World’s Greatest Novels—Not At Your Local Library?

Photo by: Pearl Gabel
Brooklyn's branch libraries offer a range of services for today's users, including free Internet access. But their core function—providing books—is still important to many users.

A trip to six Brooklyn branch libraries in low-income neighborhoods found that many classic novels are not on the shelves. As budgets tighten and many readers go digital, do these missing titles represent A Brave New World or Darkness at Noon?

By: Candace Amos

Upon signing on to the main WiFi network at all Brooklyn Public Library branches these days, patrons are greeted with a welcome screen that asks, “Where Would You Be Without Brooklyn Public Library?” A Brooklyn Bureau investigation found that people looking for a number of classic works might have to be at the bookstore rather than at the library.

A survey of six branches in low-income neighborhoods revealed that most libraries did not have most of the books on a list of 50 titles generally regarded as essential reading, like The Great Gatsby and Native Son.

And with heavy budget cuts planned for next fiscal year, it's unlikely the libraries will be able to fill in the gaps. They'll be busy just trying to maintain the services they already provide.

Cuts coming amid changing usage

At stake for the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) in this year's fiscal dance are budget cuts upwards of $27 million—a 32 percent slash.

According to the testimony presented by BPL President Linda E. Johnson at a budget hearing in March, should the proposed reductions go through, library hours will be cut in half from 43 hours per week per branch to 21.5 hours at each location. Sixteen of the 60 branches will close, 350 employees will be laid off and 110,000 fewer books will be purchased.

The City Council must pass a final budget on or before June 30, 2012.

Conventional wisdom is that libraries—and particularly their hard copies of books—are increasingly obsolete. The digital revolution is indeed beginning to claim print icons. The Encyclopedia Britannica recently announced it would cease production in book form of its 244-year old series and focus solely on providing information via the Web.

But outlined in Johnson's budget testimony is the fact that in 2011 the BPL system recorded the highest circulation in history: 20 million items. The testimony notes that there is a growing demand for electronic materials with a reported 80 percent rise in digital media checkouts, but that's still a minority of the library's lending.

Researchers, students and general literary enthusiasts do benefit from the ease of access that is delivered through the Internet. And in many communities a fair number of residents are without home Internet access.

But they're also not able to purchase books as needed.

Hector Jimenez, 33, a tutor and frequent visitor of the Washington Irving branch wants more books. “This is the only Brooklyn Library that I go to. I go online to look for the books that I want to read but most the books I want are at bigger libraries in other boroughs," he says. "I’ve never found a book that I was looking for here. I live two blocks away and it’s more convenient for me to come here. I think this library needs to greatly improve.”

Jody Howard, Associate Dean and Director of the Palmer School of Librarian Information Science at Long Island University’s C.W. Post campus still believes in the power of a good old-fashioned paperback. “It would be terrible to have story time with a group of children and not have the actual books to follow along with. Real books are absolutely important. We need to make sure that we are using our resources most effectively. This has to be a decision made by each library. ”

Hunting the classics

The Brooklyn Bureau visited six low-income neighborhoods to see if they were keeping prominent books on the shelves. We combed the stacks at the Saratoga, Washington Irving, Spring Creek, New Lots, Brownsville and Cypress Hill branches for the top 25 books from Modern Library's list of the 100 greatest novels and also the top 25 titles from the African-American Literature Book Club’s list of Top Books of the 20th Century.

From contemporary titles like Terry McMillian’s Disappearing Acts to classics such as Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, the audit found that most of the classic literary works on our list could not be found at these branches (although, according to library policy, books not immediately available for checkout at any branch can be ordered from a different branch and delivered within one week.)

The Cypress Hill library located in the East New York section of Brooklyn boasted the best numbers having 14 out of the 50 searched books available on the stacks. Some of the titles found included Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler, Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. A few of the books that could not be found on the shelves include Ulysses by James Joyce, I, Claudius by Robert Graves and Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. (Some titles may have been checked out at the time of our visit, but a spot check of the BPL's online catalog confirmed many of the missing titles.)

Coming in second was the Washington Irving branch, located in Bushwick, with only 13 out of the 50 titles we sought available for checkout. We were able to locate F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, and The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler were not available at the branch.

The branch with the least number of books found from our compiled list was the New Lots branch with only nine of the 50 available for checkout. The New Lots library had Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston, Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson and Richard Wright’s Native Son. Titles that could not be located include, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck and Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry among several others.

The Saratoga and Brownsville libraries carried 12 out of the 50 books on our list and Spring Creek followed with 11.

The titles easiest to locate throughout the six branches were Wright’s Native Son, Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Hurston, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and An American Tragedy by Dreiser; each were available at five of the six branches.

A total of 21 books out of the 50 were not available at any of the six branches at all. These included books were Kindred by Octavia E. Butler, Homemade Love by J. California Cooper and Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow.

A difficult balance

The Palmer School's Howard says the absence of classic titles may be a symptom of the confused landscape facing libraries with tight budgets. “So many people are a tuned digitally to iPads, kindles and nooks, but everybody doesn’t have access to that. So what do we do for our patrons if they don’t have that?" Howard says. "They need to have data on the community and who their patrons are and what budgets structures should be used. Publishers are deciding what access to give libraries in regards to e-books."

Jason Carey, BPL's Communication Director, insists that the organization is doing its best to provide resources that patrons need, remain financially savvy and successfully evolve in the digital age. “We are making sure we protect our budget plans,” he says. “Technology moves so quickly and we are always making sure we are updating software and paying attention to the curriculum in schools.” Carey also pointed to a new information corner opening at the central library, as well as meeting rooms that are being provided, all with an aim toward making the library more useful to today's patrons.

Carey adds that the library is trying to maintain its stock of books in paper form, despite the advent of the digital age. But that costs money.

“We are one of three library systems in the city and 80 percent of our funding comes from the city,” he says. “A big bulk of our money goes to the staff, running the libraries, our books and materials. It’s our priority to make sure books are on the shelves.”


  • African-American Literature Book Club’s list of Favorite Books of the 20th Century (Entries 1 through 25):

    The Color Purple by Alice Walker
    Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
    Beloved by Toni Morrison
    Some Love, Some Pain, Sometime: Stories by E. Lynn Harris
    I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
    Some Love, Some Pain, Sometime: Stories by J. California Cooper
    Disappearing Acts by Terry McMillan
    Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
    Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
    Native Son by Richard Wright
    2nd Time Around by James Earl Hardy
    A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
    Homemade Love by J. California Cooper
    Sister, Sister by Eric Jerome Dickey
    Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
    A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines
    Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree
    Friends and Lovers by Eric Jerome Dickey
    Tumbling by Diane McKinney-Whetstone
    Blessings: A Novel by Sheneska Jackson
    Waiting to Exhale by Terry McMillan
    For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf by Ntozake Shange
    A Little Yellow Dog by Walter Mosley
    The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X
    Invisible Life by E. Lynn Harris

  • Modern Library: Top 100 Novels (Entries 1 through 25):

    Ulysses by James Joyce
    The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
    A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
    Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
    Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
    The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
    Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
    Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler
    Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence
    The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
    Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry
    The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler
    1984 by George Orwell
    I, Claudius by Robert Graves
    To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
    An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
    The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
    Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
    Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
    Native Son by Richard Wright
    Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow
    Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara
    U.S.A.(Trilogy) by John Dos Passos
    Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
    A Passage to India by E.M. Forster