QPL's materials budget was down 58 percent, from $9.65 million in '09 to $4.06 million in '13. For the current fiscal year, Brooklyn's materials budget dropped another $500,000 (or 7 percent ) from the previous year, to $6.2 million. NYPL projects it will spend about $15 million for materials this year.

"Materials is one of the very few items in our budget that the library has full discretion over, so when we have to ‘make ends meet,' that is a line that takes a hit," says Joanne King, spokeswoman for the Queens system. She says the materials budget is slated for an increase this year, to between $4.5 million and $5 million, but adds: "It could change."

Because acquisitions departments set aside funds for purchases throughout the year in line with publishers' release cycles, "unfortunately materials has the big pot still unspent" when the city imposes mid-year spending cuts, says Rue.

In 2011, in response to mid-year cuts, the Queens library bought no new books at all for six months. In an email, King explained: "Facing a choice between keeping the doors open at least five days a week or buying new books, the library made the radical decision to stop buying books altogether. The logic was that if we kept the doors open, we still had plenty of value to offer – important programs, millions of books already on the shelves and the library available after school. But if we had to close during the week, patrons couldn't access the books anyway AND they couldn't access all the rest of the valuable information, so nothing was gained."

Changes in book delivery

One response to city directives to save money was the creation of BookOps, which began operations last year. Based in Long Island City, BookOps manages the libraries' collections from "selection to shelf," by choosing, paying for and cataloguing new materials and by using an automated sorter and a fleet of trucks to ferry books in plastic totes to and from branches all over the city, day and night. So far, BookOps is on track to save a projected $3.5 million per year through shared services, bringing more book processing in-house and negotiating deeper discounts on bulk orders.

The automated sorter helps get a book that is available at one branch to a patron at another branch that does not have it, ideally, in under a week, though the wait can be much longer. Those inter-branch loans now account for between 17 and 20 percent of NYPL circulation, the library says. Twenty years ago, "If you wanted to borrow a book from another branch, you could physically go to it, or you could pay twenty-five cents and fill out a postcard and hope and dream and pray it would come in the next six months," says Platt. "Today things have changed so dramatically….it's effectively less than two business days to get an item from the north Bronx to the south end of Staten Island…It allows us to be more strategic about how many books we buy."

Budget cuts also spurred the libraries to manage their collections more intensely, capturing data about circulation in monthly snapshots that help library staff see trends and make purchasing and distribution decisions based on what's popular at a given branch. Rather than buy multiple copies of a bestselling author's newest book for nearly 150 branches, BookOps looks to see where that author's books have circulated well in the past, putting fewer copies in branches where the writer's work has been less popular. The library also waits to see how a book is faring before buying extra copies, Platt says.

"We've gone from ‘just in case' to ‘just in time,'" says Platt.

The availability and speed of inter-branch loans is working well for patrons like Markisha Brown, 37, a nurse practitioner who brought her three children to the Todt-Hill location on Staten Island weekly to get books for homework projects and leisure reading until the new Mariner's Harbor branch opened near their home.

"Getting a book was never an issue if they did not have a book," says Brown. The longest they ever waited for a book from another branch was three days – if the projected wait was any longer, she told her children to "find another book."

But while Chana Kozliner, 40, a stay-at-home mother of six, uses the Internet to request books from the Brooklyn Public Library, she wishes she didn't have to. She lives three blocks from the Eastern Parkway branch in Crown Heights, and visits it regularly, but only to pick up and return books she has ordered from other branches online. Popular children's series like Diary of a Wimpy Kid and the Magic Treehouse are never available on the shelves there, she says.

"I don't remember a time when I went to the library and I wanted a certain book and they had it," she says.

Neither are books she expects a library would have: classic parenting books, nature DVDs, titles on Jewish topics. Along with her steady stream of inter-branch loans, she relies on thrift stores for children's books and a neighbor's basement lending library for books on Jewish themes.

"I'd like to have a library where you get to see the new authors and new titles and bestsellers that came in," she says. "Here it's not a browsing library."

Off the shelf: E-content

Libraries are buying books in new formats – large print, audio and e-books along with traditional hardcovers. But while the libraries are experiencing steady growth in the circulation of downloadable e-books and audiobooks, which are stored on servers rather than shelves, e-materials account for only a small percentage of total circulation.

