Hours after more than 50 library branches across the city reopened for in-person browsing Monday, the heads of three library systems criticized the mayor’s plans to cut funding  a move they say could cost jobs.

The library officials said at a City Council hearing that the proposed budget cuts would not only cripple their ability to continue offering virtual services that residents came to rely on in the pandemic, but endanger more than 100 full-time positions and hamper their ability to contribute to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recovery plan.

“In addition to the services, it’s a safety net for people, plain and simple,” said Dennis Walcott, the head of the Queens Public Library. “It’s the community’s living room.”

On Monday, the mayor praised libraries for their nimble response to the pandemic and importance to New Yorkers of all ages.

“They were there, always flexible, creative, finding different ways to serve the people of this city,” de Blasio said at a morning news conference. “Our libraries have really done wonderful work during this crisis, but what we really wanted was just for them to be back and for people to be able to go to the library and their neighborhood again.”

What You Need To Know

  • Mayor Bill de Blasio included budget cuts for the city's library system in his proposed budget

  • At a City Council hearing Monday, library system leaders said the cuts could lead to job losses

  • The cuts would also hamper the libraries' ability to continue providing virtual programming as branches begin to open for in-person use, the leaders said

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of libraries on March 14, 2020; in July, many branches reopened for pick-up service. While the systems laid off part-time workers, full-time employees stayed on, pivoting to offer virtual reading times for children, grief groups and COVID-19 educational programs. 

The Brooklyn Public Library ran more than 9,000 virtual programs over the past year, with more than 1 million patrons attending, Linda Johnson, the system’s president, said at the Council hearing. 

Libraries have also served as COVID-19 testing and vaccination sites. 

De Blasio’s proposed $98.6 billion budget for the next fiscal year would cut $10.3 million from the systems, while the Council’s budget would increase funding by $11.9 million. The total proposed subsidy for the systems in the executive budget is $402.5 million.

Yet, the head of the three systems said that they need considerably more than either number. Federal and state funding to the libraries, they noted, also decreased over the past year, despite enormous injections of federal money into various city programs through coronavirus relief packages. 

De Blasio’s proposed cuts, if adopted, would take effect July 1, just ahead of when the systems plan to fully reopen all 212 branches. 

In an emailed statement, Laura Feyer, a spokesperson for the mayor, noted that the City Council often adds “further funding” to libraries in June during the budget adoption process. 

“We look forward to working with the Council to advance our mutual priorities for the next fiscal year,” Feyer wrote. 

Feyer noted that de Blasio has increased funding for libraries 30% during his two terms as mayor.

Johnson, of the Brooklyn Public Library, noted that the virtual programming they offered in the pandemic had brought in patrons who do not typically go to in-person library programs, and that in reopening the system they would need additional funding to resume normal operations while maintaining virtual offerings. 

Library officials also said millions are needed to upgrade buildings. Tony Marx, head of the New York Public Library, said six complete branch renovations are needed in his system alone.

City Council members decried the proposed budget cuts to the libraries, saying they threatened New York City’s economic recovery. 

“I think all of us know that New York City doesn't ever fully come back unless our public libraries are well funded, they are open, they are strong,” Council Member James Van Bramer, head of the Council’s cultural affairs committee, which oversees libraries, said at the hearing.