Ilya Marritz covers business for WNYC.
This is one for the books.
The Queens Library, one of the city's public libraries experiencing the budget squeeze, is taking an unprecedented step in its 104-year history and has stopped buying books.
Queens Public Library CEO Tom Galante said he doesn't want to upset bookworms, but late last year, Mayor Bloomberg asked the library to cut $4.5 million from its spending. As Galante saw it, the library board faced a choice: trim hours and staff as it had been doing for the past two years, or do something that goes against the very idea of a lending library and stop buying books.
“It was a tough decision, but we wanted to make sure that we maintained our hours,” Galante said.
Galante said the mission of the library has shifted subtly, from lending books to providing English lessons, aiding job seekers and providing Internet access.
“It really comes down to libraries being about community -- being a place for seniors in the morning, kids afterschool,” Galante said.
And so, the doors will stay open. Galante is hopeful the library can resume book buying in July, after it gets a new budget from the city.
Livia Maoz, who reads several books a week, said she gets nearly almost all of her reading material from the Queens Public Library.
"That's bad. That's very bad," Maoz said, mulling over the news as she browsed a new book display with the latest titles from John Grisham, Dennis Lehane and Anne McCaffrey.
"And when there are no new books, actually, they are limiting my experience, so this is bad,” She added.
And the decision to halt book buying is causing some alarm.
“It breaks my heart," said Audra Caplan, President of the Public Library Association. "You don’t do that unless you’re really in trouble.”
Caplan said Queens has long been considered an innovator and a model for smaller libraries across the nation. Like many of them, it’s now in fiscal distress. And Queens is not alone.
The Brooklyn Public Library has reduced book buying and hours. The New York Public Library -- which includes the Bronx, Staten Island and Manhattan – is not hiring for empty positions. All three systems are seeing multimillion dollar budget cuts. But only Queens has stopped buying books entirely.
“I think part of that is the usage that we have,” Galante said. He believes Queens may be in a unique situation in part because of the popularity of the library's English-learners course and the breadth of its collections, which contain books in more than 100 languages.
Some borough political leaders think that is not the only issue. Councilman Leroy Comrie said Queens gets less money than it deserves from the city budget: “The city’s stuck on an old formula that they need to look at,” Comrie said.
Queens has consistently received less money per visitor than the other two library systems. From 2007-2010, the city spent on average $5.89 per patron in Queens, and $6.76 and $7.86 per patron in the Brooklyn and New York systems, respectively. A third more was spent per New York user than per user in Queens, on average.
Comrie said he’s working to fix the imbalance.
But Queens has other challenges. The library recently raised and spent a quarter of a billion dollars on capital projects – adding one new branch and renovating and expanding five other locations.
Galante said that’s a good thing, but it does create challenges: “We’ll have expanded our facilities by 30 percent without any additional operating support,” he said.
Recently, the library launched a “Buy a Book” campaign. The idea is to persuade users to pitch in $25 for their local library’s collection. In exchange, they’ll get an inscription of their choosing inside a new library book.