BUDGET TESTIMONY OF BROOKLYN PUBLIC LIBRARY
NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL
COMMITTEE ON CULTURAL AFFAIRS, LIBRARIES AND INTERNATIONAL
COMMITTEE ON LIBRARIES
HEARING ON THE PRELIMINARY BUDGET
MARCH 24, 2011
TESTIMONY OF BROOKLYN PUBLIC LIBRARY
Good morning. I am Linda Johnson, Interim Executive Director of Brooklyn Public Library. Thank you Committee Chairs Jimmy Van Bramer and Vincent Gentile for inviting me to testify today on the impact the Fiscal Year 2012 Preliminary Budget will have on BPL. Since I started my work at BPL last July, I have criss-crossed the borough visiting vibrant, diverse and creative neighborhoods and their libraries. I have seen, first hand, the profound effect BPL has on the lives of Brooklynites in every community. Sometimes that effect is brought about through what some may think of as “traditional” library work, when books open new worlds to readers. But now more than ever, BPL makes a difference in the lives of its patrons through innovative programs and initiatives that address the needs of the communities we serve. Regrettably, the Preliminary Budget we face today threatens both the traditional role of the library and the programs upon which so many now rely in their efforts to lead productive, well informed and fulfilling lives.
The fiscal problem we face today has been the subject of much debate and consternation in every economic downturn the great city of New York has encountered since the beginning of the public library movement over one hundred years ago. In 1991 an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times articulated the problem succinctly:
“In the competition for clemency in budgets, the three library systems that serve New Yorkers with food for thought cannot quantify their contribution to improving urban life as other departments claim by fighting crime, extinguishing fire, coping with disease and appeasing hunger. The library is about quality of life, that tenuous attribute that makes the difference between the city as a random congregation of masses and the city as a civilized expression of society.”
Today twenty years later I will try to quantify the contribution Brooklyn Public Library makes to the lives of its citizens – we are striving to rely on metrics to depict the role we play in improving urban life. Library services both traditional and technology based, meet a growing need and not just in emergencies but available to all our citizens regardless of circumstances, day in and day out across our communities. But before I move on to the core of my testimony, please accept my gratitude for the incredible support City Council provided to our libraries by restoring more than $17 million to BPL during the adoption of the budget for Fiscal Year 2011. Thank you. Over the past five years, under the leadership of Speaker Christine Quinn the Council has time and again demonstrated that Libraries are a priority. I deeply appreciate the commitment and belief in our work of Finance Committee Chair Domenic Recchia, Council Members Van Bramer and Gentile and the entire Brooklyn delegation.
As the Council well knows, Brooklyn’s libraries are community centers critical to the health and vibrancy of the neighborhoods they serve. In a single branch on any given day we provide a wide array of services to impressively diverse patrons. We regularly host senior citizens in the morning, provide programs and a safe haven for students after-school, assist immigrants in their efforts to learn English or become United States citizens, are a literacy center for adults who are learning to read or are enrolled in GED programs, and even aid students preparing to take standardized tests in hopes of enrolling in institutions of higher learning. And perhaps most commonly these days we are THE place to seek help in drafting resumes and searching for employment. Recently, the Council held hearings on the work we do to ensure that our patrons have access to the most up-to-date health information and to better understand how we serve the needs of job seekers. BPL’s work in these areas is important, but in truth is much broader than many
understand. There are other ways the Library serves the needs of its communities. I will review just three:
Service to Immigrants
In a borough where 55% of the residents are immigrants or the children of immigrants and more than half speak a language other than English at home, our service to this community is vital. We provide material in more than 30 languages and offer services through the Central Library’s Multilingual Center. Central to this effort are BPL’s five Learning Centers where we serve more than 1600 adult learners each year. We provide basic literacy, ESOL and Pre-GED classes at these locations, where demand often exceeds our capacity. ESOL and English conversation classes, sometimes led by volunteers, are offered at the Centers as well as local libraries throughout the borough. For several years we have worked closely with the City’s Office of Immigrant Affairs to assist applicants in the Diversity Visa Green Card Lottery, sponsored by the State Department. Each fall, BPL’s Learning Center staff assists immigrants with the on-line application, which is available in English only, and takes and uploads the digital photos which must accompany each application. BPL provides this service in confidence and as is true of all we do, we provide the service free of charge.
