In Win for Advocates, New York City Libraries Secure $33 Million Funding for FY20

On June 14, Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York City Council reached an early agreement on the FY20 executive budget that included $33 million in additional funds for the city’s three library systems—Brooklyn Public Library, New York Public Library, and Queens Public Library—after they joined forces on a citywide advocacy campaign pushing back against more than $11 million in proposed cuts.

politician with signs and people standing behind
City Council member Jimmy Van Bramer (c.) at executive budget hearing in May. Library directors behind him, l.-r.: Tony Marx (NYPL), Dennis Walcott (QPL), Linda Johnson (BPL)
Photo credit: Jonathan Blanc / NYPL

On June 14, Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York City Council reached an early agreement on the FY20 executive budget that included $33 million in additional funds for the city’s three library systems—Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), New York Public Library (NYPL), and Queens Public Library (QPL)—after they joined forces on a citywide advocacy campaign pushing back against more than $11 million in proposed cuts.

The $92.8 billion city budget, announced by de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson (D-Manhattan), will also place 285 new social workers in public schools, boost the city’s General Reserve fund by $150 million, allocate $43 million for parks, and set aside $40 million for a program to increase participation in the 2020 federal census, among other priorities.

The three library systems had originally requested an increase of $35 million from the city to cover increases in hours, programming, and library footprints implemented in the past year, as well as $963 million over ten years as part of the city’s Ten-Year Capital Strategy to help with ongoing maintenance of branches across the city that are in need of new roofs, boilers, air conditioners, and other structural repairs. When the mayor announced his proposed executive budget on April 25, however, it allocated about $11.7 million less than the previous year’s funding—leaving advocates fearing for the loss of hard-won gains, particularly weekend service and expanded footprints, as well as concern about viable support for libraries’ potential role in the upcoming census.

City libraries immediately moved into high advocacy gear. The three systems created a joint online initiative, #InvestInLibraries, which called on New Yorkers to write, call, email, and sign online petitions in support of their libraries. They responded with more than 100,000 letters, virtual sticky notes, calls, and tweets.

The libraries also released results from a survey of more than 1,000 New Yorkers on their perceptions about libraries , conducted by public opinion polling firm Change Research. Among the findings: 95 percent of citywide respondents believed that their communities would be impacted by a loss of libraries, and 65 percent stated they would have limited access to books and the Internet. In addition, 95 percent agreed that libraries further many important initiatives for New York City. “This poll reinforces what we already know to be true, that our public libraries are indispensable to our communities,” New York City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, chair of the Cultural Affairs, Libraries, and International Intergroup Relations Committee, said in a statement.

Van Bramer, a longtime champion of local libraries, was joined in his support by Speaker Johnson and Finance Chair Danny Dromm on many occasions. “We're very lucky to have leadership who understands the importance of investing in libraries, both on the programmatic side as well as in the infrastructure and what it means for communities,” QPL President and CEO Dennis Walcott told LJ.

man reading to children outside
City Council Speaker Corey Johnson at Toddler Story Time at City Hall
Photo credit: Jonathan Blanc / NYPL

New York’s youngest stakeholders were included in the councilmembers’ efforts as well. At a May 29 toddler story time advocacy event on the steps of City Hall—held to publicize the kinds of early literacy programs that would have been put at risk if the proposed budget cuts had gone through—Johnson, joined by Christian Zabriskie, executive director of advocacy group Urban Librarians Unite (and a 2012 LJ Mover & Shaker), read Too Many Carrots by Katy Hudson, to a crowd of about 50 children and their caregivers.

“City leadership increasingly understands that libraries can't be taken for granted,” NYPL President and CEO Tony Marx told LJ. “They are essential, and a great tool for our city leaders to be able to—at relatively small investments, given everything else they have to pay for—have a major impact on people’s lives, especially those most in need.”

“Libraries play a crucial role in every neighborhood,” said BPL President and CEO Linda E. Johnson in a statement. “We are especially grateful to Mayor de Blasio, and…the entire City Council for their continuing support. Together, New York City’s elected leaders are ensuring that when New Yorkers visit their libraries, they will continue to find a home for self-improvement, an engine for civic engagement, and a pillar of inclusion for all.”

A number of prominent New Yorkers also lent their voices to the cause, including radio host Angela Yee, author Jennifer Egan, and musician David Byrne. Actor Sarah Jessica Parker, a regular user of NYPL’s Jefferson Market branch, contributed a guest post to the library’s website. “I couldn't help but wonder,” she wrote, “could I as a New Yorker accept cuts to our wonderful, important, necessary, and beloved libraries? I'm sorry. I can't.”

But perhaps the most important advocates in this year’s push for library funding were the residents of New York. “The public rallied,” said Marx. “We got 120,000 letters, 5,000 sticky notes...everybody speaking out.”

“We have a smart constituency base,” noted Walcott, “and the community was outstanding. I live in the borough, and there was a high level of consciousness on the part of the people that I encountered as far as the potential implications [of the budget cuts] and what it meant. That was extremely helpful.”

Capital investment funding for the three systems will be announced with the final budget. But the early handshake deal, arrived at well in advance of the new fiscal year beginning July 1, enabled library leaders across the city to rest a little easier and continue moving forward on the many projects in the works, from extensive renovations in Queens to programming and exhibits at NYPL.

“This is a win-win for the library,” Walcott told LJ, “but more importantly, a win for the public."

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