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Investing in Libraries is Investing in Cities

Emily Drabinski

May 05, 2023

The harm caused by budget cuts ripples outward 

The harm caused by budget cuts ripples outward 

With a spate of book ban campaigns animating legislators from Indiana to Louisiana, Texas to Utah, it can be tempting for those of us in cities like New York to breathe a sigh of relief. We’re in a safe blue bubble, right? But New Yorkers face censorship by other means: the budget cut. In his most recent $106.2 billion proposal, Mayor Eric Adams is asking for $36.2 million from the three city library systems, Queens Public Library, the Brooklyn Public Library and the New York Public Library, which serves Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island. 

These institutions rely on city funding for their operating budgets, 91%, 85% and 59%, respectively. Adams claims that he “did not cut a single penny from libraries.” Libraries were spared the additional 4% required of city agencies in Adams’ Program to Eliminate the Gap, but the other cuts are still on the table.

Library leaders say these cuts will be devastating, eliminating planned new branches, cutting service hours, and decimating collections and programming. Recent research by the Center for an Urban Future (CUF) lays out the crucial contributions that libraries make to the life of the city: free drop-in homework help to address post-COVID learning loss, free technology training for job readiness, support for small businesses and entrepreneurs, access to broadband internet and the devices necessary to access it, resume review and job-search help, English instruction and other support for immigrants and refugees new to the city, early childhood education, adult literacy and more.

Without sufficient resources, these programs can’t meet the need. CUF’s analysis makes the gap concrete. Coding classes fill up in seconds with waitlists in the thousands. The 18,500 laptops and tablets libraries have to lend to their patrons can’t match the 777,000 households that lack computers at home. English language programs at the Flushing branch of Queens Public Library have six applicants for each available seat. Cuts to library budgets mean cuts to services that matter most to vulnerable New Yorkers.

If economic growth is the priority, libraries should be a bigger, not smaller, part of the story.

Of course, Adams argues that such cuts are necessary because of “economic headwinds.” We all need to tighten our belts given the impending economic downturn, he argues, and one might expect that to apply doubly to libraries since all they do is share. But if economic growth is the priority, libraries should be a bigger, not smaller, part of the story. Study after study demonstrates that libraries make concrete economic contributions that well exceed what cities invest in them.

Take San Francisco and its public library system. Beginning in 2000, the city embarked on a Branch Library Improvement Program (BLIP) that invested millions of dollars in its branches. These were primarily capital improvements that included earthquake preparedness, Americans with Disabilities Act compliance and renovations that enabled increased internet connectivity. These investments added 33% more square feet to the library’s municipal footprint, 135% more public access computers and drove a 349% increase in attendance at programs for non-native English speakers.

They also stimulated significant economic activity, documented in the system’s impact report. Building projects led to a host of new contracts for local women- and minority-owned businesses. Neighborhoods revitalized by new branches saw small businesses, restaurants and coffee shops come in too. Libraries delivered services, including access to meeting rooms, computers, and broadband internet at rates far lower than what private institutions would cost. Leaving aside the very real benefits that can’t be quantified — the pleasure of reading a book, or meeting other children at story time — the city realized a return of between $5.19 and $9.11 for every dollar invested in BLIP, according to the study undertaken by the San Francisco Controller’s Office.

These numbers are mirrored across the country. A $165.9 million renovation of the central Seattle Public Library in 2004 produced $16 million in net new spending in the neighborhood in just its first year. In Pennsylvania, the Department of Education’s Office of Commonwealth Libraries calculated a $5.50 return on every tax dollar invested in the system. In 2020, the St. Louis County Library developed a return-on-investment calculator that demonstrates the total dollar value of the resources and services the library offers to individuals in a community who benefit in profound ways from the library’s economy of scale. The American Library Association offers a similar tool. Small business owners and entrepreneurs, the very people Adams says are “leading the way on our economic recovery,” benefit in particular ways from libraries, gaining access to market research databases, free co-working spaces, patent and trademark research services, one-on-one business mentoring and prototype technology like 3D printers. 

Libraries contribute to a livable city, providing clean and well-lit spaces that, among many other things, are a place to use the bathroom and get a drink of water, stay warm in the cold and cool in the heat. A well-resourced public library system contributes in multiple ways to the city’s bottom line. Libraries stimulate neighborhood development, encourage job creation, and help get new businesses off the ground. If Mayor Adams is serious about the recovery of New York City’s economy, libraries should see more money, not less.