Nathan Tankus: New York City Public Libraries Attack Alert – Privatizing Prized Locations and Cutting Budget by 35%

By Nathan Tankus, a student and research assistant at the University of Ottawa. You can follow him on Twitter at @NathanTankus

Libraries (along with post offices) have been a central part of urban planning for over a century. Orthodox urban economics is all about taking a central urban area as given, and then calculating “optimal” rental values in the areas surrounding this center. Of course, the center of an urban area isn’t “given” or naturally occurring; they are designed and planned. Public facilities such as libraries helped generate central areas. In this context it is no coincidence wealthy benefactors such as Andrew Carnegie took interest in planning and constructing public libraries (Van Slyck 1991). The areas around public libraries gained customers and “locational rent” (in the language of the seminal economic geographer Von Thünen). Even though these institutions have become less important for land values and foot traffic, their presence helped generate these neighborhoods.

Now that these buildings have “done their jobs” (in FIRE sector terms) they can do one more thing for finance and real estate: be killed for private sector fun and profit. This is precisely what is taking place in New York City. The problem for FIRE is getting these privatizations to happen. Luckily for them, the financial crisis solved this problem. By generating budget shortfalls for state and local governments, the financial crisis has given people like mayor Bloomberg the opportunity to make cuts to popular social services like libraries. Why is FIRE interested in budget cuts? Because they reduce money needed for maintenance and thus make the library system appear too large for the city to handle (they also reduce public services, thus making them less popular). The Brooklyn Public Library, for example, has “a $230 million backlog of deferred maintenance, barely dented by the $15 million annual allotment of capital funding.”

Our billionaire Mayor is now trying to deliver a death blow to the public library system. In his budget for Fiscal year 2014 “the Administration is proposing a $193 million subsidy for the systems, which is a 35 percent reduction from the Fiscal 2013 Adopted Budget.” Unsurprisingly, the number one impact highlighted by the mayor is “branch closings”. According to Albor Ruiz writing in the New York Daily News, “More than 60 libraries will have to close their doors and there will be massive layoffs resulting in disastrous cuts to hours and services.” At this point in the negotiations, the final cuts may end up being somewhat less severe. However even a cut half or a third as large as this one would be devastating.

This process has been going on for years. Last year the Mayor took similar steps. To quote last year’s report, “For Fiscal 2013, the Administration is proposing a $206 million subsidy for the systems, which is a 31 percent reduction from the Fiscal 2012 Adopted Budget.” These reductions aren’t limited to libraries: city budgeting has radically changed since the crisis. Every year around this time (in the middle of the year) the mayor proposes a slew of major cuts. These are called “Programs to Eliminate the Gap” (or PEGs). The City Council will sometimes restore some of these funds temporarily for one year out of discretionary funds in the adopted budget that were previously saved for special programs and new initiatives. However, each time they take these steps, the push to fill these gaps with cuts of some fashion intensify and the groups receiving funds have to plan on major cuts in the next budget.

Many argue that the ability of the City Council to resist cuts at the beginning of the fiscal year is limited. While there is some truth to this, I’m skeptical. Current democratic frontrunner for mayor Christine Quinn is speaker of the Council. She also received $800,000 from real estate interests according to New York Public Interest Research Group as of 3 months ago (I’m sure much more has poured in since then). All the other candidates have received significant sums from real estate interests, but Quinn is far and away the favorite. Given this context, why should she do more than make token efforts to resist cuts that push lucrative real estate into her backers’ pockets?

When the public sector divests itself of physical space en masse, the ability for it to regain control is substantially decreased. If an upswing in municipal finances occurs in the future, the enormous amounts of money it takes to purchase and develop real estate (especially in New York) for public use makes rolling back any sell-offs nearly impossible. Additionally, harming the quality of research libraries in New York has a substantial impact on the regional economy since researchers from all over the world come here to access them.

