December 2, 2013

Urban Librarians Unite makes the “difficult decision” to endorse the NYPL Central Library Plan


logoUrban Librarians Unite (ULU) is a “professional group created to promote and support libraries, library staff, and librarianship in urban settings.” On September 30th, Christian Zabriskie, the Executive Director of the group, endorsed the Brooklyn Public Library and New York Public Library’s plans to sell certain library buildings to address budget shortfalls. His statement, which is posted on the ULU website, was addressed to the Committee on Cultural Affairs, Libraries and International Intergroup Relations during a New York City Council Meeting. Other library advocacy groups have continued to protest the Central Library Plan, however.

I sent Zabriskie questions to find out more regarding Urban Librarians Unite’s stance. He found time to send the answers below, even while being very busy with ULU advocacy activities. He reports that they have been “neck deep in our holiday book distributions, finding new sites for our Mini Libraries, and preparing for SXSW where we will be speaking about how we combine social media tech with traditional activist tactics and techniques.” This is all in addition to their regular library jobs!

What is Urban Librarian Unite’s position regarding the Central Library Plan?

We believe that the CLP is a pragmatic solution to a shitty situation. Capital funding has been inadequate for the real needs of the libraries for decades. Add in the fact that operating funding is also down over the last 6 years, and you have understaffed buildings that are inadequate for library services. It’s time for a real solution to the problem, but in the meantime, the library has an obligation to fulfill it’s mission to provide the best services it can to the most people, with the resources it has, and that includes assets like real estate.

How does that position differ from other library advocacy groups like Citizens Defending Libraries or Save the NYPL? Why do you disagree?

Citizen’s Defending Libraries and Save the NYPL have been attacking the libraries for the decisions that they have been forced to make. We feel that this is blaming the victim. The budget shortfalls here are very real and have been decades in the making. It is disingenuous to say you support the library while lambasting it because it does not fit your perceived model of what a library should look like.

Citizens Defending Libraries and Save the NYPL have a very narrow focus on a couple of controversial building plans. We look at the entirety of the three library systems and the larger issues of library service across the city.

We don’t think that this problem can be solved simply by saying no to building sales and insisting on full funding. That’s not realistic. Last year was the first time we haven’t had an operating cut since 2008. That’s great, but it’s only a start. The people in NYC deserve excellent library buildings, and excellent services, and all of the libraries in the city are doing the best they can with what they have.

ULU focuses on promoting and supporting libraries. We also do a lot of work that is not directly tied to advocacy such as our disaster response work after Hurricane Sandy and our recent work to distribute more than 1,200 books to kids during community Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.

What do you think the best solution to address the issue of the budget shortfall for libraries? Where is ULU putting their energy?

We want to see a consistent increase in both library operating and capital funding. For starters, a restoration of operating funding that would see all of our libraries open at least 6 days a week. For capital funding, there needs to be a systemic solution. Libraries are part of the fabric of our city, they are a social and education necessity and they shouldn’t be reliant on member items and political whim to get their roofs and boilers fixed. There needs to be a large investment in capital funding for libraries, and a clear workable plan for maintenance. Patrons deserve that.

Why do you think the Central Library Plan is the best one on the table?

No one has yet put forth another plan. In a perfect world, the city would put together an aggressive plan to fully repair and restore the city’s libraries, with a real commitment to maintaining them moving forward. That is what we would like to see.

Are you concerned that libraries are moving towards privatization and that there is a move to replace physical books with digital resources?

ULU is against the privatization of library administration and services. The CLP does not privatize the library, it will remain the independent organization that it has been since the 1880’s. None of the plans currently on the table in NYC to sell property in order to address budget shortfalls would privatize any library.

In regards to ebooks, libraries provide access to information and reading material and have done so since before the codex existed and will continue to do so long after it is gone. We don’t see paper books disappearing even in our lifetime, but digitizing materials can be make access easier and be good for preservation of rare materials.

Moreover as libraries move from a passive model of community education to an active model of direct engagement and training we have needed to create more spaces for shared learning in our libraries as well as doing more and more with programming all the time.

Do you think the Central Library Plan will go through now that Bill De Blasio has been elected mayor?

We don’t know. Hopefully he’ll visit some of the libraries during the transition, meet our patrons, see the challenges we face and make a real commitment to supporting libraries in the city. Libraries serve as such fantastic social and economic change engines, they don’t deserve to be a footnote in the budget. They need to be a priority.



Claire Kelley is a the former Director of Library and Academic Marketing.