Van Nest Library Asked to Do More With Less

As technology needs grow, the budgets of public libraries continue to shrink. (ANDREW FREEDMAN/The Bronx Ink)

It is never easy to provide more services with less money, but the Van Nest branch of the New York Public Library is trying to figure out how to do so.

In the case of the three branches in Community District 11 of the Bronx, the social and technological needs of the residents have grown every year, while the budgets of the libraries have shrunk.

The library manager at the Van Nest branch on Barnes Avenue said that he is starting to feel the squeeze from years of modest cuts. Last year, the city library system was operating with a $245 million budget, down by $118 million from two years earlier.

“Three or four years of modest cuts in a row has significantly eroded the budget,” said David Nochimson. He said that the branch reduced hours in 2010 and is working with a smaller staff.

Data regarding specific branches is not available, though Nochimson explained it covers little else besides staff salaries and office supplies.

While there have been no layoffs at his branch, some positions such as part-time pages have been eliminated as people left their positions. Four years ago, Van Nest had six part-time pages – students who shelve books, assist patrons with technology and complete other tasks that keep the library running smoothly. In 2011, they were down to one. They have managed to hire one more since.

“When someone retires or leaves they just don’t replace them,” said Jeffrey M. Panish, a volunteer at the Van Nest branch. “They expect more service out of less people.”

The New York Public Library System has faced modest budget cuts since 2009. Another cut is planned for the 2013 fiscal year. (ANDREW FREEDMAN/The Bronx Ink)

The Van Nest branch is also consolidating service desks. Previously, their service desk was combined with their children’s desk. That desk will be combined with circulation. Plans are for the children’s section to be manned for fewer hours with a librarian at a desk on wheels.

This all occurs as the libraries of Community District 11 face a changing role, accommodating the needs of teenagers and children who like to socialize – popular visitors after school – as well as older patrons who prefer the quiet that is customary to libraries.

“Gone are the days of the ‘shh’ and the quiet areas,” said Denise Lyles, the library manager at the Allerton branch on Barnes Avenue between Arnow Avenue and Allerton Avenue. She said her library served as an unofficial day camp for neighborhood kids during the summer. They provided activities and programs including time playing video games and other games like UNO, in addition to their usual services.

At the Morris Park branch – just under a mile from the Van Nest branch – library manager Sandy W. Henry said her staff tends to be very busy. Their community room is often turned into a “homework zone” in the afternoons, while programs for older patrons, such as book discussions and lectures, are held earlier in the day.

Nochimson has a unique problem in that the Van Nest branch’s community room isn’t on a separate floor. Instead, it’s behind a glass wall. This allows Nochimson and his staff to keep an eye on children, but it doesn’t prevent noise or music from travelling. He said, however, that constant communication with both kids and adults helps keep the peace.

“We want to make it clear that we see a distinction between social interaction and disruptive behavior,” he said.

The libraries in Morris Park and Allerton have not yet felt constrained by the budget cuts, according to their library managers. Lyles admitted she would like to see more computers in her library, but had no other complaints. Henry suggested that her library may have been spared from cuts due to high circulation and attendance. The New York Public Library’s administration did not return several calls seeking comment regarding how its budget is allocated to individual branches and whether that involves circulation and attendance.

District Manager Jeremy Warneke said that he thinks Nochimson does well with the changing needs of patrons and is especially good with the needs of children.

Nochimson acknowledges that the work is hard and that his staff has been experiencing crossover in their job responsibilities. But with some sacrifice, everything manages to work.

“We need to be able to deploy our staff in this more efficient way,” he said. “We’re now expected to help each other out as needed.”

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