On a more personal note, the New York Public Library has been indispensable for my research (including research I’ve done for this site). Public libraries are essentially the only organization that provide access to journals (both digital and physical) for those without an academic affiliation. Even for those with Academic affiliations, they have a fantastic collection of books and will even digitize selected pages and send them to you at no cost. Destroying public libraries and schools is not only a great boon to the FIRE sector, it also greatly harms are ability to resist and articulately criticize dominant narratives and conventional wisdom. As Orwell famously wrote in 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past”.


Van Slyck, Abigail A. ‘The Utmost Amount of Effectiv [sic] Accommodation’: Andrew Carnegie and the Reform of the American Library.” The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians (1991): 359-383.

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  1. YankeeFrank

    It will be a good day when Bloomberg is finally out of office. Of course his successor will most likely also be a corporate whore, but to not have to listen to that whiny-voiced douchebag anymore will be a mercy. The idea that such a rich city and country cannot afford libraries and infrastructure repairs is such a grandly pathetic lie. Once the commons is completely privatized I think these plutocrats are going to be surprised when the masses of people no longer feel any reason to maintain even the pretense of civil society. And when that happens they better pray their walls are high enough…

    1. Inverness

      I’m cynical. Saint Vincent’s hospital — yes, a hospital was closed in Greenwich Village. The last thing an overcrowded city needs is less access to health care. But there wasn’t that much protest.

      Christine Quinn can put on her liberal dog and pony show — “progressive on social issues”, but tight on fiscal matters. And New Yorkers will probably swallow it.

    2. wunsacon

      Their walls will be high enough — and monitored by SkyNet.

      Figuratively, SkyNet has already been deployed overseas. Is sufficiently advanced science indistinguishable from magic? Well, from the eyes of the targets on the ground, sufficiently-remote piloting make drones look like Terminators.

      1. Nathanael

        It will not take long before any annoyed dissident militant group will have easy access to drones. Including weaponized drones.

        The technology is simply too *cheap*.

        1. wunsacon

          My *guesses* about the future are:
          (A) Drone technology (mass production, frequency jamming, battery power, onboard weapon capacity, intel) will advance at a rate that effectively neutralizes threats from older “consumer” drones.
          (B) TPTB will make sure no one downloads or p2p-exchanges anything too advanced or “interesting” (or protected by onerous IP laws) for their 3d printer.

  2. DakotabornKansan

    John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society, once said that “private affluence produces public squalor.”

    1. banger

      Great quote, thanks. JKG influenced me enormously as a young person and his observations tend to hold up.

  3. jjmacjohnson

    Closings also seemed at libraries where developers will make a handy profit. The only library near the Brooklyn Court Houses in Brooklyn Heights is an example. Nearest library is a real haul to Carroll Gardens. Not close if you need to use a free computer or get a book. Or just sit and read.

    That is just one example too.

    1. Inverness

      They can spend five bucks on a Carroll Gardens coffee shop latte, and another fifteen on a paperback novel. All set.

      1. Paul P

        No libraries, No books, No Crisis of Democracy.
        Even before these cuts take place, I feel myself getting dumber and dumber.

  4. diptherio

    So where are our modern-day Carnegies to fill in the gap? I mean, seeing as how Bloomberg himself is the richest man in town, IIRC, shouldn’t he be volunteering to cover the shortfall, ensuring that the monuments of robber-barons-past are maintained for future generations?

    If not Bloomy, then some rich hedgie or techie should surely be stepping up here. Perhaps library employees should be going down to Wall Street and handing out copies of The Gospel of Wealth.

    1. Inverness

      But isn’t that a trap? It’s always been a feature of capitalism to donate money to make your greedy company look better. The Koch brothers give a lot of money to NYC museums, and Walmart bragged about all the money they gave to Katrina victims. Guess what — Walmart WORKERS gave more.

      Charity is bourgeois — rough paraphrase of Marx.

      1. diptherio

        Oh, I know. I’m just saying our current elites can’t even live up to the dismal standards set by the last century’s crop. I would, of course, prefer some sort of community fund to save the institution, something along the lines of a land-trust. But barring moves in that direction, and with the understanding that the richies are going to be doing PR burnishing anyway (I’m looking at you, Gates), I’d take a little bourgeois charity over seeing the library die (or be privatized).

