Right after I got hired by my library, I went to my first big library staff meeting. Another hire and I were introduced to the other librarians and there was applause. “See?” the presenter said, “We hire new people sometimes!” Cue the nervous laughter. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I later came to realize that our system wasn’t going to be hiring any new librarians in the near future. This other librarian and I were the last two full time (non-grant funded) librarian hires. That was almost four years ago. Now, my system has over 200 library worker vacancies that we can’t afford to fill. And that’s just in my borough alone. People who graduated from library school just several months after I did, regardless of how talented or smart or deserving they were, could not find a public service library job in NYC. If I had waited another semester to graduate, I might still be unemployed to this very day.
Since the moment I got my job, the city has threatened to take it away. I have never been employed as a NYC librarian without the threat of layoffs dangling over my head. One summer, I was even served a pink slip notice (90 days until job termination), along with hundreds of my coworkers. It was eventually redacted, but I spent the summer with a fake smile plastered on my face, doing storytime and reference work like everything was OK. I was touting the benefits of Summer Reading to kids one minute and crying in the bathroom the next. I spent a lot of time wondering what was going to happen when they laid me off at the end of the summer. That summer was awful, but the truth is, NYC librarians go through this kind of mess every 6 months or so.
NYC libraries are so very short staffed. Because of this, some of our libraries have terrible operating hours (you’ll find some libraries in NYC that are only open from 2-7 PM). Many of us aren’t open on Saturdays. Most of us aren’t open on Sundays. NYC library workers have been running on empty for a long, long time. Maybe our tiny budgets and skeleton staffs wouldn’t matter if it weren’t for the incredibly high demand for library services in NYC. The truth is, the worse the economy is, the busier the library becomes. The crowds start gathering early in the morning before we even open. There’s always a line to use the computers. We turn people away from storytime because we simply don’t have the space to accommodate them all. Even general seating fills up fast, especially after 3 PM when the kids get out of school.
It’s peculiar that public libraries don’t get a lot of support from city funding, as NY-ers clearly need the assistance of libraries (all of the following facts and statistics come from the testimonies of the three library systems’ presidents):
- In FY 2011, the city’s public library branches greeted over 40.5 million visitors, or more than all of the city’s professional sports teams and major cultural institutions combined.
- Over the past decade, our libraries have experienced a 24% increase in program sessions, a 40% increase in program attendance and an incredible 59% increase in circulation.
- In FY 2012, attendance at all after-school and out-of-school programming at public libraries exceeded 1.1 million.
- At NYPL (New York Public Library), during recent registration events for the spring English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) class cycle, for every one student who secured a seat, two could not be accommodated. That’s almost 3,000 applicants.
- And not to boast, but I will, but my library ALONE had 73,000 people attend our programs last year. That’s the highest in the city. No big deal (source).
Times are tough and people need their libraries more than ever. We are really, really trying to be a positive force in this city. Despite budget cuts. Despite poor staffing. This is what librarians do. We’re here to help.
Why am I rambling on and on like this? Because our city’s preliminary budget has been released, and the proposed cut for libraries is beyond belief. I’m talking a $106.7 million cut to New York City’s libraries. Large numbers like that tend to only make sense to me in an abstract manner, so let me break it down for you. A cut this size would mean that 1,445 library workers would be laid off and at least 66 NYC libraries would be closed. Considering everything that libraries do, that’s 66 community centers, life-lines, early childhood literacy centers, senior centers, cultural institutions, homework help stations, cooling centers, warming stations, job assistance facilities, computer access points, free Wi-Fi providers, not to mention a vital source of free access to books and information: CLOSED. SHUTTERED. USELESS. WASTING SPACE.
Oh, and the libraries left behind? Well considering that they’d be functioning on a less than skeletal staff (I don’t know what term you’d use to describe that. Bone marrow staff?), their hours of service would be drastically reduced: “Today, the average library in New York City is open about 44 hours per week. This proposal would bring that average down to a dismal 22 hours per week. This is certainly not sufficient to serve working families and students.” (source)
I became a librarian for two reasons: 1) I wanted a secure job where I could become independent and take care of myself and 2) I wanted to help others. It’s not enough for me to simply get a pay check. If I get laid off, well, independence is out the window. I’ll be dependent on unemployment checks and even more ramen noodles than I’m consuming now. If I get laid off, I’m sure I’ll still be doing volunteer work, but I won’t be making the same kind of contribution to my community as I am when I am working with the library and its resources. Librarians want to help NY-ers, but it would help if we were actually employed by the library.
It’s not just about me and my job, though the prospect of being unemployed in this economic climate scares the bejesus out of me. It’s about taking care of NY-ers and being a reliable resource for their needs. If the library is their life-line and we take that away, what will be left?
So, here’s the deal: if you care about New York, if you care about libraries, if you care about teens and toddlers and immigrants and parents and jobseekers and seniors and schools and literacy and serving the under-served and the digital divide and books and literature and culture, then you should be really worked up about these budget cuts. You should be spitting mad. You should be emailing Mayor Mike Bloomberg right now. Seriously. Mega-Library Advocate Marilyn Johnson suggests categorizing your message under “Quality of Life”. You don’t need to be a New York resident or a librarian to tell our Mayor that libraries are essential.
TL;DR? The economy sucks, New Yorkers need their libraries, and libraries need funding. You can help. Send Mayor Mike Bloomberg a message today.
~Love and Long Live Libraries, Ingrid