Laura Ospina, Contributing Photographer

On a rainy Saturday in the Ives Main Library on Elm Street, New Haveners are not just reading. 

Along with flipping through books and newspapers, visitors wait for passport renewals, mend clothes using free sewing supplies and leaf through tax assistance booklets. Even on a slow afternoon, the library’s halls echo with the whirring of the 3D printer, intermittent laughter and chatter of patrons and librarians greeting each other as they pass. 

For acting city librarian Maureen Sullivan, this public space is powered by workers and librarians who are “deeply committed to understanding the nature of their local community.” 

Recently, the New Haven Free Public Library was placed in the limelight following Mayor Justin Elicker’s proposal for the NHFPL to be moved from the department of the Chief Administrative Office to the Community Services Administration. He announced the swap in March under his proposed budget for the 2023 to 2024 fiscal year. With the shift, the Mayor’s Office hopes to strengthen the “synergies” between public libraries and community services, acknowledging that libraries often serve as “community hubs,” according to a March 1 press release

But NHFPL administrators said that they were not consulted about the proposed department change. Instead, they learned about the proposal in a meeting where Sullivan said that city leaders referred to the department change as if it had already happened. Sullivan explained that she believes that the NHFPL’s mission aligns more with education and economic development rather than social services. 

If she had been consulted prior to the decision, Sullivan told the News that she would have expressed her opinion on the shift. Sullivan lamented the lack of the opportunity to properly prepare her staff for the proposed change. 

“One of the things I will be doing as that transition happens is working very hard to be very clear that the work we do in the library is more about education, providing access to information and materials,” Sullivan said. “The work that we end up doing that is more of a social service nature really needs to be picked up and handled by the agencies in the city that are really trained to do that… I want to make sure that the library staff are able to stay focused on program services and supporting self-directed learning and education.”

Elicker: “Making a mountain out of a molehill”

Mayor Justin Elicker told the News that the city informed the library administration about the department change prior to publicly making the announcement. Elicker said he believes that the department shift will not produce a huge change for patrons. Instead, he argued that the change will facilitate communication between the library and social services departments to ultimately provide the library staff with more support. 

To Elicker, due to the lack of tangible changes in library programming, people with qualms about the department change are “making a mountain out of a molehill.” 

Community Services Administrator Dr. Mehul Dalal pointed to the full-time social worker present at the Ives Main Library and the part-time social worker who travels between the Fair Haven and Wilson branches as exemplifying the growing tie between community services and libraries. Other services the NHFPL provides range from vaccine clinics — which have popped up in recent years at the Ives and Wilson branches — to annual volunteer income tax assistance for low- and moderate-income families and individuals. One initiative allows library patrons to check out cake pans in the children’s section. 

Each branch specializes in different community programs. For example, the Wilson branch hosts a “seed library” and encourages community gardening in addition to hosting an annual Three Kings Day celebration. In the branch located in Fair Haven, a neighborhood with a large Latine population, the library hosts programs celebrating Latine culture and provides bilingual services. 

“The foundation of libraries is education”

According to library officials, increasing patrons’ access to information and skills remains at the forefront of NHFPL’s programming. Rory Martorana, a NHFPL public services administrator, emphasized the importance of digital equity as part of the libraries’ main efforts. She explained that the public libraries offer classes and one-on-one sessions for those struggling to use computers, some of which she previously taught. 

“We see digital equity almost as a social justice thing,” Martorana told the News. “We want people to have access. It’s a health issue. They need access to Telemed. People can’t get jobs now with paper applications anymore…My favorite memories are ones that involve patrons… who come back and say, because you gave me 10 minutes on this computer, I got this job, or, because you helped me learn how to type, now I’m a medical coder. Stuff like that is really rewarding.”

The free computer lab at the Ives Main Library is the most constantly used resource at the library, according to business and nonprofit librarian Alexandria Robison. 

“Ives Squared” in the Ives Main Library, where Robison works, is a space dedicated to helping patrons grow their businesses or nonprofits, providing free access to a makerspace and business consultations. New Haven residents can browse through a specialized business selection or schedule one-on-one meetings with librarians and an entrepreneur-in-residence equipped to answer questions about building capital, applying for an LLC and locating rental spaces. Robison noted that the business services found at Ives Squared are oftentimes not otherwise offered for free outside the library system. 

Because libraries serve everyone in the city, anticipating the needs of all residents — whether a student, the mayor or someone struggling with housing insecurity — Robison said she believes it is difficult to place libraries in one category. She said that labeling libraries as community service institutions is not illustrative of their broader mission, even if the library supplies spaces for community organizations such as Liberty Community Services to provide services. 

