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Report: Crumbling NYC libraries need massive investment

Libraries push to restore city funding

March 20, 2015 By Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The Ulmer Park branch, on the edge of Bensonhurst, serving many new Chinese immigrants, suffers from chronic leaks and water damage, particularly on the ceiling over the Chinese language section. Photo courtesy of the Invest in Libraries Campaign
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New York City’s three library systems – Brooklyn, Queens and New York Public Libraries – released a joint report Friday morning describing a maintenance crisis threatening branches throughout the city.

Library presidents, advocates and elected officials were set to gather at City Hall this morning to launch a major campaign, “Invest in Libraries,” to urge city leaders to restore funding that has been repeatedly cut.

The report describes branches without proper heat and with broken down HVAC systems. Some have ceilings so leaky staffers must cut up garbage bags to protect books during rain storms. Many are ADA inaccessible; others suffer from plugged up bathrooms and are so outdated there aren’t enough electrical outlets to plug in iPads and laptops.

The report provides several examples from each borough, including Brooklyn’s Brownsville and Ulmer Park branches.

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The Brownsville branch is described as an “essential community hub, providing computer access and job search support for adults and homework help and a safe environment for kids.”

The branch faces chronic HVAC issues, however – as do many other Brooklyn branches, include the Brooklyn Heights branch, currently slated for redevelopment. Despite four temporary chillers brought in to replace the broken AC system, the Brownsville branch is routinely forced to close on hot days.

The Ulmer Park branch, on the edge of Bensonhurst, serves a neighborhood seeing an influx of new multigenerational families, primarily from China, the former Soviet Union and South Asia, according to the report. The branch suffers from chronic leaks and water damage, particularly on the ceiling over the Chinese language section.

During storms, Ulmer Park librarian Edward Flanagan and his team rush to hang up tarps and split open garbage bags to protect the books, block off flooded areas with caution tape, and place garbage cans and buckets around the branch, the library says.

Not only do the city’s libraries need $1 billion in capital funds, but they currently face a $10 million operating cut in the preliminary budget. The preliminary budget has just over $60 million slated as it now stands.

The libraries plan to fight the operating cut, and want to restore funding to FY 2008 levels.  Library officials were set to testify before the NYC Council this morning.

More than a century ago, philanthropist Andrew Carnegie provided the funding for 39 NYC library buildings, 31 still in operation (18 of these are in Brooklyn). In a civic understanding, the libraries took on responsibility for providing staff and expertise; and the city would pay for the upkeep of the facilities, as well as for books, librarians, and operating costs.

The libraries say the city has not kept its end of the bargain. A report by the independent Center for an Urban Future says, “New York City’s public libraries are serving more people in more ways than ever before, and have become an increasingly critical part of the city’s human capital system; but they have been undervalued by policymakers.”

The library systems issued a statement calling this state of affairs “unacceptable.”

To raise money, Brooklyn Public Library sought to sell-off the Carnegie-built Pacific Street branch to a developer in 2013, rather than repair it. But the branch escaped the wrecking ball after then-Councilmember Letitia James secured an agreement with the library. The agreement may not be permanent, however.

BPL’s plan to sell the Brooklyn Heights branch for redevelopment has also raised criticism from the local community.


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