Library presidents highlight services for migrants in appeal to avoid budget cuts

NYC’s public library systems staved off the latest round of budget cuts ordered by Mayor Eric Adams, but they still face cuts from a previous savings mandate.

New York Public Library President Tony Marx, Brooklyn Public Library President Linda Johnson and Queens Public Library President Dennis Walcott testify during a City Council hearing on library funding, on May 18, 2023.

New York Public Library President Tony Marx, Brooklyn Public Library President Linda Johnson and Queens Public Library President Dennis Walcott testify during a City Council hearing on library funding, on May 18, 2023. William Alatriste/NYC Council Media Unit

Librarians may not have the loudest voices in the room, but they’re not ones to go down without a fight.

The leaders of New York City’s three public library systems argued for reversing combined budget cuts of roughly $36 million in upcoming fiscal year 2024 at a City Council executive budget hearing on Thursday. 

The library leaders – Brooklyn Public Library President Linda Johnson, Queens Public Library President Dennis Walcott and New York Public Library President Tony Marx – found sympathetic ears and support from City Council members. The council’s Democratic majority has been critical of the mayor’s savings initiatives, and has often cited cuts to libraries as an example of the kinds of cuts the city can’t afford.

“$36 million, are you serious, mayor?” City Council Member Charles Barron, who has been especially critical of budget cuts, asked at one point. “$36 million out of a $106.7 billion budget, really?” (The question was rhetorical; Adams was not in the room.)

But despite making a successful case over the past few months for the educational, cultural and community value of libraries – leading Mayor Eric Adams’ administration to exempt libraries from the latest round of citywide 4% budget cuts in April – the libraries still face a $36.2 million budget reduction. That comes from a baseline cut of $20.5 million that was planned for Fiscal Year 2024 last fall, and the end of a one-time $15.7 million subsidy that the City Council provided through discretionary funding last year. In its response to the mayor’s preliminary budget in April, the council called for the executive budget to fund an additional $36.2 million to cover that combined loss, but the administration did not grant that funding. 

Asked about the push to fund an additional $36 million for libraries in the expense budget, a City Hall spokesperson pointed to the asylum-seeker crisis as one of the financial pressures that makes budget cuts necessary. “It’s easy to pretend the city has unlimited resources, but irresponsible spending puts New Yorkers at even greater risk,” the spokesperson said in an emailed comment. “This administration has made critical investments in the city’s three library systems and recognizes the vital role they play in our communities. We will continue to work with our libraries throughout the budget process to evaluate their needs, but, to be clear, the libraries were exempted from the January and April savings programs, and were asked to achieve savings without layoffs or services cuts in previous rounds.”

Of the many services that the libraries leaders said will be threatened without that funding, one category discussed at the hearing touched a topic that Adams himself has centered this week – the influx of asylum-seekers to New York City.

As Adams continues to call for state and federal help in providing shelter and services to newly arrived migrants, the presidents of the city’s three library systems highlighted their role in serving that population.

Libraries already offer programs that serve the larger immigrant population in New York – such as English as a Second Language classes, citizenship classes and signing people up for IDNYC cards – and the libraries’ leaders said that they have recently added outreach programs focused specifically on the tens of thousands of asylum-seekers who have arrived in the city over the past year. “We have staff that we have allocated especially to this effort to go visit the sites with asylum seekers to bring them news about the library and encourage them to come in, whether that be (for) the English language classes, our adult learning centers, our career coaching,” said Marx, president of the New York Public Library. “All of the programs that we have developed over these years working with the City Council, we're now targeting towards this particularly needy population. And we're proud to do it, as long as we have the resources to be able to.”

Walcott, president of the Queens Public Library, cited the “New Americans Program,” which offers services such as classes to prepare for the citizenship exam and career workshops in multiple languages. “It’s not just the services of IDNYC,” he said, referring to the identification cards available to all New Yorkers regardless of immigration status. “It's the services of libraries. Because once we have you, we want you to get in and take advantage of our full services.”

But the library presidents said they need the funding to staff these programs. Johnson, president of the Brooklyn Public Library, said that the library system had been beginning to rebound from the “great resignation,” hiring more staff to fill vacant positions, but said that budget cuts would stop that effort in its tracks. (It would also force the system to eliminate Saturday hours at 20% of its branches and the additional Sunday hours offered at 10 of its locations, she said.) “If we want to keep abreast and keep pace with the increase in the number of asylum-seekers that we're experiencing and that we are anticipating, we need to be fully staffed in order to do that,” Johnson said. “We just aren’t there yet, and we need the funds to do it.”

According to their testimony, the New York Public Library currently has 137 vacancies, the Brooklyn Public Library has 120 vacancies, and the Queens Public Library has 112 vacancies.

The public library systems have endowments and receive some revenue from private contributors. The New York Public Library’s endowment is by far the largest, with a market value of over $1.4 billion, according to a 2022 annual report. Private funding to the New York Public Library can be restricted by donors for certain purposes. A large chunk of the private funding that goes to the operating budget rather than endowment contributions is earmarked for funding the research libraries, a separate expense line from branch libraries. 

The bulk of all three library systems’ operating budgets come from city funds, with a smaller portion also coming from the state. 

A spokesperson for the Brooklyn Public Library said that private contributions make up about 8% of that system’s operating budget. “Private sources supplement the funding we get from the city and already primarily support supplemental educational, cultural and civic programming, including teen internships; parenting and early literacy classes; free performances by world-class artists; programming for small businesses and budding entrepreneurs; and services for older adults, recent immigrants and currently and formerly incarcerated patrons,” communications director Damaris Olivo wrote in an email.

The library systems and the City Council have also called on the administration to fund an additional $240 million in capital funds for libraries.

At the start of the hearing, a video played in the council chambers, featuring library staff and New Yorkers across the city speaking about the services they rely on from libraries. In one testimonial, a children’s librarian cited only as “Valerie,” said that just having books in Spanish makes a difference. “I have about six public schools that received asylum seeker families, and they brought them to the library to get library cards. And when they came, they were so excited that we had Spanish books,” she said. “And I was so excited they were excited about the Spanish books.”