    2. Ms G

      Excellent observation. This is exactly what I wondered when the Cooper Union students and faculty said “enough” (to the President and Board voting to start charging tuition). Peter Cooper, 19th century industrialist and extremely wealthy man, created a school for the arts, architecture and engineering that would be *free* so that working people could get a good education and contribute to the useful arts in society. And here are the financiers and MBAs of today (including, unforgiveably, alumni) who control Cooper’s presidency and Board fixing to destroy the school by turning it into a looting opportunity. And yes, Mayor Bloomberg, with his untold hundreds of millions in his philanthropic empire — not to mention as the guy with the most visible bully pulpit in the City of New York — was not moved to give one penny to dissuade the destroyers or to utter one word to shame the President and Board into reversing their decision.

      Where are the Peter Coopers today?

  5. Walter Map

    U.S. society, like the U.S. economy, is being sold off. It is getting liquidated.

    Don’t think of the U.S. as a country. Think of it as a largish estate sale. The kind of sale you have when the old man has finally passed away and all his stuff gets put out on the lawn and sold off to passersby for whatever they will pay. Everything must go, the broken-down old house and the broken-down old car included.

    The U.S. didn’t have the problems it has now when it taxed the rich. The continued failure to tax the rich guarantees its dissolution into a third-world country.

    All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.

    1. jfleni

      “The continued failure to tax the rich guarantees its (USA) dissolution into a third-world country.”

      Actually, it guarantees dissolution into multiple, mostly rich or moderately prosperous first-world countries. And guess what: the plutocrats will get almost nothing from any of them because they won’t have anything left to bargain with.

    2. banger

      I like the image of an estate sale. There is an increasing sense, for a huge variety of reasons, that this country no longer belongs to “us” whatever you mean by that. It’s always been a hustler’s dream here. We live in the home of big schemes, cons, fraud, dirty deals, a place where Machiavelli meets William Randolph Hearst who both dine with Elvis.

      But there was always a counter-culture of people who wanted to civilize this instinct and the public libraries throughout the country were one of those miracles that gave us a place where we could go and to continually inherit the true wealth of Western Civilization. The libraries are the spiritual center of our civilization, not to demean churches but they often divided us as much as brought us together–but libraries could bring us together to underdstand our common heritage. That is where I got my education–more than any school I ever went to and I think this is true of a lot of people.

      I hope the NYC library system doesn’t continue its decline but I fear for it.

  6. Moneta

    Now that markets have peaked and we’ve easily convinced the general population that government is the biggest problem, the low hanging fruit are the public assets.

    1. McMike

      and it took a manufactured crisis to pry open the last of the more “sticky” public assets – the prime open public land, prime urban real estate locations, and capital intensive monopoly service systems (like education, parking, toll roads, and sewer/water service).

  7. Harry the Homeless

    There was a time in the 90s where it appeared Borders and Barnes and Noble, if you had the money, and the money for espresso, and you lived in the richer part of town, became an upscale library. The libraries are still there, sometimes dwarfed by castle sized single family homes next door. In really rich areas like Montgomery County MD, and Northwest DC, there is enough ‘spill over drachma’ to do quite modern, artful libraries. Too bad it is too expensive to live close by.

    1. McMike

      I wouldn’t be surprised to see Starbucks behind this move.

      Retail commercial interests have long coveted the death of free public meeting spaces.

    2. jake chase

      I don’t know where you live, but the Palm Beach Gardens Barnes & Noble didn’t have five books worth reading the last time I was in there. Even more unbelievably, they play corporate musak to entertain the largely brain dead clientele.

      1. banger

        I used to find amazing stuff at book stores. The publishing industry has changed dramatically–obviously. It’s an interesting history how it changed–everything is corporate. On the internet, on the other hand, you can find interesting stuff and all the variety book stores once had.

  8. monday1929

    All pretense is gone. It is a dismantling of Society.
    We are being drawn and quartered.