NYPL circulation is split almost 50-50 between print materials and digital holdings like DVDs and e-books, says Platt. The system's nearly 200,000 items of e-content, which includes e-books, music, and movies, make up nearly four percent of circulation, according to the library. Print is a much bigger part of BPL circulation – 80 percent, versus 20 percent digital, with three percent of total circulation coming from e-books. Circulation of e-content –digital books, music, and magazines—is a tiny share of QPL's circulation, says Kelvin Watson, who is responsible for all print and digital content and heads the technical services department there. It was roughly 3.5 percent in December 2013, but that portion is quickly growing, up 40 percent from the same month the previous year, Watson says. E-content is projected to account for between six and seven percent of funds spent on new materials this year, King says.

In the past year publishers like Simon & Schuster and Macmillan struck deals to allow the libraries to offer e-book versions of titles they published for check-out. As part of that deal, Watson says, the libraries agreed to include the option to buy an e-book through its website; the libraries get a percentage of each resulting sale. The library's vendor contract prohibits disclosure of details, but the amount raised so far is "minimal at this point," says spokeswoman King.

Bestsellers drive demand beyond supply

Patron demand for popular titles exceeds the level of book-buying that's possible given reduced budgets, says BookOps' Rue.

"We have a usership that likes the new," she says. "Most of our circulation is based on new materials" – the latest titles being talked about and reviewed in newspapers and magazines. "It does keep pressure on the budget."

When Rue herself wanted to read Kate Atkinson's critically-acclaimed 2013 novel "Life After Life," she learned she was 191st in line for one of the library's copies. BookOps tracks the ratio of holds on a title to the number of copies in the system – every three to five holds is supposed to spur the purchase of another copy of a book. "You're buying more copies so at least customers don't get discouraged," she says.

"When I see when those ratios aren't keeping up, I ask the staff, 'What's the problem – is there not enough money?' Unfortunately, your budgets don't expand with every new title that comes out."

"You're hearing about books three or four months before street date," says Rue. "You're wondering, 'Is it really going to be as popular as they say?' But you have that finite budget, and you have a buying plan."

Books support programming and different demographics

QPL's Watson was scheduled to fly to India this month to buy as much content in Bengali and other languages as he could to serve some of the large immigrant communities in Queens. The trip was rescheduled, but he says the library attempts to buy international physical and electronic content whenever possible, balancing general collections with titles geared to different neighborhoods. "Whatever the mix is of the community, we've got to focus and provide content in those languages," he says. Along with offerings in English, QPL's holdings include French and Spanish e-books for children and thousands of e-books and magazines in Chinese.

Books support rising programming and attendance, from early literacy story times to adult literacy classes. Library holdings include translation dictionaries in dozens of languages, books on American culture for immigrants learning about their adopted home, and preparation books for citizenship and other tests.

Many branches lack a full range of classic novels. As City Limits reported in 2012, six branches in low-income neighborhoods in Brooklyn did not have most of the fifty titles generally regarded as essential reading or most books on a list of best African-American books of the 20th century. However, since the Common Core curriculum now in use in city schools emphasizes the use of non-fiction books over textbooks, libraries are building what Rue calls "assignment collections," works grouped for school-aged children. Similar collections for college students and adults reside at the Central Library in Brooklyn, Rue says.

Gaps not only on the shelves

With 80 percent of circulation coming from checking out books available at a branch, patrons are still finding a lot to read. But a gap exists between the new directions technical services departments have headed in and the experience of readers in the branches. Several patrons interviewed who spend hours in their local libraries each week said they did not know they could order books from other branches.

Joseph Carrillo, 18, a high school senior on Staten Island, visits the Port Richmond library with friends several times a week, and says he occasionally finds some of the adventure books he likes on the shelves there. But rather than order titles he can't find from another branch – a service Carrillo says he did not know about – Carrillo signed up for an online book borrowing service, Booksfree.com, which charges about $10 a month to ship paperbacks to users. He recently ordered the bestselling novel "The Hunger Games." "They sent it to me and they don't care how long you keep it, and you can return it," he says. The service "has everything you want and it has all the books, but the libraries, they don't have anything."

Gomez says she knows the Mott Haven librarians can "call important people" to request books from other branches, and was touched that a staff member had a Diary of a Wimpy Kid book delivered for one of her students, but her general faith in books and skepticism of information on the Internet means she's unlikely to order books for herself online.

A fan of mysteries and "true story books," such as biographies of Malcolm X and Rosa Parks, Gomez recently read "Chicken Soup for the Soul".

"I was really interested because it was real people like that, telling us a story about their life. I almost cried at the end because…I felt sorry for the people and the way they struggle, but they're ok. They struggle but they're happy about it."

She reads partly because "I want to prove to my students that it's good to read…I get so upset with them when their teachers tell me that they're not interested in reading a book," she says.   

This story continues 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.