29 June 2010

Library Cuts

New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2011 (which starts on 1 July) on 6 May. It includes deep cuts in cultural and arts expenditures across the board. The New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, for example, would lose $2 million if the City Council doesn’t restore the proposed cuts; the Metropolitan Museum of Art could lose $7 million of city funding; the American Museum of Natural History is subject to a $6 million loss, half its 2008 budget. The draw-down, an attempt to cover a projected $5 billion shortfall, reduces overall arts spending by 31%. But the cut I want to address is the 25% drop in funding for the city’s libraries, the largest cut in the history of the library system, including not only the New York Public Library but the Queens Borough and Brooklyn Public Library systems as well.

All city agencies, including the Department of Cultural Affairs (which will lose 11% of its funds), will be deprived of support and services everywhere in New York City. Bloomberg’s budget isn’t final, though: the City Council has restored $10 to $40 million in cuts to city cultural appropriations in recent years. The council, however, would have to put back as much as $50 million to return to the spending level of FY2010 and that seems unlikely considering the straits in which the city and the national economy find themselves. If no restorations occur, NYPL will lose $37 million. Even in 1975-76, in the midst of the city’s fiscal crisis, the cut-back was only 10%. NYPL could have to close as many as 21 branches, cut service to four days a week instead of six, lay off 30% of the staff, and drop over 25,000 programs and classes.

It’s no surprise that there have to be cuts in city spending in every aspect of its budget. The economy of the entire country is suffering serious problems and New York State must cover a $9.2 billion deficit itself. I can’t really argue with budget cuts under the prevailing circumstances, even in my beloved area of culture and the arts. I was actively working as an artist in this city in the mid-‘70s when it was about to go bankrupt and drastic cuts were made in arts support all over town, both from public funds and private sources. I watched as dozens of small theaters shut down for good, reducing the beehive of theatrical activity that was New York in the ‘60s to one suffering from colony collapse disorder. Cultural and arts institutions all over the city began to disappear and large organizations felt the bite, too. It was depressing to see, and devastating if you made your living (or were trying to) in that part of our society. But the money wasn’t there then and it’s not there now. If anyone understands how that works, it’s Michael Bloomberg. I used to assert quite emphatically that I don’t really trust businessmen in elected office because their focus is so unswervingly on the bottom line, but in this case, a successful businessman is the one to understand the fiscal situation facing this city. It certainly helps that Bloomberg, unlike his predecessor, is not just supportive of the city’s cultural life, but an avid consumer who appreciates art and culture and sees it as a vital part not only of the city’s economy but its verve and energy as well. I can deplore the necessity to cut arts spending, I can even hate it, but I can’t deny it. And it would be dishonorable to say, Don’t cut the arts, cut somewhere else instead. Where? Schools? Cops? Firefighters? Right. (Besides, they’re all getting cuts, too, anyway.)

Nonetheless, I’m going to bemoan the cuts to the libraries anyway. I love libraries almost as much as I love theaters—and possibly for nobler reasons. And just as I was around when the theaters, orchestras, and dance companies of New York City were hit hard by the near-bankruptcy of the ‘70s, I was also affected by the last big cuts in library services in the ‘80s and ‘90s when I was in grad school and then doing research for myself and other scholars. I saw the branches close one or more additional days a week (all the research facilities were closed on Mondays for years) and the reduction in staff that meant waiting longer for materials to be delivered, books to be sent from one branch to another, and returned books to be put back on the shelves. Clippings piled up uncollated and unfiled; archival materials sat in storage uncurated and inaccessible to researchers. (I’m still waiting for access to the papers of Leonardo Shapiro, a research subject of mine, who died and left his records to the Library of the Performing Arts in 1997. There’s no staff to collate and catalogue the papers.)

