Imagine a city — perhaps the one where you live or work. An intricate network of roads and rails, bridges and tunnels. A machine for producing economic activity chugging away in tall buildings and corner shops. A diverse population navigating relationships and pursuits and ideas.

Now imagine the indoor public spaces in this city — places within this rich tangle of life and commerce that are free and open to all, blind to background and means. It’s hard to think of much other than public libraries.

Libraries serve a manifold role. They provide books, periodicals, digital resources — information! — curated and stewarded by experts. And they take up the slack of countless underfunded or disappeared social programmes. Public libraries are English teachers, job hunters, after-school administrators, technology trainers and citizenship educators. They are cooling and heating centres and refuges. They serve the very young and the very old. They are, in effect, crucial twin engines of democracy and economic growth.

“They’ve never been just about books,” says Shannon Mattern, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies libraries. “If you go back to Alexandria, it was a learning centre. Libraries are places where the knowledge on the shelves is activated through discussion and activity.”

In my city of New York, it’s therefore doubly worrying that libraries’ budgets are yet again under threat, as they are across the US and in other cities worldwide. It’s an exhausting, almost annual battle in which civic leaders signal their frugality while communities fight back. But New York’s proposals could have more bite than usual, given the macro environment and the budgetary disposition of the mayor, Eric Adams. His so-called Program to Eliminate the Gap would cut $13.6mn from the New York Public Library in the current fiscal year and $20.5mn in each of the next three.

These millions are small slices of the city’s $100bn budget — libraries account for less than half a per cent of the total. But the cuts could slice deeply into their services — especially staffing in what is a human-capital-intensive pursuit.

Bar chart of New York budget allocations for select city agencies, FY 2022 ($bn) showing Libraries are far down the list

The mayor’s office says that it “values the important role libraries play in our community” but that it “must protect the city’s long-term financial stability by taking a hard look at how the city uses all of its limited resources in the face of strong economic and fiscal headwinds”.

Libraries themselves can provide this stability. “We think of books as being the brand of libraries,” says Brian Bannon, the New York Public Library’s chief librarian. But they are more than that. What they represent, he adds, is “this big idea that if we connect people in our communities to leading ideas of the day, we create a smarter group of people, a more competitive economy and a more connected society”.

As for the proposed cuts: “It’s early days,” Bannon says. “The good news is historically we’ve ended up on the right side of the city’s priorities.”

And they should. Libraries are an investment. “[Mayor] Adams talks a lot, rightly, about the need to get upstream of the city’s biggest challenges — gun violence, out-of-school and out-of-work youth, social isolation, immigration,” says Eli Dvorkin of the Center for an Urban Future. “Libraries are unique in New York City in that they are upstream of all these challenges.”

For example, in the large majority of New York City neighbourhoods, Dvorkin says libraries are the sole provider of public support for small business owners and entrepreneurs — holding classes and offering free work space, for example.

Bar chart of Changes at the New York Public Library, FY 2019 vs. FY 2009 (%) showing Doing more with less over a decade

“Things that we need to have for a productive and democratic society are constantly on the chopping block,” says Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada, president of the American Library Association.

Imagine if libraries didn’t need to fight this perennial battle — if the crucial social infrastructure they provide to our cities operated at more than subsistence level. In such a city, a connected, educated population might even be offered an alternative public square to a capriciously governed corporate social media platform.

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