New Library To Rise In P.S. 111 Schoolyard
Despite a “tremendous amount of obstacles,” groundbreaking for the new Long Island City branch of the Queens Borough Public Library, near P.S. 111, 37-15 13th St., Long Island City took place last Tuesday. Borough President Helen Marshall, City Councilmember Eric Gioia, Library Board of Trustees Interim Director Thomas Galante, Assemblymember Catherine Nolan and Board Member George Stamatiades, a past board director were among the elected and library officials in attendance.
Plans for the new library branch were 14 years in the making, Stamatiades said. “Every time we cleared one obstacle, another popped up.” In 1992, he recalled, then Library Executive Director Constance Cook said she was looking for a site for a library branch in Western Queens. A site on 21st Street now occupied by a women’s health center affiliated with a local hospital was the first location considered, but plans fell through.
The next site considered was at the triangle formed by the convergence of 14th and 21st Streets. “The suggestion was to put the library at the end of the block and demap the street,” Stamatiades said. This proposal was ruled out when the city Department of Environmental Protection found that the storm sewers, which had been put in during World War II and had been subject to wartime material and construction method constraints, made that location unsuitable as well.
The site finally decided upon is inside the schoolyard of P.S. 111. In exchange for taking up the schoolyard and playground with the new library, 14th Street will be turned into a permanent play street. The proposal was approved by the Board of Education, later superseded by the city Department of Education, but a change order from the mayor was required, as the library would be built in an area zoned M1, for light manufacturing.
Library trustees budgeted the funds for a 10,000-square-foot building, and the architect designed a one-story structure. However, site conditions made a two-story building feasible and a second story was added. “We got a 20,000-square-foot building where we thought we’d be getting a one-story one,” Stamatiades noted. This part of the project encountered obstacles as well, however: the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center occurred only a few blocks from the offices of the architect commissioned to design the building.
The new branch will be three times larger than the combined existing rental space that now houses library facilities. An expanded children’s room, an adult learning center, 15 public access computers providing core library services, software and databases for public use, with access to the internet, and a community meeting room that can accommodate 50 people are included in the plans. “We’ll have an elevator and all the amenities,” Stamatiades said. Time- and labor-saving innovations such as electronic self-checkout and return will enhance the library’s efficiency.
Though the library will stand on the grounds of P.S. 111 and a close connection between the two institutions is fostered and encouraged, the library will be very much a part of the community at large. “The library will be an anchor for the community,” Stamatiades said. “It’s in an area that now is going to be going through a resurgence. Even the business community will use this library as well.” He pointed out that the community meeting room is of particular significance. “It’s the first major capital construction for community service in this area in 50 or 60 years,” he said.
The new Long Island City library branch came about in large part because members of the board of trustees come from each of Queens’ 14 community boards and know their neighborhoods, Stamatiades said. They also understand how city government functions. “A lot of city agencies had to sign off on this project,” Stamatiades said. “We were able to bring them all together—and in the right order. All the elected officials realized the impact this project would have on the community. There was the greatest cooperation among them all. Most people hadn’t seen that level of cooperation and coordination in a long time. Everybody was for it, and everybody made it happen. It was efficient and cost-effective—and the taxpayer will get the benefit.”
Stamatiades noted that the Queens Borough Public Library serves the borough at 63 branches at which 17.5 million pieces of material—books, magazines, videocassettes, CDs, DVDs—circulate every year. The library serves 18 million visitors a year with a staff of fewer than 900 people, 500 of whom the army of visitors never sees. “There are some 400 front desk people,” Stamatiades said. “The rest of them are making things happen behind the scenes. If a person walks in, takes down a book and reads it without taking it out of the library, someone has to put it back on the shelf in its proper place, for example.” The library has made its goal to offer reading materials in every language its diverse customers speak. The library staff, many of whom are multilingual, is dedicated, understanding and helpful to all library customers, Stamatiades said. “I’ll go in a branch where they won’t know I’m a trustee and ask for something and they’ll fall all over themselves to help me—and they do that for everyone. There’s never a slowdown in service. They’re not paid commensurate with what they know, either. They could make a lot more at the other library systems in the area—New York Public, Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester. They work for us because they want to. We can’t give them the money they deserve, but we want them to know they’re appreciated.”
The library continually tries to anticipate what customers will want and find convenient. “We switched to CDs from videocassettes when it became obvious the trend was going that way,” Stamatiades said. “And any time you spend money on materials, there’s a spike in library usage. Any time there are new books on shelves attendance goes up.”
Customers can take out as many as 25 books at one time. That materials circulate at all amazes many foreign visitors. “In many countries, libraries are only for research. They can’t imagine someone borrowing a book, taking it home and returning it,” Stamatiades said. The library also mails books to shut-ins and includes a postpaid return mailer—all at no cost to the borrower.
Any time library funding is cut protests are heard. “A librarian at a local school was disturbed because a program that helped everyone in a family get library cards was cut and some libraries are closing on Saturdays” Stamatiades said. “She told me, ‘My parents could help me with math, but not with English. I used to lose myself in the library—without it I wouldn’t be here.’ I told her to write to all the public officials she could. They can’t budget funds for the library if they don’t know people want it.”