New York City’s libraries need a bailout. The New York, Bronx and Queens Public Libraries are asking for an extra $1.4 billion from the city over the next 10 years in order to make necessary renovations. Many branches are housed in dilapidated, overcrowded buildings — some even face shortened operating hours because of subpar facilities. Library officials warned last month of the “staggering infrastructure crisis in our branches.” Incremental repairs, inconsistent funding and cuts under the Bloomberg administration have delayed updates for years. While Mayor Bill de Blasio increased library funding in his first year of office, a more significant investment from the administration can bring city libraries into the modern age. Library use must be reconsidered to efficiently update this public good.
Some have questioned the efficacy of spending money to expand buildings to house books in an era that is increasingly dominated by tablets and e-readers. Technological advances, however, have not diminished the value of libraries, or print books. Even as e-readers become more popular, they are not financially accessible for every household and a library checkout system serving millions of people is unfeasible. In addition, studies have shown that the tactile experience of navigating print books contributes to higher reading comprehension rates, and staring at screens is far more mentally strenuous. While entirely replacing print books with e-readers might be a more efficient use of space, the drawbacks outweigh the potential convenience.
Funding public libraries may seem less important in the digital age, but as technology advances, these learning spaces become an even more important equalizing tool. Public libraries house career and education centers and offer free classes for both adults and children on a range of subjects, including languages, citizenship, coding and web design. The Hunts Point Library in the Bronx, a medium-size branch, serves over 11,500 people annually through these programs. James Parrott, the chief economist for the Fiscal Policy Institute, expects the de Blasio administration to commit to funding all branches “since [libraries] play a critical role in furthering many of the mayor’s top priorities,” such as early child education and afterschool programming, on the path to citizenship and employment. These institutions play a critical role in creating a cohesive community, and the programs they offer have the potential to stimulate the economy through education of residents and local outreach.
Other major cities such as San Francisco and Seattle have launched campaigns to update the infrastructure of public libraries. New York City should follow their lead and invest in the improvements necessary to sustain these institutions. If public libraries are to remain a center of educational and technological growth, it is crucial they receive the funding they need for a major upgrade.
A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, April 22 print edition. Email the WSN Editorial Board at [email protected]