Service to Teens
BPL is proud of the work we do with teenagers. We are one of the borough’s largest employers of teens - each year we employ approximately 300 high school students on a part-time basis. For many, their work at BPL is their first paying job and provides crucial experience and building blocks for their resumes. Two initiatives, the Multicultural Intern Program (also known as MIP) and Today’s Teens/Tomorrow's Techies (T4), further demonstrate our commitment to teenagers.
BPL launched MIP in September 2009 with a $500,000 Institute of Museum and Library Services grant. MIP is a pre-professional training initiative designed to introduce high school students representing Brooklyn’s ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity to the varied opportunities available to library professionals. BPL will recruit 170 students during the three year grant term, with a new cadre enrolling each year. Internships run from November to June, with students participating in workshops, field trips and forums before being placed at local
libraries for volunteer service. Students in the program are among the most enthusiastic ambassadors for the work BPL does and their language skills and knowledge of their communities often help us to reach patrons that would otherwise be difficult for BPL to serve.
T4 is a technology training and volunteer placement program, providing free two-week summer technology institutes followed by volunteer opportunities at neighborhood libraries. T4 participants are entitled to more than 90 hours of direct training throughout the year, while practicing their new skills and helping to educate others through at least 72 hours of volunteer service. Approximately 120 teens participate each year, and more than 600 students have completed the T4 program since it was first offered in 2005. The program provides teens with access to and an understanding of technology, hardware and software, with customer service skills, and the opportunity to put those skills to use. In 2010, the Urban Libraries Council recognized T4 as the most innovative educational library initiative in the country.
Access to Technology
BPL provides the only access to computers and the Internet for tens of thousands of Brooklynites and is the largest provider of WiFi access throughout the borough. With a network of more than 1100 Internet-enabled computers, we provide a crucial link to databases, job applications and a variety of information that is often only available online. Recognizing the role BPL plays in bridging the digital divide, we recently partnered with the City’s Department of Information and Telecommunications Technology, NYPL, QPL and several City agencies in the New York Connected Communities Project. This $ 4 million initiative, funded through the federal Broadband Technology Opportunity Program (BTOP), will allow BPL to provide enhanced broadband access, increased technology resources including PCs and laptops for patrons to borrow, public programs and outreach at eight neighborhood libraries that serve some of Brooklyn’s poorest communities. We know the demand for Internet access is strong and growing, but for many the cost of a computer or other Internet enabled-device, and/or the cost of a subscription is prohibitive. BTOP will allow us to help meet some of this demand.
Demand for these newer initiatives and many more, and the library service we provide every day is at an all time high but sadly are at risk given the cuts we face in the Preliminary Budget.
Brooklyn Public Library is Busier Than Ever
In Fiscal Year 2010, BPL experienced an unprecedented surge in usage that continues to grow in the current year. BPL served a record number of library users last year as more and more Brooklynites took advantage of the wide range of collections, educational programs, and technology resources available at our 60 locations.
•Circulation reached almost 20 million items in FY10—the highest level in BPL’s history and a 13% increase over FY09. In July and August 2010, BPL circulated more than 1.9 million items each month, our highest totals ever, and almost 30% more than circulated during the same period in 2009. We are on pace to circulate more than 21 million items this year despite having to cut collections spending to meet the mid-year Program to Eliminate the Gap (PEG).
•We offered nearly 50,000 free programs and workshops in FY 2010 – a 7% increase over FY09. Systemwide program attendance exceeded 924,000 in FY 2010 - a 6% increase over FY09. We are proud to report that American Library Association’s most recent Public Library Data Service Statistical Report ranked BPL as number one in program attendance among all library systems in North America.
•In the last fiscal year BPL provided 2.4 million free sessions from 1,100 public computers, representing a 13% increase over FY09. We tracked approximately 10,000 Wi-Fi users during the month of July 2010 (including more than 3,000 at the Central Library) — a 15% increase over July 2009.
Often, our testimony focuses on the big picture and the impact we have across the borough as we cite circulation and PC usage in multi-million increments and other statistics in the tens and hundreds of thousands. But it is important to remember that each item that circulates, each computer session, and each program attendee represents a Brooklyn resident who enriched his life by borrowing a book, logging onto a computer session or spending time at a neighborhood library to learn something new. Attached to your testimony is a snapshot of the usage at the neighborhood libraries in both Council Member Recchia and Council Member Gentile’s districts. We are providing this information to each member of the Brooklyn delegation in an effort to demonstrate how well used the libraries are in their districts.
