Library Update

In case you’ve had your nose so deep in your translations that you haven’t been following, library advocates in New York have been working hard to prevent the gutting of the research stacks of the NYPL Central Library on 42nd St. and the selling-off of lending libraries in Brooklyn and Manhattan. For the moment things are mostly on hold. The gutting of the stacks has been halted by a temporary restraining order issued by the judge in one of the two lawsuits filed against the library in early July. And library advocates have been raising enough of a ruckus about the selling off of branch libraries to real estate developers that a phase of public scrutiny has begun.

Brooklyn Heights Library

On Monday, City Council members Jimmy Van Bramer and Vincent Gentile brought together their two committees (the Select Committee on Libraries and the Committee on Cultural Affairs, Libraries and International Intergroup Relations) to hold a public hearing entitled “Capital Construction Needs and the Potential Disposal of Libraries in NYC.” The point of the hearing was to talk about whether selling off library branches makes sense as a way to raise funds needed to repair and maintain libraries in the city’s three systems: the New York Public Library (NYPL, serving Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island), the Brooklyn Public Library and the Queens Library. Of the three CEOs who took the stand, only Tom Galante of Queens was smiling: the Queens library system is apparently flourishing (thanks apparently to the efforts of Queens Borough President Helen M. Marshall, herself a former librarian), while NYPL and BPL languish from lack of funds, as CEOs Anthony Marx and Linda Johnson explained at considerable length, describing buildings in disrepair.

Compared to Monday’s hearing, the one convened in June by State Assembly Library Committee Chair Micah Kellner was a save-the-libraries love fest. Van Bramer, unlike Kellner, appears sympathetic to the project of selling off branch libraries and replacing them with more modern buildings, and more of the speakers at this hearing represented this view than at the earlier one. Still, opponents of the sell-offs and the gutting of the stacks far outnumbered supporters, both among the 30 community members who signed up to give testimony and the elected officials who came out to speak. Speakers for the opposition included, along with Kellner, State Assembly Member Joan Millman, State Senators Simcha Felder and Velmanette Montgomery, and Mabel Law representing Comptroller John Liu (who had turned up for the hearing but had to leave before he was called to speak), as well as several City Council members who spoke eloquently in defense of the library system from behind the bench: Letitia James, Steve Levin and Brad Lander. Lander complained about back-room deals between library leadership and mayor that left the City Council out of the planning loop. Transparency and its absence was a major theme throughout the day.

Another recurrent theme, unsurprisingly, was the insufficiency of the public funds allocated for keeping libraries in operation. Marx and Johnson both asserted that selling library buildings was necessary to raise funds for capital projects. In one heated exchange, Councilman Levin questioned Johnson on whether proceeds from the sale of the Brooklyn Heights library building would even go back into the library system (rather than into general city funds). Levin pointed out that the MOU (memorandum of understanding) the BPL signed with Mayor Bloomberg to this effect is not legally binding and might not be honored after Bloomberg leaves office at the end of the year. Johnson countered that the BPL would abort the sale of the property if the MOU was not honored.

More than 30 City Council members are listed as co-signers on Int. 1050, a bill sponsored by Van Bramer in May 2013 that would “baseline funding to the City’s public library systems,” according to a staffer, by calling for “public library funding to be equal to 2.5% of the City’s real property tax revenue each year.” The full text of the bill and complete list of co-signers are available here, on the City Council website. If this bill becomes law, it will be a significant boon to our libraries, which currently must reapply each year for city funding for basic operating expenses as well as any additional funds needed for capital projects. As Van Bramer pointed out, this state of affairs tends to result in “deferred maintenance,” driving up operating costs, which makes it even more difficult to invest in capital expenses. It seems clear that providing the library systems with a designated line in the city budget benefits everyone involved in the libraries, whether as administrator or patron.

The desire to streamline the library budgeting process and ensure libraries a baseline income each year is also reflected in a measure introduced in the State Assembly by Kellner and signed into law by Governor Cuomo last Friday. According to the press release,

The law (A4664) increases the statutory amount of annual funding for each of New York State’s “Big Eleven” research libraries from $126,000 to $158,000. The new law also eliminates the burdensome, labor-intensive requirements of the competitive grant process for preservation and conservation programs, a change sought by the research libraries and the NYS Education Department for several years.

The libraries that will benefit from the new law include the NYPL’s 42nd St. Research Library.

The one thing everyone agreed on at Monday’s hearing is that our libraries desperately need funds. The hearing went on for a solid five hours, despite the fact that community members who showed up to testify were required to keep their remarks to under three minutes (as enforced by a shot clock and buzzer).

Many of those testifying addressed the dire consequences of budget shortfalls on libraries’ ability to serve the public (e.g. Julie Sandorf of the Charles H. Revson Foundation and Jonathan Bowles of the Center for an Urban Future). Christian Zabriskie, representing his non-profit Urban Librarians Unite, spoke in favor of library sales as a realistic response to a budget crisis. I disagree with him, as did historian Jeffrey Kroessler – also the head of circulation at the Lloyd Sealy Library at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY) – who pointed out that NYC libraries have weathered serious financial crises before (e.g. in the 1970s), and that this is the first time the sale of library buildings has been actively pursued as way to raise funds.

