2013-10-09 / Features

Hearing Held On City's Libraries

By Thomas Cogan

Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer, chairman of the council’s cultural affairs and libraries committee, held a hearing last week to let the public listen to all three of the city’s library directors describe what they’d been doing to keep their systems functional.  Van Bramer was assisted by City Councilman Vincent Gentile, head of the recently formed libraries subcommittee.  “Libraries are more relevant than ever,” Gentile said.  He and Van Bramer stressed that in the attempt to evolve, libraries can become involved in radical and controversial moves.  They said that despite the funding cutbacks they have had to endure in recent years, libraries must continue to grow.  Mere survival, according to Van Bramer, is “too low a bar.”  The audience, which was large enough to spill into a utility room and watch the proceedings on television when the committee room was filled to capacity, may have appreciated Van Bramer’s declaration but sometimes complained in low voices about some of the things said by the directors, mainly Nancy Johnson of the Brooklyn Public Library and Tony Marx of the New York Public Library.  
The BPL and NYPL are two of the city’s three public library systems, the third being the Queens Public Library, represented at the meeting by President and CEO Thomas Galante, who began his address by saying that 99 percent of all Queens residents live within a mile of a QPL branch library.  He also said he’s working to keep all of them open at least five days a week, because to have a shorter schedule at any of them would be “a tragedy.”  Although he has welcomed $350 million in funding in recent years ($130 million of it coming through the office of retiring Borough President Helen Marshall and some of that still “in the pipeline”), he estimated that he is in need of an additional $292 million, some of it for such
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necessities as heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC).  He said that during an acute heat wave in mid-July, many people took refuge in air conditioned libraries.  One of them, in Queens Village, had recently had its HVAC upgraded.
He called “lifelong learning” more important now than ever before and hailed libraries as a prime place in which to pursue it.  One of the branches he singled out as exemplary in this respect was Glen Oaks, which has been the beneficiary of renovation and enlargement.  The public living near this eastern Queens facility responded to that by taking the branch from number 26 to number six on the most-used list for the 62 branches in the borough.  Galante had to leave the meeting early to dedicate the opening of the newly-located Mitchell-Linden branch in Flushing.  The new home, at 31-32 Union St., has replaced the old, rented quarters two blocks away.  The building for the new place was purchased in 2011 and provides 8,800 square feet—which alone is a great increase but which is to be expanded to a full 10,000 square feet when an adjacent building is purchased.  In Elmhurst, the classic Carnegie library at 86-01 Broadway is being renovated (and a temporary home has been established at 85-05 51st St.) and Galante said the result will be twice the public space it had before.  He couldn’t survey the QPL system without expressing enthusiastic anticipation of the Hunters Point branch, for which ground has been broken on Center Boulevard in Long Island City.
Still, he had to bem0an the constant scramble for operating expenses that keeps him and the other directors from conducting a loftier type of fundraising.  Councilman Gentile said that “master planning” is not feasible in any of these hand-to-mouth situations, in which
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Galante, for one, had to speak of having only “six months of breathing space;” or ask:  “What’s the use of repairing the roof when you don’t know if the place will be open next year?”
Marx and Johnson talked about utilitarian issues too, but it seemed the audience and several politicians were there to hear them try to defend or explain several of the projects. they oversee.  Marx described what is being done at the 42nd Street Library (or Schwarzman Building), the Mid-Manhattan Library and the 53rd Street Library, being built on the site of the Donnell Library and expected to be open in 2015.  For 42nd Street and Mid-Manhattan he has taken a lot of criticism after removing millions of books (storing many in New Jersey) and proposing alterations that some say would make these places unrecognizable.  He has countered the accusations, saying the 42nd Street renovations would “more than double the public space” (and leave the great reading room essentially preserved) and those at Mid-Manhattan would deliver it from the extensive deterioration it has suffered after more than 40 years of operation.  He would certainly like the outcome of the West 53rd Street project to assuage feelings about the initially disastrous sale of Donnell in 2007 (the buyer went bust in 2011), if and when the new library, which is expected to have more space than Donnell did, opens year after next.
Johnson’s main area of controversy is in Brooklyn Heights, where she is trying to build a 20,000-square-foot library, though no development partner has been selected yet.  It would replace a library which, when opened in 1962, was the largest branch in the BPL system and remains so.  Johnson denigrated the building as “poorly designed,” with half its
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space never used by the public.  She would finance the project by selling both the air rights over the building and the building itself, which would be the site of the newer, smaller library.  She claims the new library, though smaller, would be far more efficiently used than the current one.  The main reason it would be smaller would be the removal of the business library (unique in its attachment to a branch library) to the flagship BPL building at Grand Army Plaza.  She is stalled in her quest for a development partner by the inability thus far to gain a memo of understanding (MoU) between a prospective partner and the BPL.  She said that without it she would have to renovate the old building.  Skepticism about the air rights measure and the likely aftermath of luxury housing above the new library is strong locally. City Councilman Stephen Levin told Johnson it runs as high as 95 percent opposed.
Another Brooklyn councilman, Brad Lander, said that tolerating three separate library systems is New York City’s way of shirking responsibility.  He also said that if most of the complaints aired at the meeting are about infrastructure, where is the essential city official supervising it?  Marx said that the three systems are cooperating with each other more than ever.

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