Featherstone: Donations and late fines are no way to fund the libraries
'There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office not wealth receives the slightest consideration," wrote early-20th century American steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.
This is still true. Yet every year, funding for all three of New York City's library systems -- New York (Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island), Brooklyn and Queens -- is imperiled.
It's an annual ritual. The city threatens the libraries with crippling cuts. Then follows an intense period of anxiety and political agitation for library employees and communities, after which some of the funding is restored and local politicians look like heroes for "saving" the libraries. Perhaps you've signed those petitions, some generated by the libraries themselves, others by concerned citizens and librarians' organizations. But in the years since the 2008 financial crisis, the budget dance has been not merely a sadistic performance, but rather a public bloodletting. More of the cuts have remained. Overall, since fiscal year 2009, library funding is down $67 million, or 22.1 percent, according to District Council 37, the union that represents library workers.
As a result, the city's public libraries have essentially become private nonprofit organizations, dependent on donations and the largesse of rich people. Compared with other urban library systems around the country, New York City's receive a smaller local government contribution per capita. As a result, many branches are understaffed, and open fewer hours even than libraries in fiscal disaster zones like Detroit.
Meanwhile, demand for library services has increased. Circulation is up nearly 60 percent over the past decade, while the number of people attending library programs has gone up 40 percent.
Fortunately, there's a potential solution. A bill proposed by DC 37 and introduced last week by City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) would dedicate 2.5 percent of the city's property tax revenue each year to library operation and maintenance. This could end the time-wasting and stressful budget jousting, and enable libraries to better serve the public.
Capitalist Andrew Carnegie wasn't exactly a softhearted progressive. But he was right about the libraries.
Liza Featherstone lives and writes in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.