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NYC libraries in woeful state, report finds

A new report published by the Center for an Urban Future finds that while more New Yorkers than ever are using the city’s public libraries, a significant share of the branches suffer from major physical defects.

The report reveals that the average branch library in the city is 61 years old, with a quarter of the city’s 207 branches built over a century ago.

Library main buildingIt also shows that the city’s three library systems have at least $1.1 billion in capital needs, with 59 different branches requiring $5 million or more in maintenance work. Despite the maintenance needs, the report finds that city capital funding for libraries over the past couple of decades has been “inadequateˮ and that the libraries have been hurt by a broken system that bases funding levels on the decisions of individual elected officials rather than an empirical assessment of building needs.

The report, titled Re-envisioning New York City’s Branch Libraries, shows with several other cities have done investing in their branch library system.
Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Columbus have all launched major capital campaigns in recent years that have resulted in new or fully renovated libraries for over half their physical plant.
In contrast, only 15 new libraries have been built in New York City over the past 20 years — seven percent of the system.

The report, which was funded by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, provides a new level of detail about the infrastructure needs of the city’s branch libraries and includes a first-of-its-kind blueprint for repairing, modernizing and expanding branches throughout the five boroughs.

It urges city officials to make a game-changing investment to bring the city’s public libraries into the 21st century.
Major findings include:

• More than half of the city’s 207 library buildings are over 50 years old and a quarter of them (52 branches) are at least 100 years old.

• The oldest branch libraries are concentrated in Manhattan, where the average age is 84, and Brooklyn where it is 65. In Staten Island the average age of library buildings is 61, in the Bronx 57 and in Queens 47.

• The three library systems have prioritized nearly $1.1 billion in capital needs. Of that, approximately $812 million is for state of good repair and interior renovation projects, and $278 million is for site acquisition and new construction.

• 59 branches have $5 million or more in repair needs.
• Brooklyn libraries are in particularly bad shape: 51 of the system’s 59 branch buildings have over $1 million in state of good repair needs. In 2013, the borough’s branches had 140 unplanned closures, adding up to 540 lost service hours, mainly due to malfunctioning heating and cooling systems.

• Only 15 new library buildings have been built in the past 20 years. Six of these new buildings are in Queens.
Though public libraries are serving more New Yorkers in more ways than ever before, the study finds that the vast majority of branches are poorly configured for how New Yorkers are using libraries today, with too few electrical outlets for mobile devices and too little space for classes, group work and individuals working on laptop computers.

• Of the 45 branches that our researchers visited, 58 percent (or 26 locations) had outlets for 10 devices or fewer, and 18 percent (or eight locations) had plugs for just one or none at all.
• In a survey we conducted with more than 300 librarians, 87 percent of respondents indicated that their community rooms were insufficient to meet patron needs.

• Many libraries don’t have enough seating: McKinley Park in Brooklyn and Jackson Heights in Queens each have over 375,000 annual visitors, but McKinley Park can only seat 48 patrons and Jackson Heights 67.
• Many of the city’s libraries are too small. Across the five boroughs, 100 branch buildings are 10,000 s/f or smaller. This is a particular problem in Queens, where 41 branches are under 10,000 s/f, compared to 26 in Brooklyn, 14 in the Bronx, seven in Staten Island and six in Manhattan.

• The report also details that city capital funding levels for libraries have been insufficient to cover basic building needs, and that the funding is largely based on a discretionary, political process.

• Between fiscal years 2004 and 2013, the city spent $503.7 million on capital improvements for public libraries.

• Despite having over $300 million in state of good repair needs, the Brooklyn Public Library received just $20.9million in capital funds in fiscal year 2014.

• Between fiscal years 2004 and 2013, the Brooklyn Public Library received just $39 million in capital funds from the mayor. Over the same ten year period, the Queens Library received $43 million and New York Public Library $99 million from the mayor.

• Between fiscal years 2004 and 2013, 59 percent of the libraries capital commitments came from the City Council and borough presidents, and only 41 percent came from the mayor. No other city agency or institution relies so heavily on the discretionary dollars of City Council members and borough presidents.

• The discretionary process leads to enormous geographic discrepancies in funding. Between fiscal years 2010 and 2014, libraries in Queens received $50 million in capital funds from its borough president. Over the same period, Bronx libraries received just $5.6 million from its borough president, Brooklyn libraries $4.4 million, Manhattan libraries $3 million and Staten Island libraries $511,000.

• Delays and high costs make it difficult to repair and modernize libraries. According to data collected by NYPL, the average duration for major renovations that are managed by the city is 6.69 years, compared to 1.97 years when similarly sized projects are managed by NYPL itself.

• On NYPL projects, city-managed new construction costs $1,262 per square foot, compared to $642 for projects managed by NYPL.
The report, which was written by David Giles, Jeanette Estima and Noelle Francois, culminates with a blueprint for re-envisioning the city’s branch libraries, detailing 24 actionable steps that city government and the libraries themselves could take to address these needs. The report can be viewed at

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