Cuts would be a horrible chapter for our libraries

By Henry Chang

I first discovered the New York Public Library as a grade school kid, going on class trips to the local Chinatown branches at Chatham Square and Seward Park. I discovered a world of books, mysteries and magazines, and was thrilled to get my first library card so I could bring material home to read.

Those class trips fostered a love of reading and discovery that undoubtedly has manifested itself in the books I’m writing now.

My father, who was an avid newspaper reader, would buy his favorite Chinese newspaper at his favorite Chinatown newsstand, and then, after reading it at home, would go to the library and scan the other Chinese newspaper for free. Whenever he brought me along, I was happy to find books and magazines about sports, science and American popular culture. I remember Popular Mechanics, Detective Mystery and Life magazine. 

I was a college student when I wrote the vignettes that were to become “Chinatown Beat,” my first novel, at the Chatham Square branch. This local branch was nearby, and convenient enough, but when I discovered the great resources it had to offer on China, and the Chinese in America, my entire literary perspective expanded.

The library was an oasis, a calm environment away from the hustle and unrelenting flow of the city. Eventually, I’d also have to visit the Donnell Library, and the 42 Street building, for microfiche and more in-depth research for my second book, “Year of the Dog.” My protagonist, Chinese-American N.Y.P.D. Detective Jack Yu, doesn’t only take us on a tour of the Chinatown underbelly, but also brings a deeper understanding of the lives of ordinary immigrants trying to make their way in America. The library helped me to render this perspective.

Currently, my teenage son frequents the local branches, where students can go online for research, and where there are programs that explore the multicultural aspects of the community at large. 

The Chatham Square branch is probably one of the most overutilized in the New York Public Library system. On a typical day, you will see a bustling full house of senior citizens checking international news, schoolchildren on an outing, working mothers returning educational DVD’s, immigrants surfing the Internet, the unemployed scanning for jobs. Everywhere you look, there are students working on homework assignments, area residents receiving career counseling, and smaller children benefiting from after-school programs that provide a safe learning environment.

The library is clearly a vital part of the social fabric of the community, and the city at large.

But the New York Public Library is facing a proposed $37 million funding cut, the harshest in its history. According to N.Y.P.L., the cuts would eliminate 736 staff positions, close branches, reduce days libraries are open, reduce opportunities for career counseling, job and business classes, voter registration, children’s programs and computer time. In addition, 5.7 million fewer books will be circulated. There will be hundreds of thousands of fewer visits by children to the libraries, its classes and programs, and thousands fewer slots to attend career counseling and job classes. Computer sessions will be reduced by 2 million.

At a time when New Yorkers have been using the libraries in record numbers, with 18.4 million visits each year (and 29 million visits to NYPL.org), enrollment in 41,000 programs and classes, 50 million books and materials circulated (including thousands of books that are loaned to nursing homes and senior centers), the city’s proposed budget reduction will hurt those who need help the most. The draconian cuts will more negatively impact those neighborhoods that are demographically poorer, less educated and less fluent in English.

The people who will be impacted the most, of course, are those who will lose their jobs, but there are also the seniors who deserve the resources of the N.Y.P.L. the most, the schoolchildren who are our future, who need the programs the most, the unemployed, who need job counseling and the Internet to survive, and students on all levels, who need quiet academic environments to succeed.

New York City is very multicultural now, and it’s precisely that aspect which will propel the city to new and greater heights in the global economic future. The library system — the N.Y.P.L. — is a critical part of that future.

The library gave my father hope.

The library helped me to write three novels, and now the library provides my son with an expanded vision of what it means to be a New Yorker, and a Chinese American.

The library is where hope resides and where dreams begin. Please don’t cut us off.

EVERYONE needs the N.Y.P.L. 

For more on the writer, see Chinatowntrilogy.com