When the economy goes south people visit the library more; it is a fact of the profession.
They check out materials to save money, take classes to get new skills, and pay more attention to our free cultural events. Some children’s librarians I know have seen a definite uptick in “drop offs,” where children are left alone in the library by parents desperate for short-term child care. Many people have been coming in looking for resources to start their own businesses or for finance and budgeting advice.
We are the base of operations for many job seekers, a place where they can search employment listings, type a resume, and, frankly, find a little camaraderie and hope. Obama got help like this back in the day too.
But there are a lot of scared librarians in the city today. All three public library systems (Brooklyn, New York, and Queens) are facing massive budget cuts. Each system is scrambling and though each is trying to handle the shortfalls as best it can the talk in the trenches is getting shrill. We keep telling each other that we’ll all be fine, hoping to convince ourselves through repetition if nothing else.
Thank God for the union. We got a raise in the last contract negotiation, although we haven’t seen it yet and so far nobody is really pushing either for it or the back pay we are owed. A colleague put it best when she said “I’m a lot more worried about next week’s pay than last week’s.” Management, in coordination with the union, has restructured vacation time and designed new voluntary part-time positions, and is offering early retirement. We’ve had our book budgets cut, travel money for conferences eliminated, and funds for programming slashed.
Will this be enough? We are worried that, at the end of the day, it will not. Presently the libraries are in a hiring freeze, which is unnerving for new MLS graduates, but there are a lot of working librarians who fear that they are on the block as well. Librarians with less than two years’ seniority (which incidentally includes myself) are potentially at risk. Ultimately our job losses would be passed on to the patrons through limited hours and, though we’ll fight it clawing and screaming all the way, a reduction of services.
Dark though the situation may appear, the struggle is far from lost. Final cuts have yet to be made and large group layoffs haven’t happened (though some non-union librarians have been let go). We live to serve the public but right now we really need the public’s help. Concerned citizens can support their local library through any (or better yet, all) of the organizations below.
Brooklyn Public Library: Support Our Shelves
We are here working for you, New York City. Come in and use the library, check out books, get on the computers, tell everyone how great it is and how much you love the institution, but make sure you tell your politicians that this is an important issue for you — and excuse us if our smiles are a little bit tight.
Image of the Flushing, Queens library branch, the nation’s largest by circulation, taken from the New York Times.