To The Stacks!

So once again the mayor’s budget picks a fight with the libraries. The budget has no revenue increase of course, just cuts, $96 million worth of them for libraries. Once again we are looking at hundreds of jobs on the table. Once again, for the third year in a row, hundreds of library staff will get pink slips and hope that they are revoked. Once again we are looking at scores of library closures with 2-3 day a week service across the city. Once again we are tooling up for another bare knuckle advocacy season.


That last bit is the interesting bit in the equation, the one bit that is not simple rote repetition. We know how this works now and we are getting to be good at it. Every time the mayor cuts us we get that much better at pushing back at it. Sure the cuts on the table are deeper than ever but we already have plans afoot unlike anything we have ever done. Big cuts mean big responses. As we get squeezed we push back. Last year we got historic restorations, this year we just have to make bigger history.
Let’s take a look at the charts. Do you see a trend? Every year we get these huge cuts proposed and rail back and get most of them restored to us. The trend is still down though, down…down…down. At the same time usage is up, up…up…up. Libraries are busier than ever. They are doing more things than ever before. They offer job readiness training, ESOL, job search help, technology training, arts programs, small business resources, literacy training, stuff for little kids, all for free.

Why is that important, that free part? Our detractors suggest that in these hard times everyone needs to tighten their belts. The reality is that our institutions have been doing more for less for years. Our staff knows about tightening their belts personally, you don’t go into public libraries looking to get rich. Our patrons know alllll about tightening their belts. Some of them are out of work, others might be trying to squeak by with less or are scrambling to take care of their families even if they have work. Is it really so much to ask for them to be able to read a decent book and be treated with some dignity?This all gets terribly upsetting. In the mayor’s budget office this must seem quite abstract, it is all too evident to us on the ground in libraries. It is crystal clear for us. This is science, library science. Let’s look at the problem. Libraries are currently running stretched. The loss of even half the proposed cut would result in hundreds of job losses. After three years of attrition the library systems will not be able to absorb these cuts. Libraries will be closed, the doors locked, the books on the shelves, deserted, which seems silently sad. Most neighborhood libraries will be open only 2-3 days a week. From there the trajectory is pretty clear. Closed libraries limit access. Limited access restricts use. Lowered use loses patrons. When patrons get out of the habit of easily using the library they forget about the library. They stop going to the library less people will care when the next round of cuts comes up and so it goes on.

Which brings us back to the question of why libraries are important. There is a contract that libraries make with the fabric of society. When you are broke you can still learn. If you need to get reliable information that you are embarrassed by you can find it with ironclad privacy. If your kid has a last minute report then somebody will help them. None of that costs anybody anything. That is so pure and beautiful.

Our society has an institution built into it which gives people entertainment, education, privacy, and respect. It speaks to a higher concept of who we are as a people. It speaks to civilization. It speaks to the potential promise of our citizenry. It speaks to hope.

So that is what is at stake, civilization. Civility is at stake, civility and hope for the betterment of ourselves as a people. It speaks to a society which maybe cares about stuff other than the bottom line. It speaks to culture and art and free access to both of them. It speaks to a small oasis in the public sphere where you can find some quiet and respect. That is what is at stake, that is what is going to be lost across the city when those doors close.

Good thing you are around. Yeah, that’s right, you. You are going to help us and it is going to make a really big difference, so thank you in advance. Maybe you aren’t sure of just how to help or where to start. Maybe you already have some big ideas for us. It is pretty easy to get in touch, just click the buttons, you know how to work the web. You are going to make a difference, you really are. Together we can have a lot of fun with this even while we are kicking up just all kinds of fuss and noise. We need you. If you love the library, if you work in a library, if you know someone who works in a library or is in library school, if you are looking at a pink slip, hell if you have ever used a public library in New York City please help us. Lots of whispers can make one hell of a roar.

We Will Not Be Shushed!