Library leaders warn of branch closures if mayor’s budget cuts aren’t reversed

The presidents of the New York Public Library, Brooklyn Public Library and Queens Public Library said the planned $58.3 million budget cut would lead to severe staff shortages.

New York Public Library president Tony Marx (left), Brooklyn Public Library president Linda Johnson (center) and Queens Public Library president Dennis Walcott testify at a City Council budget hearing on May 21, 2024.

New York Public Library president Tony Marx (left), Brooklyn Public Library president Linda Johnson (center) and Queens Public Library president Dennis Walcott testify at a City Council budget hearing on May 21, 2024. Emil Cohen/NYC Council Media Unit

New York City’s top librarians are imploring Mayor Eric Adams to revisit their books.

At a City Council hearing on Tuesday, the heads of the city’s three library systems – the New York, Brooklyn and Queens public libraries – laid out in stark terms the dire state of the systems’ finances. 

After weeks of city agency testimony, Adams and the City Council will soon enter the final stages of negotiation over the mayor’s $111.6 billion executive budget proposal, which includes a $58.3 million cut to library funding. If that funding is not restored and made the baseline for future years, the library leaders warned, New Yorkers will see a major drop in services at a time when branch visits, program attendance and library card registrations are all increasing. The city’s fiscal year begins July 1.

“Libraries have not faced cuts of this severity since the years following the 2008 financial crisis. If the executive budget passes as proposed, the city will be turning back a decade of diligent progress,” said Linda Johnson, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Public Library.

During a joint hearing by the City Council’s Committee on Finance and the Committee on Cultural Affairs, Libraries and International Intergroup Relations, the heads of the three systems said they would need roughly $19 million on top of the restored funding in order to to meet their current fiscal needs, which have grown with inflation and the pandemic-era expansion of their mission into digital services.

“The fact that the executive budget didn’t make any restoration means that the conversation that we’re having today is about getting back to where we’ve been but not actually getting to where we need to be,” Johnson said.

The library leaders said that a majority of branches will be forced to cut another day of service, leaving them operating only five days a week. Sunday hours were removed following a round of belt-tightening in November. They said the proposed cuts would also lead to significant reductions in literacy, citizenship, youth and senior services, including visits to children's hospitals and nursing homes.

The Brooklyn Public Library is facing a cut of $16.2 million (roughly 13% of its overall operating budget). Johnson said that would force the library to reduce young adult literacy programs, citizenship classes and senior center visits by at least half and to eliminate 146 vacant positions in sorely needed public-facing roles.

The three library presidents said that the planned funding reductions will cause staffing shortages that could exacerbate unplanned branch closures and delay the opening of newly renovated branches, while postponements in capital funding could further undermine the systems’ physical infrastructure. 

Tony Marx, president of the New York Public Library, said that his library system has already had to close 69 branches due to short staffing and another 29 branches due to emergency maintenance needs.

“How can we plan, how can we deliver with this constant state of budget instability? This is no way to run a railroad or a city or the greatest library systems in the country,” Marx said. 

Cutting funding to public libraries is so unpopular that some observers suspect it’s merely a negotiating ploy on Mayor Adams’ part. But City Council Finance Chair Justin Brannan told City & State that he does not believe that is the case. He said that Adams’ approach to budget negotiations differs from that of his predecessors, who practiced a kind of brinksmanship that often led to compromises that kept essential services intact even after cuts were threatened.

“With this administration, we have no reason to believe that this is a budget dance,” Brannan said. “We think that if we don’t show how important these services are, that they could be cut.”

Asked about the looming cuts at an unrelated press conference, Deputy Mayor Maria Torres-Springer said that the Adams administration was “100% committed to libraries,” having shielded them from previous rounds of cuts impacting city agencies and invested $15 million in the libraries’ teen centers. “It's an ongoing conversation but we want to make sure we're doing the right thing both in terms of fiscal stewardship and supporting our amazing libraries,” she said of budget negotiations.