OPINION: Shrinking the library system is a loss for New Yorkers

August 29, 2013 By Letitia James For Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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The usage of New York City’s libraries is way up: 40 percent programmatically, nearly 60 percent in terms of circulation. The public demand for physical books is up too. More people visited public libraries in New York than every major sports team and every major cultural institution combined. Why then are we selling city libraries and shrinking the library system? Why are libraries being underfunded, when we know the they cost a fraction of the city’s budget to fund them.

How much are we shrinking the library system through sell-offs? The first hints at an answer come to light with the city’s proposal to “redevelop” libraries to include market-rate housing (plans that generally would require the demolition of historic spaces). In theory, such a plan would seem like a fair middle-ground between retaining library space and bringing additional funding to the system. In reality, handing over public space to private developers does not guarantee that new library spaces will be comparable in size or otherwise remain fully-functional. 

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The Donnell Library may be viewed as an example of what officials plan for the rest of the system: sold in 2007 and quickly closed in 2008, it is being shrunk (according to New York Times figures) by more than two-thirds, from 97,000 to 28,000 square feet.

The new space is inferior too: The “replacement” Donnell is almost entirely underground. In 2007, it was explained to librarians that the library was being placed underground because otherwise the real estate developer wouldn’t pay as much for the property, but the paltry sum for which Donnell was sold makes it clear that decisions are not being made for the benefit of the public. The NYPL is netting only $39 million for this five-story library (with recently renovated facilities) on Manhattan’s 53rd Street across from the Museum of Modern Art. The 7,381 square foot penthouse apartment in the fifty-story building is going up on the site where the library once stood, and is on the market for $60 million.

Similarly, the NYPL’s Central Library Plan (CLP) involves the reduction of 380,000 square feet down to a mere 80,000 square feet: The Mid-Manhattan library (one of the most used libraries in the city), and the Science, Industry and Business Library (“SIBL” serving businesses and job hunters, and integrated with CUNY) will be sold, and the research stacks of the Central Reference Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street will be demolished.

The two libraries sold will be crammed into the former reference library stacks space. No future expansion of the space will be possible. Construction to accomplish these space reductions will cost the public a lot: the CLP is expected to cost roughly $350 million, with $150 million from tax-payer funds, and the balance from funds charitably donated to the public. It is likely to be a net loss, the only theoretical benefit being the lower cost of running vastly shrunken libraries. Citing these points, advocates brought forth legal challenges that delayed the construction temporarily. 

In a similar deal that took place closer to my district, the 62,000 square feet Brooklyn Heights Library was proposed to be reduced to 15,000 sf in a sale to a private developer.

I recently pushed for a development in Fort Greene, Brooklyn to include additional affordable housing, as well as spared the local Brooklyn Public Library Pacific Street branch from demolition (the land was set to be sold to a private developer). Although I support the BAM South project and look forward to the expanded public library space included in project, I knew that if Fort Greene and Prospect Heights lost their local library space, it would be a loss to the entire community.

Simply, I was willing to put my reputation on the line to fight for our public spaces. Because of this deal, any future change regarding the status of that particular library would require City Council approval.

The underfunding of our city’s libraries is a serious problem, but in many instances it is an easy excuse for these private sell-offs taking place throughout the city. We need to challenge these plans and work with elected officials and the city to come to agreements that sustain our vital library institutions.

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