NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL HEARING ON THE PRELIMINARY BUDGET

March 13, 2012

 

NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL 

COMMITTEE ON CULTURAL AFFAIRS, LIBRARIES AND INTERNATIONAL

INTERGROUP RELATIONS

COMMITTEE ON LIBRARIES

HEARING ON THE PRELIMINARY BUDGET

MARCH 13, 2012

TESTIMONY OF BROOKLYN PUBLIC LIBRARY

 

Good day. I am Linda E. Johnson, President and CEO of Brooklyn Public Library (BPL). I am joined by John Vitali, our Chief Financial Officer, and Richard Reyes-Gavilan, Chief Librarian. Thank you to Committee Chairs Jimmy Van Bramer and Vincent Gentile for inviting me to testify today about the potential impact of the Fiscal Year 2013 Preliminary Budget on BPL. Thank you as well to the entire City Council for your incredible efforts on the Library’s behalf. It is difficult to imagine how the Library would function today without your unwavering support. 

The former president of the American Library Association, John Cotton Dana, wrote the following about public libraries, 

No other institution which society has brought forth is so wide in its scope; so universal in its appeal; so near to every one of us; so inviting to both young and old; so fit to teach, without arrogance, the ignorant and, without faltering, the wisest. 

For more than a century, BPL has acted as a true democratic institution, a place where all Brooklynites can enjoy free and open access to information. Over the years, the Library has continually developed new programs and services to address the changing needs of our patrons. Demand for our vast collection of free books and other materials continues to grow. Yet, one of the greatest challenges facing BPL is that as our role in the community is expanding, our budget is contracting. Just last week, the Pew Charitable Trusts released a report comparing 15 library systems, including ours. The report illustrates that the role of urban libraries throughout the country has grown in recent years. San Francisco chose to increase funding for its libraries during the recession. New York, sadly, did not.

The City Council has been a wonderful advocate for Brooklyn Public Library. Thanks to your hard work and extraordinary leadership, and especially our champions in the Brooklyn delegation, you have helped eliminate more than $58 million of proposed cuts since FY2008. Unfortunately, the cuts that have been implemented over the years continue to mount, significantly challenging the Library’s ability to perform its many roles in the community. Since the FY2008 adopted budget, cuts to the Library’s baseline funding have resulted in the elimination of a cumulative total of approximately 20% our city appropriation. This reduction amounts to a significant sum of approximately $15 million. These cuts have impacted every area of our service—from our collections and programming budget to the maintenance of our buildings and the number of people we employ. Since FY2008, BPL’s workforce has lost 170 positions through attrition. Though we have 60 locations throughout the borough, we have not used general operating money to hire a new librarian since November 2008. 

Doing More with Less
Despite a shortage in funding, BPL remains committed to providing our patrons with the best possible library service. Over the past year, we have implemented new management and technological efficiencies allowing us to dramatically reduce the amount of time Library staff spend on administrative tasks. Last September, we were able to add a system-wide total of 441 hours of service per week, representing a 21% increase in service hours. Without the commitment of staff and volunteers, this expansion of hours would not have been possible. There is, of course, a limit to how much we can ask of our staff. Simply put, we are at our breaking point and we cannot sustain our operations if our budget continues to contract every year.

BPL’s Expanding Role

To jeopardize our libraries now, when we have spent years tailoring our services to fit the needs of our communities, would devastate thousands of Brooklynites. BPL is no longer simply a place to check out books or study in silence. It is a network of dynamic spaces that host exciting programs and provide critical resources every day. Each week, more than 500 people attend free public programming at Central Library’s Dweck Center. System-wide, we offer approximately 43,000 program sessions each year, attended by 850,000 people. To give you a better idea of our expanding role in the community, I will briefly highlight a few of the important services we provide to our patrons.

 

Adult Literacy
BPL is proud to be the largest volunteer-based provider of adult literacy instruction in Brooklyn. Our Adult Literacy Program currently offers a continuum of free and individualized learning through Adult Basic Education tutorials, Young Adult Literacy classes for people between the ages of 17 and 24, GED preparation classes for adult learners and English classes for new Americans and individuals with limited English proficiency. 