When I’ve been away from home for any length of time, someone always asks me if I miss New York. Aside from explaining that I miss having all my own things at hand, especially my reference materials, I always list three things I miss when I’m not here. Of course, I miss the array of theater and arts venues I have to choose from. In New York, I get to see stuff from all over the world, a selection of performances and exhibits that no other single city in the world gets. I also miss the choice of restaurants, especially the ones in my own neighborhood that do carry-out when I don’t feel like cooking. No other town I’ve visited has that variety of eating places practically right around the corner that do take-out! But most important to my kind of work—writing, teaching, and doing research—I miss the New York Public Library and its immense collection of assets that aren’t available anywhere else without a lot of effort and connivance. Nowhere else in the world that I know of has anything remotely like our performing arts library, even if you eliminate the non-book materials—which I believe is a unique resource on the planet. NYPL is an invaluable amenity—ask any writer, scholar, or researcher who’s ever used it (or wished she could). Even the great New York City universities, like Columbia and NYU, don’t have collections that can match the public library; in fact, I contend that Butler and Bobst Libraries as well as the libraries of the other New York schools don’t keep the vast holdings they might otherwise require because they rely on the accessibility of the NYPL to accommodate their students’ research needs. (Most of the great research libraries of the world, including our own Library of Congress and the library of the British Museum, severely limit access. One of the beauties of the New York Public Library is that it’s freely available to anyone. That’s why the stately edifice on 5th Avenue, the place with the lions, Patience and Fortitude, was called the People’s Palace.)

I’ve done research, most notably on some American Indian cultures, that drew on many 19th- and early-20th-century original publications. They were just there in the 42nd Street library—or in the Music Division of LPA—and I could use them just like last week’s New York Times! Stuff written by Ruth Bunzel or James Mooney or Washington Matthews. I did research for an out-of-town scholar on Tennessee Williams’s Streetcar Named Desire that included not only all the major productions of the play, but the 1952 ballet and the 1995 opera. I don’t believe there’s any other place in the world where I could get materials, especially reviews, of all three versions of the play (including foreign premières such as Tokyo) except the Dance, Music, and Theatre Divisions of the public library’s performing arts collection at Lincoln Center. (It also didn’t hurt that the microfilm holdings of newspapers at 42nd Street contain papers from across the country—the opera preemed in San Francisco—and around the world. I can’t even count the times I’ve had to consult papers from Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Paris, Helsinki, or some other distant town. My research clients often asked me to get articles from such papers because I can get to them instantly but it would take weeks for the academics from Mississippi or Pennsylvania to send for them through their university libraries. They all can get the New York Times, but I can get the Atlanta Constitution, the Detroit News, Paris Arts, Soviet Pravda, the Jerusalem Post, and the International Herald Tribune. At one time or another, I’ve used all of those and more.) The breadth and depth of the holdings of the New York Public Library is unparalleled—and astonishing. I don’t have a long list of published works, but between those pieces and my graduate school work, I could never have produced much of anything—or taught most of my classes—without this resource.

At present, the NYPL, founded in 1895, consists of 87 circulating branches (in three boroughs: Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island)—one of the largest systems in the country—plus four research libraries. (Any circulating book owned by one NYPL branch can be requested by computer for delivery to any other. This used to take only a few days to accomplish, but with staff cuts, it now can take well over a week for someone at the owning branch to pull the book and send it out to my neighborhood library.) The research facilities cover literature, the humanities, and the social sciences (42nd Street, now known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building); music, dance, theater, film, television, radio, and recorded sound (the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center); science, business, finance, economics, and industry (the Science, Industry and Business Library in the Madison Avenue end of the former B. Altman and Company department store at 34th Street), and African-American culture (the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem). SIBL and LPA are both circulating libraries and research facilities. At one time or another, I’ve used all four of those libraries, which offer not only reference books and a large selection of periodicals, but rare materials, archival collections, clippings, video and audio recordings, and programs, lectures, and displays relevant to their special fields. I’ve also made extensive use of all four of the major divisions of LPA (the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, the Music Division, the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound, and the Billy Rose Theatre Division) and most of the sections and special collections of the Schwarzman Building (the General Research Division; the Art and Architecture Collection; the Jewish Division; the Slavic and Baltic Division; the Asian and Middle Eastern Division; the Periodical Room; the Map Division; the Microforms Section; the U.S. History, Local History & Genealogy Division; the Manuscripts and Archives Division; the Rare Book Division). I deliberately listed all those esoteric sections (and there are even more that I don’t use regularly) because I want to demonstrate the incredible scope of the holdings. (The NYPL doesn’t include the libraries in Queens—61 neighborhood branches and the Central Library, and the largest library in the country in terms of circulation—and Brooklyn—58 branches, the Central Library, and the Business Library—whose systems predate the consolidation of greater New York City in 1898. I’ve also had occasion to use these facilities.)

