Sunday, June 30, 2013

Libraries are not their Buildings

[Note: This started as a comment on Susan Bernofsky's exhaustive post regarding the Central Library Plan and proposed sale of Brooklyn Heights, but it quickly became something else.  (Sorry, Susan, if it seems like I'm picking on you. Yours is the last piece I read on this.)] 

Hijacking an old blog I started when I was "freelancing" (read: unemployed) over six years ago is an admittedly strange way to weigh in on the controversies surrounding the sale of New York City public libraries, but I don't have another platform for my informal, unedited thoughts on the matter, and ever since publishing a report on the three library systems earlier this year I have come to have some thoughts.

My position is an awkward one because I share some of the concerns of those who have criticized the Central Library Plan and NYPL's handling of it, particularly Michael Kimmelman, but the vast majority of critics have been painting with such a large brush, indicting any and everything that involves the management of scarce resources, that my disagreements have started to eclipse everything else.   
In fact, I disagree on so many different fronts that it's hard to know where to begin. I suppose I could start with the electronic versus paper materials thing, since Bernofsky and others apparently take this to be pretty close to the center of the controversies they're reporting on. The libraries are not abandoning paper materials. Paper books are still a big part of the libraries’ rising circulations and will remain a core service for the foreseeable future. Nobody is questioning that or doubting that. The conflict at the heart of the Central Library Plan has only incidentally to do with paper versus electronic materials and instead is all about reallocating resources from the research library system to the branch library system. As branch libraries serve primarily marginalized communities—including low-education residents and immigrants—it would not be wrong to say that it is about reallocating resources from the intellectual elite to the poor. (NYPL’s point about scanning research holdings is meant to allay the concerns of researchers who don’t want to wait for offsite books to be delivered.) 

Next, pace Bernofsky, the politicians agitating against the Pacific and Brooklyn Heights sales are not “big library advocates.” I think Letitia James and Stephen Levin are both well-meaning representatives for their districts (and I agree with both on lots of things), but I have never heard them speak out about library issues before now. It would be interesting to see if either has supported their local branch using their discretionary funds, particularly Levin whose district is home to a branch with over $8 million in capital needs.

The truth is, New York City’s branch libraries have been systematically starved of funding for going on decades now. The Brooklyn Public Library oversees 58 different branches and two years ago received approximately $15 million in general capital allocations, despite having over $230 million in maintenance needs. The system has built only one new branch in over 15 years, and almost all of the other branches are in middling to bad shape. Dozens of them have leaks and temperamental HVACs and have to shut down for days every summer while some contractor uses duct tape to get the mechanical equipment working again. When problems get to the breaking point and it’s either shut the building down or renovate modestly, then the systems can typically raise additional capital funds from the discretionary budgets of City Council members, Borough Presidents and the Mayor. A really savvy system like Queens that has created deep relationships with well-connected politicians can dip into discretionary funds to make investments before conditions deteriorate, but mostly the libraries go from one crisis to the next, because that’s the only way they can get representatives to use their extremely limited funds on libraries instead of the thousand other things they see appeals for every year. The system has worked like this for decades, mind you, and until recently there has been no indication that it would change. 

Ironically, given the outcry, the three systems have started to break out of their boxes a little bit to come up with innovative ways of raising tons of capital. The libraries are typically thrilled if they can get one or two million from a local representative; $100 million is an enormous windfall that could fund a couple of brand new buildings and still help a half-dozen others overcome huge physical constraints. There are other benefits to the sales as well. I’ll just go ahead and provide three pretty strong ones:

1. Co-locating branches in towers would be an effective way to cut down on future capital debts and maintenance costs, and so lesson the system’s reliance on an essentially unreliable funding system. I’m sorry but this is not “corporatese,” as Bernofsky and others have dismissively characterized, it is responsible management. 

2. Lots of people may find the Carnegie buildings charming--and perhaps there are a number that deserve to be saved on preservation grounds--but, despite the ambiguities of the English word, the libraries are not their buildings. And a lot of the 206 branch library buildings in New York City are not only extremely expensive to maintain, they’re not particularly suited to the services patrons need or want (more on that in a sec). 

3. A lot of the branch buildings are in undesirable areas of the city: the 125th Street branch, for example, sits next to an entrance ramp to the FDR in an area of Harlem that few pedestrians want to be; there are a bunch of autobody shops and empty lots surrounding an otherwise extremely charming Carnegie faƧade. The Brownsville branch, meanwhile, is surrounded on all sides by enormous NYCHA towers and occupies a kind of no-man’s land that many residents find threatening and even unsafe. There are lots of others like this.  

Although I am not heartbroken about offsite storage and think greatly benefiting the poor with more literacy programming and computer access may ultimately be worth a fairly small inconvenience to researchers, I too have concerns about the Central Library Plan. Kimmelman convinced me that the cost overruns may be too risky. I also think Donnell was suboptimal and that the BAM library shouldn’t be considered as a replacement for Pacific (whatever happens to the building). Moreover, I agree with many advocates that selling off city property should be undertaken with extreme caution, and I would love it if the libraries and city could find a way for the public to play a much larger role in the planning process. As detailed in this N+1 piece on the Central Library Plan, past NYPL presidents have not always made the brightest investments, and public input would not only serve to legitimize their decisions it may very well improve the designs for new libraries. 

However, I also think all three library systems desperately need to rethink how they deliver services and that it is not a betrayal of their mission or Carnegie’s mission or liberalism in general if they sell off old buildings in service of a new model. The loss in square footage should not be an overriding consideration, despite attempts by opponents to use this as a proxy for lost “public space” and encroaching privatization. I mean I get how attractive that is, but in this case it’s really not very relevant. One of the most popular branches in the entire city is a third of the size of the proposed replacement branch for Brooklyn Heights, 7,000 square feet versus 20,000 square feet. All things being equal, 20,000 square feet should be plenty of space for a dynamic library in tony Brooklyn Heights. It will be plenty of space for the new Donnell library too, which serves an even more upscale neighborhood and will be barely ten blocks away from Mid-Manhattan (NYPL’s central branch library) and 42nd Street (NYPL’s central research library). I mean stop and re-read that for a second, people.

Contrary to the electronic versus paper frame everybody likes to read into these debates, the biggest change the libraries have experienced over the last ten years (as documented in "Branches of Opportunity" at great length) is the incredible rise in demand for public programs. These include everything from lap baby and parenting programs to dance classes and chess clubs, but at their core are literacy classes: i.e. basic reading and writing instruction, English language workshops, and a wide variety of computer classes. They have also started to introduce lots of classes for people who are searching for jobs, so things like resume writing and interviewing instruction, searching techniques and now even job placement services. Tens of thousands of people attend these programs for free every year and the demand for them is getting out of hand…really, there are long waiting lists for this kind of thing. In part, this is because employers increasingly want people with basic literacy and computer skills, and most people still learn more effectively through face-to-face instruction. (Libraries are also the only non-institutional resource most people have access to—i.e. participants don’t have to enroll or pay tuition; nobody asks where you live or if you’re a citizen.) But the libraries are also having trouble accommodating the demand for programming because most traditional branches were not made for classes and group work. Most of them were built for quiet, solitary readers and book storage. In a lot of branches, the classes happen in cramped little spaces that look like they were originally intended as utility closets (seriously, this how it looks at McKinley Park in Dyker Heights). By contrast, the newer libraries are able to handle group work while still allowing for solitary reading and research. