This is the Leonard branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. It’s located at 81 Devoe Street, a block from the Lorimer L train station in Williamsburg. Built in 1908, Leonard is one of the seventeen remaining libraries paid for by the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, out of a total of twenty-three built in Brooklyn.
Carnegie had good reason to support libraries: As a poor factory worker and then telegraph messenger growing up in Pennsylvania, the future mogul’s education came mainly from a man who opened his private library of four hundred books to working boys every Saturday night.
The Leonard library figures prominently in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the famous novel by author Betty Smith. Smith grew up in the tenements of Williamsburg and frequented the library as a child. In 2008, on the sixty-fifth anniversary of the book’s publication, a tree was planted in front of the library in Smith’s honor.
I’ve been going to the Leonard library since I moved to Williamsburg in the 1990s, and my husband is an almost daily visitor there. Between us, we’ve checked out books ranging from Sci-Fi classics to cookbooks to philosophical tomes. So I was sad to learn that the library is no longer open on Saturdays, ever since the budget for libraries was cut last fall by the city.
Shelly Paus, the Library Information Supervisor at Leonard, says that hours may be slashed yet again if more budget cuts go through this month. What makes Leonard special, she says, is all the children’s programs hosted there, including daily story-telling for pre-kindergarteners, as well as drama, movies, and arts classes for school-age kids. Much of that programming will be lost if the city follows through with a proposed $25.2 million reduction from the library budget this year.
I asked David Mills, the Neighborhood Library Supervisor who runs Leonard, why people should care about the library’s survival. His response? “Libraries are the free universities of the people. If the library isn’t open, you’re not providing the services that people need. Also, this is a safe place for kids to go—where will they go if the libraries close? The Brooklyn Public Library has been around since 1897. In many neighborhoods, it’s been the one constant thing throughout the decades.”
Shelly showed me the backyard of the library, where kids from nearby P.S. 132 have planted a garden and painted murals. The backyard is one of the few green spaces in the neighborhood.
If the cuts go through in the fall, one branch in every City Council district will be closed completely. Leonard could be one of them.
At 5:30 pm on Monday June 20, I’ll be giving a free talk at Leonard called “Secrets of the Farmer’s Market,” about fresh market ingredients and easy ways to prepare them. I’ll have items from the market for you to pass around and taste. The event is by donation, and all funds raised will go to Leonard’s Save Our Shelves campaign, a yearly fundraising effort that helps to put books on the shelves. We’ll be selling copies of Lucid Food, all profits from which will go to Save Our Shelves.
If you’re interested in learning more about proposed library budget cuts, and how to speak up against them, visit the Brooklyn Public Library’s website.