By Dustin Brown
The busiest public library system in the United States will have to close its doors to most weekend visitors if Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s budget passes.
The budget proposal unveiled by the mayor last week would force the Queens Borough Public Library to slash its hours and cut its programming budget in half, dealing a severe blow to the system at a time when use is on the rise.
Bloomberg recommended a 15 percent cut in library funding from the city, which provides more than two-thirds of the support and revenue for the boroughwide system.
The cut, amounting to $10.6 million, will force the majority of the borough’s libraries to reduce their schedules to about 30 hours a week, which eliminates weekend service as well as morning and evening hours on weekdays.
“It steps backwards in terms of what we’re able to do with the community,” said Gary Strong, the library director. “We’ve built a library that is the busiest library in the United States use-wise. That is very much put in jeopardy with these kinds of cuts.”
The borough’s library system is no stranger to hard times, having been forced to bring hours down to as little as two or three days a week during separate budget crunches in the 1970s and 1980s. Cuts in 1991 reduced library service to four or five days a week.
But in 1993-94, the system instituted six-day service around the borough, and Sunday hours began in 14 branches three years ago.
Most of that will disappear under the latest round of budget cuts.
The library already eliminated Sunday hours at 11 branches in October in response to cuts Mayor Rudolph Giuliani put in place, leaving only three branches — Flushing, Jamaica and Jackson Heights — open seven days a week. They will still remain open Sundays under Bloomberg’s budget.
Between eight and 10 branches will have Saturday hours under the new budget, but the remaining 50 or so will only be open during the week — usually for only about six hours a day during the afternoon.
Although Strong said he recognizes the need for cutbacks across the city, he stressed that library use has climbed across the system by 6 percent since Sept. 11.
“People are staying closer to home, they’re coming in, they’re buying less, they’re going out less so our program attendance is way up,” Strong said. “The buildings are swamped. You can’t find a seat.”
The library’s budget for programming will also be cut in half, Strong said, although how exactly the reductions will be felt has yet to be determined.
Meanwhile, 25 percent of the funding for the library’s capital improvements will be pushed off until 2006.
“That’s going to stall a number of our projects,” Strong said.
Strong said the library is turning to private funding sources, which already finance the system’s entire after-school programs, to make up some of the losses.
But he is still hopeful some the city funding will be restored.
“I’m an eternal optimist,” Strong said. “We will do everything we can to achieve as much restoration of the existing funding as we can.”
Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.