 

The Library has five Learning Centers that are dedicated to adult learners and their unique needs. To assist people in attaining their employment and educational goals, Learning Centers provide literacy, numeracy and workplace readiness instruction and use technology as an integral part of the educational process. Learning Centers house labs with new computers and up-to-date software so students can strengthen their skills outside of class time.

It is a testament to our commitment to literacy and access to information that we will mark the 35th anniversary of our Adult Literacy Program by opening a new and much-needed Learning Center at New Lots Library. The new Learning Center will allow BPL to increase its program reach in East New York, which is one of the most underserved communities in the borough. 

 

Many Brooklynites whose first language is not English rely on the library’s free ESOL classes to help improve their English language skills. In FY2011, 829 students, who hailed from over 80 countries, attended our instructor-led 12-week classes. To supplement our classes, BPL also provides drop-in ESOL conversation groups. Specially trained volunteers lead these groups and thousands of people participate in them every year. BPL currently hosts 38 English conversation groups at 26 neighborhood libraries.

 

The ability to communicate in English is often an important step towards finding employment or furthering one’s education. It can also be crucial to one’s health and safety. Two weeks ago, a beginning ESOL student who started attending class in January at the Sunset Park branch was at home when she began experiencing chest pains. Although her English is very limited, she had been practicing in ESOL class how to contact 911 in case of an emergency. She called 911 and later told the teacher that she used what she learned in class to get the help she needed.

 

Business and Job Information

In addition to learning English, many Brooklynites visit BPL to receive help finding jobs. According to figures released in January by the New York State Department of Labor, Brooklyn’s unemployment rate in December 2011 was at 9.5%. In times of economic hardship, when nearly 1 in 10 Brooklynites is unemployed, BPL’s role in helping people find jobs is crucial to the well-being of our families and the health of our communities. 

 

At the Business & Career Library, a comprehensive center for business and career knowledge and resources, as well as at many of our branch locations, we provide job readiness programs, print and online resources and one-on-one assistance to everyone from the newly out-of-work to the chronically unemployed as well as career changers. The Library helps people seeking employment in many ways, including through resume writing, interviewing skills and job search workshops; computer training; career assessment and exploration software; and referrals to external programs, organizations and resources. In FY2011, the Business & Career Library offered more than 500 program sessions attended by a total of nearly 7,000 people. 

 

To further assist job seekers, BPL, in partnership with the NYC Department of Small Business Services (SBS), recently opened Workforce1 Expansion Centers at Central Library and Sunset Park Library. Now, in addition to the employment services and resources provided by our staff and volunteers, patrons can meet with Workforce1 representatives who pair job seekers with local employers looking to expand their workforces. For the first time ever, we offer the full spectrum of employment resources, from literacy classes to recruitment services, all under one roof. Since opening on October 13, 2011, BPL’s two Workforce1 Expansion Centers have served more than 2,500 jobseekers and have made over 300 job placements.

 

Technology
In today’s job market, it is nearly impossible to search and apply for jobs without access to a computer and the Internet. For many Brooklynites, the Library is the only place for them to use these resources free of charge. Astonishingly, 43% of Brooklyn households do not have Internet access. BPL’s vast network of approximately 1,300 public-access computers is a vital resource for our patrons. In fact, the Library provides an average of 2.3 million PC sessions per year. We are the largest provider of free WiFi in Brooklyn and we offer high-speed wireless Internet at all of our locations.

 

To help further increase digital access across the Borough, BPL recently partnered with the City’s Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications, New York Public Library, Queens Library and several city agencies in the NYC Connected Communities project. Funded through the federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), the project enabled BPL to provide eight of our libraries in Bushwick, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Ocean Hill-Brownsville with faster broadband access, 95 new laptops and computer and job-readiness classes. Many residents in these neighborhoods live below the poverty line and rely on our free technology to submit job applications and conduct research on the Internet.