  9. LAS

    Every year for the past 8 years there has been a letter writing campaign at the NY Public Library branch which I use. We library users write to Mayor Bloomberg about the importance of the NYC library system for the public. Mayor Bloomberg generally always sends a reassuring, but non-commital form letter in response. Obviously, we aren’t having an impression on the man. Our public library hours are already among the shortest of all major cities.

    Libraries are just so important for ongoing education and citizenship. It is among one of the last things that the city should ever cut.

    1. curlydan

      But “Freedom” in this country basically means that we’re can download any Netflix movies, iTunes songs, and books on our Kindles (for a price, of course). And as we’ve been told, freedom isn’t free.

      Libraries generally are free on a transactional basis even though it takes property or other taxes to support them. For our rentier overlords, though, any unmonetized transaction is an assault on their freedom to make money and must be stopped.

      1. MillySwidge

        here are several NC comments with links I copied from the comments section about the destruction of the post office awhile back:

        rich says:
        December 6, 2012 at 10:32 am
        This is how you steal.
        Then we look into the role of Senator Feinstein’s husband Richard Blum, the head of the world’s largest commercial real estate company, who has an exclusive contract with the U.S. Postal Service to list and sell its valuable and historic public property as the Congress deliberately bankrupts the Post Office in the name free enterprise. U.C. Berkeley professor of Geography, Gray Brechin joins us to discuss the theft of our national heritage which the press is ignoring while only reporting that the Postal Service is in default, but not why, and who is profiting from its deliberate destruction.

        .Maureen says: 
December 6, 2012 at 11:45 am 
Thanks for the link, Rich. This is a whopper of a story. And if one looks a little further into Richard Blum’s holdings in CBRE, one finds — no surprise — that, under scrutiny, Blum Capital reduced its holdings last September to under 5% (14.7M shares). An article states that this is the first time Blum Capital’s holdings have been below 20M since 2006. 2006 just happens to be the year that the congressional bill passed, as discussed in the linked interview, which virtually forced the U.S. Post Office into bankruptcy. The liquidation, which privatizes historic and other post office properties, is taking place under the media radar.


        ◦ sd says: 
December 6, 2012 at 4:30 pm 
Friendly reminder – Perini construction got one of the early 2003 no-bid contracts in Iraq. At the time, Blum held a significant position with the company.
Feinstein is about as corrupt as they come.

  10. TedWa

    Why don’t all these broke counties and states take the banks to court for past recording fees that they avoided by using MERS??? According to one report, Dallas County alone is owed over $100 million in recording fees !! There is no reason for the states to go broke and force austerity on us all so the banksters can keep their yearly bonuses !!

    Come on state AG’s – get with it ! Do your job ! People write your state AG and get them to action !

    1. McMike

      I thought the settlement came with amnesty.

      It’s sort of routine these days, granting blanket amnesty, sometimes retroactive, sometimes prospective.

      1. TedWa

        Not amnesty for the recording fees as far as I know – just the crimes they committed.

        From 2/23/2013 MERS has been sued again, and it’s probably not going to be the last time. The state of Kentucky (actually, it’s a commonwealth) has followed the lead of states like New York, Texas, Alabama, and Delaware, and is going after Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems, Inc. (MERS) for lots of money in a lawsuit based on county record filing fees.

          1. McMike

            Yes, I understand that now.

            It is indeed a god question why the counties are not all up in arms and demanidng suits.

    2. Yves Smith

      In Oregon, I believe the state law requires recording. So a recording fee suit would do well.

      But most states don’t require recording. It’s become an accepted practice to preserve title and most important, the value of your lien. A “first” mortgage is first because you recorded it first.

      So those suits on recording fees have typically failed in court.

      1. TedWa

        Hi Yves : I just checked and Washington State requires recording of deeds too. I’ve already contacted the state AG but I have low expectations for a response – but it’s still worth the effort. In my opinion every reader should check about recording requirements with their state and then contact their state AG. There is no reason for the states to be going broke for bankster bonuses.

