The Kids Are Not Alright: The Death of NYC Libraries

Photo via truthout

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On November 16, New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced that several city departments would be experiencing extreme budget slashes, spurring major news coverage and controversy, through his infamous Program to Eliminate the Gap. Adams attributed the 5% budget cut as a response to the city’s need for resources during the large influx of migrants from Latin American and Caribbean countries into the city.

“Migrant costs are going up, tax revenue growth is slowing, and COVID stimulus funding is drying up,” said Adams. According to him, New York City has been “left to handle a national humanitarian crisis largely on its own, and without the significant and timely support [needed],” from federal aid.

Of the new proposed policies, the two most shocking outcomes were major funding cuts to city libraries and a $1 billion cut to the Education Department. This new policy has drawn widespread criticism from progressive New Yorkers and politicians across the city, who consider it a harsh and detrimental resolution.

The severe lack of funding will prevent city libraries across the city from providing their communities with seven-day services, with many of them opting to close on Sundays, with the exception of the Kew Gardens Library in Queens. 

Adams had previously proposed library budget cuts earlier this April, but had withdrawn after vast public disdain. However, his latest announcement on Thursday has shown New Yorkers that he’s unafraid to back off from his most controversial administrative policy despite its general unpopularity.

For the uninitiated, Eric Adams, the current mayor of New York City, assumed office in January of 2022. His general public approaches, despite being technically associated with the Democratic party, have overwhelmingly erred on the side of conservative, pro-policing, and pro-tech politics throughout his term. 

Many view Adams’ attack on libraries as generally unsurprising, however, his rhetoric has often rung hypocritical, because while his policies have detrimentally affected public libraries across the city, he has also virtue signaled toward progressive groups to win back public favor. Many point to Adams’ statements from October 4, when he proclaimed the day as “Freedom to Read Day” in the city.

“When we ban books, we ban ideas. As lifelong learners, we should always be looking to learn and understand what it looks like to walk in someone else’s shoes,” said the mayor. “Reading is an opportunity to expose people to different perspectives and ideas. As mayor, I am proud to stand with our New York City public library leaders on the side of the freedom to read during Banned Books Week.”

Proclaiming himself as an ally to the public library system, while simultaneously doling out some of the harshest budget cuts, rings deceitful and insincere.

It’s no surprise that the demographics of those who will be affected most by these library budget cuts are low-income students. Alongside the proposed, diminished availability of pre-K programs and afterschool activities, many educators believe that this initiative will negatively impact the youngest New Yorkers for decades to come. Limiting learning resources has far-reaching implications and negative consequences that outweigh the benefits that short-term budget cuts may provide.

In a Chalkbeat article by Julian Shen-Berro, he interviews Lauren Comito, a librarian at Brooklyn Public Library, where she details her thoughts on the United States’ increasing disregard of the services libraries offer students across the nation: “We say that we want kids and students and schools to develop critical thinking skills, we want them to develop research skills, we want them to be able to identify misinformation or go out and find their own answer,” she said. “That’s something missing in schools—that ability to explore without it being connected to a rubric, and libraries provide some of that.”

According to a Truthout article, “more than 60 percent of the city’s schools currently lack a certified school librarian, and 40 percent have no library at all.” Many of those are schools with high poverty rates among the student population. Oftentimes, city libraries can substitute for the lack of access to these materials and the education that these children are deprived of, but where are students going to turn to, when the city is experiencing library closures on one of two of their days off from school?

As user @dennismhogan aptly pointed out in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter: “It is a crime and a sin that the richest city in the richest empire in the history of the world can’t keep a public library open for its children to read, play, and learn in on their days off from school. Sick society.”

When pressed and questioned as to why his administration had targeted libraries as one of the recipients of budget cuts, Adams attributed the decision to the migrant crisis in New York City. 

According to a New York Times article, journalist Hurubie Meko stated, “As of mid-October, more than 130,600 migrants had arrived in New York City since the spring of 2022…Many have sought shelter with the city, which has a legal obligation to give beds to anyone who asks. Last fall, the city’s homeless shelter population hit a record. It has only grown since then. Mayor Eric Adams has called it a humanitarian crisis that will cost the city about $12 billion over three years.”

However, this is a reductive tactic. When the NYPD budget continues to stand at over $5 billion, while the New York Public Library (NYPL) budget stands at roughly $471 million, we can see that there are many more options we have to finance this crisis than to draw from vital resources and programs like the NYPL, universal pre-k, afterschool programs for low-income families, and more.

It’s not a far reach to imagine that this drastic budget cut could be viewed as an opportunity to turn New Yorkers against the incoming migrants from South America and to encourage them to advocate against the city’s right-to-shelter law. The city has been actively fighting in court to overturn the 40+ year legislation, which could lead to further harm to an already vulnerable immigrant population.

In an Op-ed released by the Legal Aid Society, the non-profit states, “Solving this situation requires effective and humane leadership from New York City, New York State, and the Federal government and, crucially, coordination among them. What it does not require, however, is a reversal of decades-old protections that have saved countless lives from being lost on our streets.”

Evidently, need to begin to advocate for budget cuts in the police department and not from city public libraries. We need to advocate for the migrants and low-income students in our communities, not repeal the policies and institutions that support them.

Turning back to city libraries, there are efforts that we can take to make positive changes and advocate for these vital institutions. Visit the website savenyclibraries.org, explore volunteer opportunities, call your City Council member, express your support for maintaining adequate funding for city public libraries, and speak to your friends and family about the importance of libraries for low-income students. With enough community action and outcry, NYC can save its public library system from defunding and decimation!