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Open Doors, Open Minds: The New York Public Library During the Great Depression and Today’s Economic Crisis

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Highbridge, Story hour, Digital ID 1252718, New York Public LibraryHighbridge, Story hour (1935)In July 2007, The New York Public Library was able to expand hours of service to at least six days per week at all of its locations, adding over 260 extra hours of service per week to its 91 library locations – hours that had not been available since budget cuts made after September 11, 2001. Funding from the 2007 New York City budget permitted the popular Bronx Library Center to be open from 9am to 9pm everyday, seven days a week. These hours are critical to users, especially now. As Dr. Paul LeClerc, President of The New York Public Library, said recently:

New Yorkers are facing a time of crisis, and we see people dealing with the ill effects of the economy in our libraries every day, taking advantage of the free programs, services, and materials we offer at locations throughout Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island.

Throughout the Great Depression, The New York Public Library was able to maintain seven days of service. In fact, annual reports of the Library from 1929-1939 confirm that the Central Building was open 365 days per year and a total of 82 hours per week. Most branches were open 313 days per year and a total of 72 hours per week. The Library’s contract with New York City at that time required that all branch libraries in Carnegie buildings (39 in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island) remain open 12 hours daily, except Sundays.

As a result of reductions in the 1934 New York City budget, ten branch locations of The New York Public Library were closed from June - September 1934, according to The New York Times (May 11, 1934, p. 23), and the Staten Island "book wagon" and the "Bronx Traveling Library" were stopped, as well. Six other branches – non-Carnegie branches – had substantial reductions in hours of service, and those hours were not restored until the fall of 1939, according to the Times (September 13, 1939, p. 25).

Near the beach at Eltingville, Staten Island, Digital ID 94735, New York Public LibraryStaten Island book wagon, near the beach at Eltingville 

Book truck at 40th street entrance of N.Y.P.L. Central building, ca. 1930s, showing it ready to start on it destination., Digital ID 434213, New York Public LibraryBook truck at 40th street entrance of N.Y.P.L. Central building, ca. 1930s

When the Library’s hours were threatened during the Depression, members of the public spoke out. Frances McIntyre, a citizen of New York, included the following in her letter to the editor of The New York Times on July 25, 1936:

In my opinion, the public library, as a civic center in a neighborhood, is second to none.The children go there to do their school work in the evening in preference to doing it at home. It is quieter there, and the librarian is always ready to help. Book talks are held every afternoon for the boys and girls of the public schools; that is the only way they would ever get to know about books, as their homes are too poor to own them….Can the Mayor show me any more worthy cause than making this possible? The hospitals minister to their bodies, but the public libraries, in a far greater degree than the schools, minister to their minds, as they reach all ages….

Similarly, an editorial in the Times on March 11, 1938, stated:

This is more a human problem than a financial one…. What [the City] cannot humanly afford is the closing of library opportunities – particularly to children during the formative years, when books are priceless in the joys they bring and the good they do.

This Friday, Dr. Paul LeClerc, our President, will appear again before the New York City Council to offer testimony on the importance of keeping Library doors – and minds of all ages – open.

(See earlier post: "Patience and Fortitude")

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Absolutely! So happy you

Absolutely! So happy you posted this. I understand the difficulty. These are tough times, and cuts are inevitable. However, how can a city council and mayor not see this as a top priority? Libraries are an investment that we cannot let slide. The cost of keeping libraries open is high. However, the cost of closing them is even greater. The problem is that we as citizens have very little power to change this. In most cities, we could pass a bond issue, or vote to increase sales tax to fund libraries, etc. Here, all we can do is write letters and complain. But in the end, we are at the mercy of the city govt. In a bad economy, we all can turn to the library to replace things we can not afford.....books, DVD's, CD's, classes, lectures, computer access, internet access, meeting space, quiet space. Don't take that away from us now, when we need it more than ever!

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