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New York City Closes Public Health Library Amid Budget Cuts

Just as the city has seen an uptick in COVID-19 cases this month, a cost-saving directive from Mayor Adams will close the public health library that many relied upon during the height of the pandemic.

New York City Department of Health experts may find it hard to keep up with the latest scientific research going forward — including on critical topics like pandemic preparedness — as the agency was recently forced to close down its Public Health Library due to budget cuts, the Daily News has learned.

The William Hallock Park Memorial Public Health Library, located in Long Island City, has for decades provided department epidemiologists and the public with access to peer-reviewed medical journals, databases, books and other research materials, on site and electronically as well as via loans. The library is named after renowned bacteriologist William Hallock Park, who was credited with creating vaccines to treat and prevent diphtheria in the early 1900s.

But the department informed staff this summer that it is shuttering the library due to cost-saving directives ordered by Mayor Adams earlier in the year.

“As part of the recent budget cuts, we have to make the very tough decision to close the Public Health Library,” an internal memo obtained by The News reads. “As of July 1, 2023, we will no longer renew journal and database subscriptions.”

The memo adds that “most” of the department’s journal and database subscriptions won’t expire until December, meaning staff can access them until then. After that, access to subscription-based material will end, according to the memo, but officials in the Adams administration said the physical location where the library collections are stored will — at least for now — remain open to department staff.

Still, an epidemiologist who worked for the department during the early days of COVID-19 said subscription-based medical journals were critical for pandemic-related research and expressed worry that the elimination of such resources could impact the agency’s ability to prepare for future public health emergencies.

“It was so important during COVID to see what [researchers in] Israel were doing, to see what [researchers in] the U.K. were doing — the U.S. made policy off of Israel because they had so much data,” said the epidemiologist, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern of not being able to work with the city again.

“We just went through a giant pandemic where lots of people died. If that’s not enough to justify investing in public health, what is?” the expert added.

Word of the library’s closure comes as the city has seen an uptick in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations this month.

In addition to servicing department staff, the physical library space has been open to the public by appointment, a resource mostly used by independent researchers and university students.

However, because of the cost-cutting directive, public access is going away altogether. An attempt to make an appointment to visit the library returned an email informing The News that, “As of July 2023, the Public Health Library is closed; we are no longer accepting public access appointments.”

A spokeswoman for Mayor Adams confirmed public access is no more. She also said that as of July 1 the library is no longer staffed by librarians — but Department of Health employees can still visit it and access books and other materials on site, though they can no longer take them out as loans.

While saying there are currently “no plans” to end access to the physical library for department staff, the spokeswoman did not rule out that could change in the future.

Shari Logan, a spokeswoman for the Health Department, argued that staff should not be impacted by the scaling back of the library because the agency will make its physical collections available in digitized form and offer alternatives to subscription-based journals that “ensure that staff continue to have the information they need to do their work.”

But the alternative resources the department plans to provide do not appear to be commensurate with subscription-based journals, according to a list made available to agency staff this week.

The list, which was shared with The News, shows the department will direct staff to make use of Google Scholar, the Public Library of Science and other free online databases to access research materials.

The list also recommends using the New York Academy of Medicine and HighWire Press for accessing interlibrary materials and journal writings — though it notes those resources can come at a cost.

It’s unclear if the department plans to pay for staff to access such materials going forward, or if staff would have to go out of pocket themselves. The Adams spokeswoman said that’s not yet clear, but pointed to the Health Department’s statement that it will “ensure that staff continue to have the information they need to do their work.”

A Department of Health researcher who spoke on condition of anonymity due to not being authorized to talk to the press told The News free databases like Google Scholar are not adequate replacements for subscription-based journals.

“This is going to make it much harder for people to get the information they need to do their job and protect New Yorkers,” the staffer said. “It’s taking a tool out of the hands of the workers.”

Among the most widely used medical trade publications behind paywalls are the Journal of the American Medical Association and the Annals of Internal Medicine.

The combined annual subscription cost for those two journals for a single person is nearly $600, their websites show. Annual subscription rates to those journals for institutions like public health agencies range in the thousands of dollars.

Jay Varma, an infectious disease expert who served as former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s top COVID adviser, said that while some research material is publicly available on the web, the closure of the Public Health Library is troubling.

“It is just another example of how poorly funded public health is,” Varma said. “Even the largest city health department in the country — one that relies on scientific evidence to shape the policies for over 8 million people — is unable to fund access to the books and journals in which that evidence is published.”

It’s unclear how much money the city’s saving by closing the library. Adams’ spokeswoman would not say.

The library closure is part of the 4 percent spending cut Adams ordered nearly all city agencies, including the Department of Health, to enact in April for the 2024 fiscal year, the spokeswoman confirmed.

The April savings initiative was the third budget belt-tightening measure implemented by the mayor since he took office.

The Department of Health — which was subject to all three — managed to in total shave more than $140 million in spending over the 2023 and 2024 fiscal years under the savings initiatives, budget documents from Adams’ office show.

During this spring’s budget negotiations with the City Council, Adams drew criticism from left-wing lawmakers for seeking such cuts.

Adams has countered the cuts are necessary to hedge against a ballooning city budget deficit that could grow as large as $7 billion within the next five years.

©2023 New York Daily News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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