 

Collections

In addition to our increasing role as a leader in providing adult literacy programs, services for job seekers and access to technology, we continue to offer the traditional services Brooklynites have come to expect from us. In FY2011, BPL reached a milestone when it circulated over 20 million items—the highest circulation in its history. Demand for electronic materials is strong, and we are quickly expanding our Downloadable Media Catalog, which currently features more than 20,000 eBooks, as well as videos, audiobooks and music. In FY2011, we experienced an 80% increase in digital media checkouts. The Library’s circulation statistics demonstrate that its role in providing free and open access to information is more important than ever before.

 

The Proposed Budget

The proposed FY2013 budget gravely threatens BPL’s ability to be a vital center of knowledge for Brooklynites of all ages. The numbers we face this year are stark. The preliminary budget for FY2013 includes the FY2012 mid-year PEG, an additional $2 million reduction and fails yet again to baseline funding at the amount included at adoption last year. These cuts represent a catastrophic reduction of approximately $27 million, or about 33% of our current city appropriation. This will devastate the Library: we will have to cut our hours in half—from an average of 43 hours per week per branch to approximately 21.5 hours per week; close 16 neighborhood libraries; and layoff approximately 350 employees. BPL will be forced to purchase 110,000 fewer books, which will deprive Brooklynites of the titles they want to read and will result in longer waiting periods for bestsellers. Perhaps most importantly, our patrons will also lose access to more than 400,000 PC sessions. Additionally, because of maintenance-of-effort requirements, these cuts threaten a large portion of our funding from the state government.

 

Impact on our Staff Members and the Community

Though these numbers are striking, they do not give the full picture. Every day our employees and patrons experience the true impact of funding cuts. According to Molly Pudner, Supervising Librarian at Eastern Parkway branch in Crown Heights, the demand for Eastern Parkway’s computers is so great that patrons are sometimes forced to wait more than two hours to use a computer for a 30-minute session. There is a reservation system in place at the Library, but due to the shortage of computers and the unacceptable wait times, arguments among patrons sometimes occur and situations can become volatile. When a person is unable to access a library computer, it can be incredibly difficult for them to apply for jobs or submit their information for social services online. As Molly explains, “The digital divide in some communities of Brooklyn is far greater than people realize unless you see it every day like we do. Patrons need extensive help using computers, writing resumes and searching for jobs online. These are essential services for patrons. We help a lot of people every day, but there is so much more we could do.” 

 

Brooklynites need our services more than ever. As the conditions at Eastern Parkway demonstrate, budget constraints are bringing us dangerously close to failing our communities. Dedicated librarians like Molly and her colleagues in all 60 BPL branches desperately need increased funding to allow them to make an even greater difference in their communities. 

 

Although our situation is bleak, every day we help many Brooklynites improve their lives. Just two weeks ago, we received an email from a patron who had been out of work for two years. To save money, he had canceled his home internet service and had begun coming to Marcy Library to use its free technology to search and apply for jobs. He also received assistance through the Library’s job readiness program to improve his cover letter, resume and interviewing skills. He was excited to inform us in his email that he had finally been hired for his dream job at a great organization. He said that none of this would have been possible without the help of BPL and the wonderful staff at Marcy Library.

 

Conclusion

The public library’s scope is wide and its appeal is universal. People come to BPL to build literacy skills, use free technology, receive job search help and access our collection. In short, they come to the Library to reinvent themselves every day. Since FY2008, our budget has been reduced by an average of $3 million per year, while our role in the neighborhoods we serve continues to grow. Our libraries are the foundations of their communities. Their doors should be open, they should be fully staffed and they should have the funding necessary to provide a wide range of critical services for our patrons. BPL is deeply grateful for the City Council’s steadfast support. We hope that you will help us restore our funding and make it possible for us to give Brooklynites the level of service that they need and deserve. 

 

Thank you for the opportunity to testify. I am happy to answer any questions you may have.

 

 

Contact
Marketing & Communications
Brooklyn Public Library
718.230.2767
mediainfo@brooklynpubliclibrary.org

Brooklyn Public Library is an independent New York City library system serving the borough of Brooklyn. It is the fifth largest in the United States. Its Central Library, Business Library, and 58 neighborhood libraries offer free information, programs and computer access to people of all ages. You can reach the Library's resources of over 70 reference databases, catalog information and news 24 hours a day at www.bklynpubliclibrary.org