"It’s not like libraries are over-funded!" said Soledad O’Brien, master of ceremonies for the 12th annual fundraising gala for the Brooklyn Public Library on Thursday. "It’s not like, ‘Trim the fat off those libraries!’ Those are cuts that are going to be very much felt."
Ms. O’Brien was drinking a glass of water in the children’s section of the central branch in Grand Army Plaza in advance of her hosting duties. We were discussing Governor David Paterson’s proposed $20 million cut — 20 percent of the overall budget — to state library funding as reported by the Library Journal earlier in the day.
"I think we’re in a zero sum game right now," continued the anchor and special correspondent for CNN. "The economy is tanking; the automakers are hemorrhaging money; you see all the financial institutions trying to figure out what to do with their bailout money; and all the people saying, ‘Wait a minute, if they don’t stabilize the housing market it’s never going to get better’; the Dow is bouncing up and down like a basketball.
"I understand the focus on some the big issues, but I think what all of our elected officials — whether it’s President-Elect Obama to Governor Paterson to people who are selectmen or assemblymen — have to realize is that you cannot keep cutting the budget for critical things like libraries and things that are easy to push to the side. At some point, those chickens come home to roost."
Nearby, Brooklyn State Senator Velmanette Montgomery agreed. "There are many reasons we should not cut libraries," she said. "I hope that whatever the governor has proposed, the fact that he proposed it, doesn’t mean that it will happen to the full extent."
According to the New York Library Association, $3 million in funding has already been cut from the budget this year.
"The library community is outraged by this proposal and the continued targeting of libraries to solve the state’s budget shortfalls," said Michael J. Borges, executive director of the association, in an official statement. "Library aid has already been cut twice this year, in April by 2 percent as part of the adopted 2008-2009 state budget and then again at the special session in August by another 6 percent."
THE LOBBY OF THE central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library had been transformed into a gorgeous, black-tie banquet hall on Thursday night, complete with floral arrangements and video tributes to the evening’s honorees. Library patrons didn’t want to focus on the bad news, but rather on the institution that has meant so much to Brooklynites for the last century.
"I feel like at the end of the day everyone loves a book, that feeling that we get when we are engaged with a beautiful piece of writing is beyond the budget cuts," said author Andrea Davis-Pinkney standing next to her husband and partner, illustrator Brian Pinkney.
The couple were two of the evening’s honorees for their many children’s titles and involvement with the library. They have done much of their research at the central branch just steps from where they live with their young children.
"Buying a book is a privilege," said Kevin Pemberton, president of the Brooklyn Vanguard — a group of 20- and 30- something patrons dedicated to expanding the library’s intellectual presence — who clocked a lot of hours at the Linden Boulevard branch as a child. "Every time I go online for a hardcover or soft cover, you have to have a level of disposable income. For those who do not, we need to provide that vehicle so they can continue to learn, so they can continue to go out and make the most of their lives."
Danny Simmons stood nearby wondering when his brother Russell, the godfather of hip hop and another of the evening’s honorees, might appear, adding he barely had to twist his arm to come down and show his support. The discussion soon turned to the national economic woes.
"People need to sacrifice a little more — poor people can’t sacrifice anymore, the middle class can hardly, hardly sacrifice anymore, so where else can it come from?" Danny Simmons asked. "I think there’s some very, very wealthy people in this country. I agree with Obama — people who make $250,000 or more, if you took a little more from them they wouldn’t miss a meal; they wouldn’t miss paying their bills; they wouldn’t miss a whole lot of things. I’ve talked to my brother about this, who is amongst the rich, and he’s like ‘If I got to pay a little more, then fine.’"
Danny Simmons sits on the board of the Brooklyn Museum and the Brooklyn Academy of Music in addition to being the vice chair of Rush Philanthropic, which he founded with his brothers, and is certainly feeling the pinch when it comes to funding cultural institutions in Brooklyn.
"We’re all looking at the same thing: where’s the money going to come from? We’re all trying to develop new strategies to raise money," Mr. Simmons said, "and I think the library is going to be in that position also."
Across the room, I caught up with Assemblymen Joseph Lentol, the head of the Brooklyn delegation to the State Assembly, who was quick to cite the $1 million in funding he garnered for the library, which he does not believe will be cut from the budget. I asked if he is in favor of tax increases to prevent cuts to state education and library budgets.
"Yes, I am, except the governor isn’t in favor of [raising taxes] so I don’t know if he’ll do that, so we’ll really have to wield the ax carefully," he said before pausing. "You can always be optimistic and hope for the best."
Even in Albany?
"Even in Albany."