Budget Cuts Strain Library Branch Popular with Immigrants

(Photo by Norman Oder via Brooklyn Bureau)

McKinley Park Library, fittingly next to the Chinese supermarket Good Fortune, caters to a heavily Chinese immigrant patronage. (Photo by Norman Oder via Brooklyn Bureau)

The McKinley Park branch of the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) in Dyker Heights is a one-story structure less than 7,500 square feet in size with an open-floor layout that provides little in the way of complete quiet or privacy.

But its unassuming appearance belies its ranking as fourth in Brooklyn when it comes to circulated material – 841,533 items in the last fiscal year alone. For all its voracious patrons, composed heavily of Chinese immigrants, Brooklyn Bureau’s Norman Oder reports that given the equally voracious budget cuts, it’s difficult for the small branch to keep up with demand.

BPL’s chief librarian Richard Reyes-Gavilan calls McKinley Park “the one glaring example of where our space does not meet the demand for services.”

McKinley Park serves as the de facto library for Brooklyn’s Chinese community, which is centered in Sunset Park to the north, but has significant presence around the library in Dyker Heights, and southeast in Bensonhurst and Homecrest/Sheepshead Bay as well.

The library’s selection reflects the immigrant backgrounds of its visitors – who aren’t only Chinese.

The adult section contains four shelves each of Chinese fiction and nonfiction; Chinese-language materials represent about 16 percent of total circulation. The assistant branch manager speaks Chinese, as do several part-timers, to help when translation’s needed.

The branch offers a wide range of multilingual videos—not just Chinese but Italian, Hungarian, Japanese, and more. Indeed, the branch attracts a diverse crowd, including older neighbors, many of Italian descent, men in Hasidic garb and women in Muslim headscarves.

However, with a tight budget, keeping up with diverse materials will have to take a back seat to other more pressing concerns.

 While BPL would like to significantly expand McKinley Park, that can’t be a priority while the library struggles to maintain its operating budget, copes with capital challenges like faulty air conditioning, and contemplates the controversial sale of two branches in gentrified neighborhoods to raise funds.

Oder explains the “budget dance” that has strapped the city’s library funds.

The city’s three library systems (Brooklyn, Queens, New York) are in the midst of what is wearily called the “budget dance,” in which Mayor Bloomberg proposes drastic cuts to the systems’ operating budgets and the City Council restores most though usually not all the money.

“This is the biggest cut that we have to try to make up,” says Brooklyn Council Member Vincent Gentile, whose district includes McKinley Park and who chairs the Council’s library subcommittee. “I think the sentiment is there to [restore] it.” The budget should be resolved within two weeks.

Gentile, along with Queens Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, is pushing a measure to dedicate 2 percent of property tax revenues to libraries, thus removing the systems from the budget dance. That would require a change in the city charter.

For now, says BPL’s Reyes-Gavilan, even in a best-case scenario, “We’re looking at an ongoing struggle. We’re down $15 million from 2008.” That hit is felt significantly in budget areas like collections, which is why even super-busy McKinley Park experienced a dip in circulation last year.

Purchasing books and media in languages other than English also doesn’t help money woes.

“When the shoe pinches, it may be more expensive to buy foreign language material,” adds Reyes-Gavilan, noting that the library still prioritizes materials in Chinese and Russian. The implementation of what’s called “floating collections”—no book is anchored to a particular branch—mitigates some of the problem, making it easier to connect books and users.

According to a report from the Center for an Urban Future, Oder noted, “…the Brooklyn Public Library, compared with Queens and Manhattan, has gotten far less in capital support from its elected officials, including Borough President Marty Markowitz.” The report also looks at how libraries have provided a stepping stone for immigrants trying to fit in to their newly-adopted country.

McKinley Park branch manager Maureen McCoy echoes the significance of libraries to immigrants, saying, “If the family’s recently arrived, this is their first stop.”

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