“We want to provide an opportunity for people to come to Liberty Services and get housing assistance and provide a space that everyone can go and feel welcome where they might not feel welcome in other places,” said Robison. “But we’re also for parents who want to go to a story time, or go to an ESL class or classes that want to learn how to use some of our advanced technology… I think that makes it a little bit hard to categorize us into one specific space. But the foundation of libraries is education, providing access to home in whatever capacity, whether it’s in a traditional capacity of a book, or whether it’s just access to information in general, a new skill, the ability to get a job, learning how to make a resume.” 

If the department change is approved by the Board of Alders, NHFPL will join agencies including Elderly Services, Youth & Recreation and the Office of Housing & Homelessness in the Community Services Administration. Dalal told the News that the NHFPL will retain their own operating authority, following the precedent of other agencies with their own autonomy in the department. 

Dalal said he hopes to see more coordination between the library and the other programs under the CSA, citing an overlap of people using both the library and community services. This joint planning may take the form of expanding the social worker initiative already present in some NHFPL branches or furthering collaboration with the Youth & Recreation Department. Dalal told the News that the increased coordination might free librarians from the responsibility of having to facilitate social services that are not part of their job description. 

“For example, with the social work and library program, we can do a lot more coordinated planning around folks who are identified with social needs at the library,” Dalal said. “What’s the next step for them? Where they go next, what agencies can we bring in? And maybe it’s not necessarily the library where they need to go to get the best services. And we can really help people move along the service spectrum a little more easily.”

Martorana, an NHFPL public services administrator, said she believes that the department change would only strengthen the partnership that the NHFPL already has with social services agencies. Martorana specifically referenced how partnerships with the Department of Community Resilience and the Office of Mental Health and Addiction Services has allowed them to host suicide prevention and Narcan training in Ives. 

Sullivan, the acting city librarian, expressed a commitment to making the department change work, sharing that she has already begun collaborating with Dalal in anticipation of its approval. She does not expect any substantial changes to the NHFPL’s programming, which she partially attributes to library leadership being dedicated to the NHFPL’s work in the community. Sullivan commended the “resilience” and “creative capacity” of the administrative team amidst the passing of former City Librarian John Jessen, as well as the struggles of the pandemic and constant library staff vacancies

Upcoming union contract promises higher pay

New Haven librarians are some of the lowest-paid librarians in Connecticut, with a full-time union librarian earning anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 less than they would surrounding towns and cities, as reported by the Art Council of Greater New Haven. Part-time library aides are not represented by a union and earn $15 per hour, three to nine dollars less than what other Connecticut libraries offer. 

Workers in the NHFPL system are represented by Local 3144 and Local 884, the city managers’ and clerical workers’ unions, respectively. With the last contract expiring on June 30, 2020, both unions are currently negotiating with the city. According to Elicker, the delay in new contracts was partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The city has been working through various union contracts since the subsiding of pandemic restrictions, such as the nursing contracts

Gilda Herrera, President of Local 3144, told the News that the negotiations are making progress, and Local 3144 hopes to come to a conclusion soon. 

Elicker additionally noted that the proposed budget increases library funding by 13.3 percent from last year’s agency budget, and the new union contracts will include some form of increased pay. He said that he is optimistic that with increased pay, the city will be able to retain and attract employees within the library system and throughout the city, as vacancies have been an issue citywide. Elicker also expressed his support for expanded library hours, something he acknowledges will require more funding as well. 

With the lack of competitive wages, vacancies have become a larger issue, making it difficult to maintain current hours — let alone expanded hours — according to Robison. She said that the rise of the cost of living, along with the expense of the professional degree required to be a librarian, has made it difficult for some library staff to meet their basic necessities. 

“The salaries here are just not competitive,” said Robison, an Ives librarian. “So people who work here are doing it because they love the city and because they want to stay here, which means we have an extremely dedicated staff. But at the end of the day, we all have loans. Some people have taken out a hundred thousand dollars to make sure that they have the degree necessary to do this job. And if you’re only making $54,000 a year, that’s extremely tough if you have a house and kids and things like that as well.” 

The Board of Alders will hold a public hearing on the proposed budget prior to final action on the proposal in May. 

Laura Ospina covers Yale-New Haven relations and the Latine community for the City desk. Originally from North Carolina's Research Triangle, she is a sophomore in Branford College majoring in Political Science.