        Someone just put up an article today about my question and stated that the Guilford NC story showed that it was useless to sue for recording fees. I don’t think recording is a requirement in NC as the judge stated “There’s no commercial action taken when recording a deed, so robo-signing doesn’t break North Carolina law.” I’m not a lawyer so I’m not 100% sure my assessment is correct – but, that is my take of the ruling. Robo-signing and MERS recordings are actually 2 different things.

        1. TedWa

          The robo-signing and MERS comment was about the article. I think it’s a great idea whose time has come. Maybe you’d be interested in running stories where counties have won or the efforts are on-going to get the recording fees? I’ve seen a few articles here and there signed a petition about it about a month ago. I don’t think this crime should be buried or forgotten as there are things we can do about it.


  11. leapfrog

    Slightly off-topic, but has anyone else noticed the recent proliferation of “Life News” propganda (oops, I mean “stories”) on Yahoo? Who is behind that org – Catholic or Evangelical?

  12. Jeff Dreamer

    In the war of terror, librarians were outraged that the federal goons out of paranoia alone, needed to keep tabs on what the public was reading, checking out and posting. Contractors were paid to make sure public internet connections were tight, no “inappropriate use” of coporate owned networks. Corporations (management consultants, other scumbags) generally want a payment of some kind, either your time, or your wallet for information. Even in the digital era the most wonderfully adorned libraries are in the buildings of the big corporate law firms.

  13. charles sereno

    Disclosure: I carried mail at the PO for 20 years and, as a child, walked past Andrew Carnegie’s bust at the Library of Hawaii to get at the books without knowing who the hell he was. That said, I give this article a 10+3. I think it has application to what’s now happening in Chicago — the closure of 50 schools. Among other things, can’t we think of good uses of “extra” space in these schools in neglected neighborhoods? No. The Oligarchs know best. How to promise and profit.

  14. casino implosion

    The thing that finally convinced me that Canadians are indeed from another planet is the Toronto Reference Library, which makes the equivalent place in Manhattan look like it belongs in a third world country by comparison.

  15. jfleni

    Moneybags Mikey, the slimiest NYC mayor in about a century; how unsurprising that his stock tip machines, the basis of his swollen fortune, are really just snoop gadgets to clue Mikey in to everybody else’s financial affairs. If he could do it and make enough fast bucks, he would turn all NY libraries into millionaire apartments and country clubs and grin all the way to his bank.

    The heir-apparent, high-priestess of the City council is not just flaky, which people would easily pardon, but a simpering, almost equally corrupt, and loyal hand-maiden of the super-arrogant Mikey!

    To add insult to injury, the increasingly deranged NY Times is strongly promoting Mr. “Weenie-Vista” Weiner for Mayor; this is so senseless that it seems like a joke at first, until you consider the tragic consequences for New Yorkers if a clown like that actually gets in.

    Moneybags effing Mikey! A pox on him! I hope New Yorkers will handily reject the fools and charlatans being pushed for Mayor by the plutocrats, Mikey, the NY Times, and all the others who want to swindle the voters of the City.

  16. Ep3

    Come on yves, I said awhile back that we don’t need libraries anymore. We have Barnes & noble, where the free market and books mix. No more reading books for free. Now a person can pay $7 for a small cup of burnt coffee to peruse reading material deemed appropriate by the company. And if you don’t like their selection of Glenn beck books, you are welcome to shop, I mean read, elsewhere.
    It’s absolutely terrible.

  17. ginnie nyc

    The many, severe cuts to our library system in NY during the Bloomberg years have indeed laid it waste. There has been almost NO purchases of philosophy and science literature (medical in particular) since 2007. Many of the political economic works NCers post about, that I would dearly like to read, cost too much, even used. But I can no longer get them through the library, either – because it hasn’t bought new books in these categories for for some time.

    1. ginnie nyc

      I should add if such works are bought, there is only one copy, and it does not circulate. I ask you, how can you read a book more than 250 pages in one visit, or two or three?

    2. Nathan Tankus

      I have great sympathy for your situation. This was me a few years ago before I got an academic affiliation. please contact me through my email (nathantankus(at)gmail(dot)com) and I may be able to help you to a certain extent with certain books.

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