Public Library Budgets Are Being Slashed. Police Have More Cash Than Ever

Proposed cuts to New York City’s public libraries speak to an ongoing trend that puts funding for police above education.
The stairs outside the New York Public Library in Manhattan, NYC
Getty Images

No one was all that surprised to learn that New York City Mayor Eric Adams wants to cut costs by gutting public libraries. Under the administration’s recently announced “Program to Eliminate the Gap” (PEG), New York City public libraries may face up to $13.6 million in cuts between now and June 2023, followed by another $20.5 million in cuts over the next two fiscal years. 


But while the move is not shocking, librarians are nonetheless troubled by the cuts, which come at a time when budgets for the New York Police Department (NYPD) and other police departments around the country have expanded.

The proposed cuts would impact the New York Public Library (NYPL) system, which serves Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island library branches and research libraries, as well as the Brooklyn Public Library and Queens Public Library systems, which serve those respective boroughs. 

The Adams administration has justified the cuts by citing municipal budget constraints, blaming shortfalls on rising labor and energy costs, poor stock market performance, and asylum seekers. Adams first told city agencies in September—the NYPD included—to prepare for a 3 percent budget cut through the end of the current fiscal year, and then an additional 4.5 percent cut over the following two fiscal years.

Unlike most major metropolitan cities, New York City libraries saw over a $20 million bump in the budget during the previous fiscal year during former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s tenure. The NYPD received $83 million less the previous fiscal year, but the difference between the two budgets then was still well over $10 billion.

The disparity mirrors a trend that has seen police budgets grow at disproportionate rates in cities across the country, even as cuts shave off millions. Since protests against police brutality erupted in 2020, overall police budgets have continued to increase


“The austerity budget thing isn’t going to work,” Lauren Comito, executive director of Urban Libraries Unite, told Motherboard. “Austerity budgets create less social cohesion. They make it so you have more interactions with law enforcement. The idea that we’re going to somehow cut culturals and libraries and daycares and end up better off at the end of it, I don’t see how that happens.” 

While library systems typically apply for grant funding and have established private foundations that fundraise and solicit private philanthropic donations, the majority of funds are still public. Private funding is often treated as a way to compensate for a lack of public funds.

Unlike in other cities, New York City libraries also have the resources for innovative programs, like developing their own ebook lending app to avoid outsourcing to a third-party vendors. Last year, Brooklyn Public Library launched a digital library card program allowing students to access books in areas where book bans had taken effect. Thousands of students have since signed up for the program, which was partially in response to a growing movement of far-right groups looking to restrict access to materials by LGBTQ-identifying authors.


As talk of recession looms in 2023, library workers worry that the cuts in New York foreshadow a similar fate for library systems in major cities across the country.

In a forthcoming report from the nonprofit EveryLibrary, the authors demonstrate that U.S. state and local governments overinvest in police while underinvesting in education, citing the fact that total spending in the U.S. on policing was approximately $123 billion, compared to $13 billion for libraries in 2019.

"The places where libraries show up to support social services and mental health services are exemplary stories,” John Chrastka, the executive director of EveryLibrary, told Motherboard. “However, in too many places, the gaps in the social safety net can't be filled by the library. As a society, we need to rebuild the social safety net and properly fund core human services for homeless and at-risk groups, maternal and child health, mental health and well-being, and addiction. Librarians will always compassionately support their patrons, but without properly funded social services, they are there as a last resort."

A press secretary for the Adams administration told Motherboard that the administration values the important role that libraries play in the community, citing their new annual investments to help libraries develop and update teen centers in underserved communities, and adding funds to help them make substantial improvements to their facilities. 

“We 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,” Amaris Cockfield, deputy press secretary for the mayor’s office, said to Motherboard in a statement. “We are in constant contact with the three library systems about their needs and will work with them to implement savings initiatives in a way that does not reduce services to New Yorkers.”

Comito hopes that when Mayor Adams announces the preliminary budget that NYC public libraries are able to get back to the budget from the last fiscal year and the adopted budget, if not more. 

“There's empty positions that need to be filled at all three of the library systems,” she said. “Without those positions, you know, some libraries are short staffed. What I want out of the budget is to make sure that we can get to the staffing we need to get to so that we can continue to provide the services our neighbors rely on. That's ideal.”