A large number of scholars and community activists then spoke out against the sales of libraries in both Brooklyn and Manhattan and against the gutting of the 42nd St. Research Library. Most of these arguments were similar to those made at June’s State Assembly hearing, which I reported on in detail at the time, so I won’t spell them out again here. But there is one subcategory of arguments I would like to emphasize. BPL’s CEO Johnson kept reiterating that the point of selling off two Brooklyn libraries (the Brooklyn Heights and Pacific branches) was to replace them with better, more modern facilities. Attempts are now underway to get the Pacific branch landmarked, so I’m going to hope and assume it’s just the Brooklyn Heights branch on the chopping block at this point – the BPL has solicited requests for proposals from developers and is currently evaluating them. And yes, it’s an old building and it would probably take some doing to get it retrofitted. Johnson estimated that a new HVAC system for the building would cost $3.5 to 4 million including upgrading the electrical system. Instead of doing these renovations, she wants to sell the property to a developer who will put up a condo tower with a library at its base. Since someone reported at the hearing (I think it was Letitia James) that Bruce Ratner bought the air rights to this property in 1986, I have an inkling who this developer might wind up being.

Can I imagine a condo tower that might actually contain a nice, functional library? Actually, yes. But opponents of the plan oppose it on several grounds. First, it will demolish a building that is part of the historical fabric of Brooklyn Heights, one of New York’s truly old neighborhoods (I used to live there in a building erected in 1811, the year of Heinrich von Kleist’s suicide). Second, it’s pretty clear that a condo built on this site will contain, primarily or exclusively, high-priced apartments that will further contribute to the gentrification of Brooklyn. And third: what basis do we have to trust that the new library provided as part of the deal will be truly equivalent to the one torn down? In recent history we have only the case of the Donnell branch library in Manhattan to go by: a large, beloved neighborhood library building that was sold in 2008 for a shamefully low price and demolished. Now it’s being replaced by a tiny basement library facility at the foot of a condo tower, with very little room for books.

NYPL’s CEO Marx praised the design of this replacement library during Monday’s hearing, which only strengthened many listeners’ belief that the library’s leadership cannot be trusted to defend the interests of library patrons against the profit-driven plans of real estate developers. Most community activists (including myself) watching the NYPL story unfold believe that the the real impetus behind the plan to gut the 42nd St. research stacks is to make the Mid-Manhattan Library building available for sale, in other words that the heart of the plan has more to do with real estate speculation than stewarding the library into the future. Is the BPL following in the NYPL’s footsteps in this regard? So far there’s no clear evidence, but CEO Johnson sure talks as if she sees eye to eye with Marx. And the argument that the Brooklyn Heights Library has to be torn down because of its outdated HVAC system is exactly the same one that was made to justify the razing of Donnell. In fact, Marx is currently using this same argument himself with regard to the Mid-Manhattan Library, which he characterized on Monday as so direly outdated that it is causing damage to its books – despite the fact that this library was renovated fairly recently, in 2003, as Kellner testified. Claiming that a building so recently renovated is now ready for the wrecking ball seems at best disingenuous.

Cynicism aside, there does seem to be one genuine philosophical difference between the two sides of this debate. At the heart of the disagreement, as I see it, is the question of how necessary it is to have access to actual paper books now and in the future. Anthony Marx clearly believes that everything worth reading and using for research will soon be available in digital formats. Or he’s pretending to believe this for the sake of political expedience. In either case, I disagree. As someone who spent many dusty months digging around in 18th century back issues of long defunct literary magazines, I have a healthy respect for the speed with which even relatively mundane research questions (like: How were people thinking about literary translation 200 years ago?) can plunge you into fairly arcane materials that are used by so few people that no one will ever find it profitable to digitize them. And once you’ve been involved in the sort of project that involves serious cross-referencing (like flipping between a 19th century French-German dictionary, a multi-volume concordance of Montaigne’s essays, and his Oeuvres Complètes in both French and English as I had to do for my translation of Ludwig Harig’s novel The Trip to Bordeaux) you’ll understand that sometimes you really do need to have the books right there on the desk in front of you. Oh, and kids like books too, by the way: real books, the kind on paper.

For complete video of Monday’s hearing, visit this page on the City Council website, scroll down to the date 9/30/2013 and look for “Committee on Cultural Affairs, Libraries and International Intergroup Relations.” You’ll find the link to open a video window in the right-hand column.

The New York State Assembly Committee on Libraries and Education Technology chaired by Micah Kellner will be holding a second public hearing on Thursday, Oct. 31 beginning at 10:30 a.m., at 250 Broadway, Room 1923 on the 19th Floor. This hearing will specifically address the future of the 42nd St. research library as well as plans to sell branch libraries. If you would like to testify on the importance of the library to your work, please contact Legislative Analyst Lindsey Facteau by email or at (518) 455-4881. You will be asked to submit 20 copies of your written testimony. Oral testimony is limited to 10 minutes per speaker.

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