Just listing the facilities, sections, and divisions of the NYPL, however, doesn’t really give a full impression of what this incredible place holds or what it offers. Few people know, for instance, that right next to the Art Collection at the Mid-Manhattan Library, a treasure in itself, is the Picture Collection. This little gem of a section contains thousands of folders, categorized by historical figures and subjects, each holding scores of clipped photos, drawings, cartoons, illustrations, art reproductions, and caricatures. Believe it or not, these pictures circulate—you can take them home—and they are an invaluable resource for, among other folks, set and costume designers. You want to know what an 18th-century hospital room looked like? That’s your source. Want an image of Peter Stuyvesant? Go there. Need a rendering of a Civil War-era hoop skirt and hair-do? The Picture Collection’s got it. I’ve never heard of any other place with a resource like that.

Tucked into a tiny space next to the Billy Rose Theatre Division at LPA is another unique asset, the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive (known as TOFT). You do need to make an appointment to use its collection, but it’s not hard to do and what you get is a wide-ranging collection of videos, films, and tapes of performances of almost every description. (Since 1970, NYPL has made arrangements with Actors’ Equity and the other theatrical unions to document plays, even Broadway productions, for archival purposes. Theaters across the U.S. that want to videotape their productions for posterity can do so under the auspices of TOFT.) These recordings can’t be used for commercial or general viewing, but artists, students, and scholars can view them for professional use and study. (I’ve seen some very recognizable actors and directors checking out historical performances at TOFT.) But plays, TV shows, or movies aren’t the only kinds of “performances” available there. If an actor or a director ever gave a talk or an interview that was taped or filmed, it’s likely to be in TOFT’s collection. Few people know about this fantastic little lagniappe.

If the mayor’s proposed budget cuts go through intact, none of these facilities will disappear. Their remarkable holdings will remain available to researchers and readers. Some services will be slower and days like Saturdays, already sluggish because of past staff cuts, will probably be slower still. The expert assistance rendered by librarians and archivists, so necessary for the work that I do, will become harder to get and the staff will be stretched thinner to cover more duties with fewer people. What will happen, too, I imagine, is that with a cut of $9 million in the book budget, new acquisitions will be fewer or delayed and it will take longer for newly obtained material to become available to library users. Worse, when important items become available, the NYPL may have to pass them by forever and there will be gaps in the coverage of subjects where NYPL is the prime repository. Clippings or photos won’t be catalogued and filed or, worse, important articles won’t be saved at all. New productions won’t be videotaped for TOFT and years of ephemeral performances will remain undocumented. Newly acquired archives won’t be curated and will remain unavailable to researchers. Repairs and replacements will be deferred and such important tasks as the microfilming or digitizing of documents, images, and printed matter will also be postponed or even abandoned, reducing the accessibility of such items for future users. In the last draw-down, several useful databases were either removed from the library’s website or became accessible only from a research building rather than from home. This may happen again, while advances in technology may have to be forgone.