Impact of the Preliminary Budget
To this point, my testimony has focused on the work we do to support the communities we serve. But it has become increasingly difficult to meet our mission with steadily declining support from the City of New York. Despite the Council’s truly heroic level of support, since 2009, the City has reduced discretionary funding to BPL by $9.9 million. To close this funding gap, the Library has taken a number of steps to reduce expenses including a voluntary retirement incentive program, the layoff of non-represented staff not engaged in direct public service, significant cuts to Other Than Personnel Spending (OTPS), and by maintaining over 160 vacancies across all titles. This year, to maintain hours of service in the face of a $4.6 million mid-year reduction in funding we cut $2 million from the collection budget and made additional cuts to OTPS spending. These cuts provided a way for BPL to maintain the highest level of service over the six month period effected by the mid-year PEG, but are not sustainable in the long term. Continued or further cuts to the book budget will do irreparable harm to our collections, will result in a decline in circulation and most importantly will necessitate a diminution in customer satisfaction. Furthermore, many of the OTPS cuts are one-time savings that cannot be replicated in the coming year.
We understand the need we face to align our expenses with the funding that is made available to our City’s libraries and we are working diligently on the strategic issue of how to efficiently deliver the best library services our patrons deserve and have come to expect. We cannot continue to trim around the edges and still keep our budget in balance. Accordingly, we have started a top-to-bottom strategic review of operations to determine how we can significantly reduce our expenses while maintaining the highest level of library service possible. But the challenge we face this year is daunting and immediate.
Including the potential loss of the funding restored to our budget in July 2010, the mid-year reductions included in the January Plan and the recently announced “contingency” cut for Fiscal Year 2012, BPL faces a truly astonishing $25.2 million reduction in City funding below the Fiscal Year 2011 Adopted Budget. That total cut represents a year-over-year reduction of almost 30%. And $17 million, or two-thirds of that cut is comprised of the funding we fought for and
the Council restored just this past year. If that $17 million were included in the FY12 Executive Budget, BPL could better plan for the future and wouldn’t have to devote as many resources to the frustrating annual budget dance.
However, should the Fiscal Year 2012 Adopted Budget be at the level of the Preliminary Budget, the results it would truly be catastrophic. Under the worst case scenario, we would be forced to layoff approximately 400 full-time employees or about 40% of our staff, and eliminate the 160 vacancies we are holding. With this level of staffing in place, we would close 16 neighborhood libraries, one in each Brooklyn City Council district, and provide an average of 30 hours of service at those branches that remain open. Given the demand for the services we provide, such an outcome is untenable.
BPL serves immigrants, teens, indeed every Brooklynite, and provides critical access to technology. BPL circulates more books, offers more programs and provides more computer sessions now than at any time in its history. But if the funding proposed in the Preliminary Budget is implented, we will not be able to meet the demonstrated demand - as our doors will not be opened. We know the Council understands and believes the work we do every day is critical to the health of our communities. We are hopeful the Fiscal Year 2012 Adopted Budget includes a level of funding that will allow us to continue to meet our commitment to the people of Brooklyn.
In 1932 in the face of the Great Depression the then President of the Brooklyn Public Library Board of Trustees, Judge Edwin L. Garvin wrote:
“Some persons may hold the view that the public library is a sort of luxury to be indulged in when money is easy, but to be put aside when the economic shoe pinches. The period of depression has proven to the contrary. People have flocked to the libraries in greatly increased numbers, finding there recreation of the highest type at the minimum of cost, and also means of study in preparation for the old job which will surely some day need its faithful servant, or for the new job which will give the individual a better opportunity to earn a living and to enjoy life.”
Clearly we find ourselves confronting the very issues our great institution faces in economic downturns. And the argument put forth by library supporters to preserve service when the need is at a demonstrable peak goes largely unchanged; but as technology makes life both richer and more complex the need to provide the less fortunate access to materials and the tools they need to compete becomes more critical. It is easy to fall behind in this fast paced life we have created. Please help us continue to make a material contribution to the productivity and quality of life of all who now call Brooklyn home.
Again, thank you for the opportunity to testify and I am happy to answer any questions you may have.
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