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Under Mayor Justin Elicker’s “Crisis Budget” proposal, Mitchell Library will close in the upcoming year. The potential closure has been met with pushback from New Haven residents — now, the Board of Alders have joined in their opposition to any possible closure.
The budget deliberation process, whereby the Board of Alders debate and vote on the mayor’s proposed budget, is now a month away, with two deliberation sessions scheduled for May 10 and May 23. In March, Elicker announced two possible budgets for the fiscal year 2021-22. One budget, the Forward Together Budget, avoids the cut, but its implementation is contingent upon increased financial contribution from the state and from Yale. The other, the Crisis Budget, includes the closure of Mitchell Library.
That budget — especially its library position — has sparked extensive debate from New Haven residents at the Board of Alders Finance Committee’s public budget hearings. On Monday night, at a Finance Committee budget workshop, almost every alder present defended the library and no alder spoke in favor of its potential closure.
“Every year since I’ve been on the board, there has been a fight for sufficient funding for our libraries,” Ward 27 Alder Richard Furlow said at the meeting. “Every budget season, we have tons of people that come out in support of the library. And I find it incomprehensible that in New Haven, with the average math and reading proficiencies below the state average, that there would be by this administration a decision or even a choice to close down a learning center. It is incomprehensible and unfathomable.”
Alders warned that once the deliberation process reaches full swing, they would work to block the closure of the library. Furlow ended his statement by saying, “I will have much more to say in the time to come.” Ward 10 Alder Anna Festa said she is working on amendments already to stop the cut. Ward 9 Alder Charles Decker GRD ’18 also noted he would have more to say “at a future date.”
And Ward 24 Alder Evette Hamilton told those at the meeting that shuttering Mitchell is not something she is remotely considering.
“I was never entertaining any thought of closing any of our libraries,” Hamilton said. “It’s just not gonna happen. Not in my book. But as the colleagues said, there will be a lot more to be said when we go into deliberation.”
Part of the frustration from alders and residents stems from a lack of transparency over why Elicker chose to cut Mitchell Library in his Crisis Budget plan. When an alder asked Michael Gormany, the city’s budget director, which of the city’s libraries is most underutilized, he was not able to answer.
Instead, New Haven Free Public Library City Librarian John Jessen explained that when comparing public libraries, administrators often focus on the circulation of books as a measure of its productivity. However, Jessen said it is more complicated than that. He noted that the key performance indicators, or KPIs, used to measure productivity vary greatly, and different libraries have different strengths across various KPIs.
“There are KPIs for traditional stats — door counts, circulation, programs, attendance in the programs,” Jessen said. “Some libraries do better in circulation, some libraries do better in door counts … They all have their strengths across the board, and if you’re looking at it from a non-fiscal reality … then it gets more complicated, because every library is important in its community and shines in particular ways.”
Jessen spoke about the Stetson library, which is based in the Dixwell-Newhallville neighborhood, as an example of why circulation is not the only measure of a library’s success. Stetson has historically had the lowest circulation of the library system, but Jessen said it has “amazing programs, door counts are high and there’s a lot of usage.”
In a radio interview with WNHH, Stetson Branch Librarian Diane Brown agreed, stating that the city and library system has been highly focused on circulation, rather than programming. Brown emphasized that it can be impossible to compare libraries, since they all have different needs and “it’s not one size fits all.”
While being questioned by the committee, Gormany justified the mayor’s decision by acknowledging the benefits of the library, but said some services would be necessary to cut in the case of a crisis budget. But alders continued to push back.
On the brink of tears, Festa shared her own memory of using libraries as a child. She said that she did not believe circulation, or any of the metrics Jessen mentioned, should justify closing a library. If one person used the library, she said, that would be enough.
“Growing up, it was always ‘reading is fundamental,’” Festa said. “But not only that — growing up, most of us did not have computers. It was the brick and mortar that we went to. And I think with COVID we’ve come to the realization, for those families that can’t use the internet and computers, that brick and mortar is still important. For that, I don’t believe in closing any libraries.”
Ward 3 Alder Ron Hurt, too, expressed nostalgia in his argument against the closure. He said that when he first moved to New Haven, Mitchell was the first library he ever visited.
“I lived in the neighborhood, and when I had children, I used to walk my children to that library, and that was a great experience for them,” Hurt said. “I’m trying to wrap my head around why this library, which has a great history, would be closing.”
New Haven’s first free public library was founded in 1886.
Owen Tucker-Smith | email@example.com
Correction, April 15: A previous version of the story said the budget deliberations were scheduled for May 13 and May 20, but they are scheduled for May 10 and May 13. The article has been updated.