Reduced staff and budgets also mean that security is less vigilant and books and other items are lost or stolen more often. There is little more frustrating and disheartening to locate a library item that you need and which is unavailable anywhere else convenient only to discover that it’s not on the shelf or has been declared lost. Circulating books that aren’t returned for reuse by another reader will go unrecovered more often and lost items won’t be replaced. Because the nature of a lot of my research is esoteric, I often need material the NYPL doesn’t own and which isn’t in any of the nearby university libraries. This means I have to request an interlibrary loan. The process of borrowing a book or microfilm from a distant library now takes as much as six weeks, but if staff and budgets are cut again, that process will stretch out longer and ILL’s may take as much as two months or more. All similar services, like photo reproduction or document copying, will also require more time and potentially cost more. Not all of NYPL’s material is kept on the premises of the libraries, there’s just too much of it. So there are storage facilities as far away as New Jersey and four or five days notice is necessary for requests of off-site materials to be delivered to a library for use by a researcher. Staff and budget reductions may make this process take longer, too. And the turn-around time for a subsequent user will be extended as well.

I know from past experience that the NYPL staff that remains after the lay-offs will do their best to get accomplished everything the library has always done for library patrons, but it will be harder on them and slower for us. In fields like theater or dance, specialized material is best handled by librarians with expertise in those collections. They know what to look for and where it’s kept—even where it’s likely to hide if it’s not correctly shelved. Staff cuts have meant that librarians have to do duty outside their areas of special experience and those extraordinary services we get used to receiving are no longer possible. Specialists in, say, theater periodicals or music scores are impossible to replace because it has taken them years of experience in the NYPL stacks to learn what they know and share with us when we need their help. All that work I said I couldn’t have accomplished without the NYPL’s facilities and collections? I couldn’t have done it without the help of the various staffs, either. I’m pretty good at digging stuff up, but I can’t tell you the number of times some librarian or archivist has shown up in the reading room—or even called or e-mailed me at home—to say she’s found something I’d been looking for in vain. If you do what I do, it’s like getting the best present ever. That level of service is in jeopardy with lay-offs.

We can hope that the mayor’s proposed budget cuts will prove to be harsher than necessary and that the City Council will restore some of the losses. But the economic situation isn’t going to go away soon enough to save the library and the other city services from some draw-down. Closing or curtailing the availability of such subsidized institutions as community and senior centers is unquestionably devastating to those who use them. At the risk of seeming blasé, however, I feel that when the cuts are eventually restored after the financial crisis has passed, those places will recover and be pretty much the same as they ever were. But a commodity as unique, extraordinary, and irreplaceable as the New York Public Library, once it’s been damaged, doesn’t return to its former stature so easily. It’s more like a wounded body which takes time to heal. It bears the scars of the wound for a long time, and sometimes it never heals completely again. Some of the harm done to the system and its services will become permanent, their extraordinary benefits to readers, researchers, scholars, students, and writers gone forever. “These budget cuts,” said an official of the Queens library, “will destroy the public libraries in this city as we know them.” The loss to the city, to the life of the city, would be inestimable.

I have just come back from a trip to Istanbul. A century ago, the city was the capital of a vast empire and even before that (as Byzantium and then Constantinople) it was the crossroads not just of world trade but of ideas and culture. Today it’s a little shabby, threadbare; it’s more frantic than vital. It’s disheartening to contemplate what that city is compared to what it was once. The fate of the magnificent New York Public Library could be like that. The prospect of such a fall from its once great height makes me sad. A Gulliver bound into impotence by Lilliputians. Very, very sad.


  1. As a librarian in the Brooklyn Public Library system, I want to thank you for your beautiful tribute to the importance of public libraries.

  2. Thank you for your comment and your interest. As you can see, libraries are among my favorite places and, I think, among the most important assets of society. (I have an upcoming article about books; check in after Bastille Day, 14 July.) I've dealt with libraries all over the country, both in big cities and small towns, public and academic, and I've found the librarians to be unfailingly helpful and knowledgeable.


    P.S. I, too, love show songs--especially the old-time ones. I have a pretty nice collection of cast albums going back to the '40s.

  3. The City Council on Tuesday, 29 June, restored most of the cuts to the New York City cultural budget proposed by Mayor Bloomberg for the fiscal year that started on Thursday, 1 July. Bloomberg’s budget called for a $49-million cut for the Department of Cultural Affairs, down to $110 million, but the council restored $40 million, giving DCA an appropriation of about $150 million for FY2011. (The FY2010 DCA appropriation was about $159 million.)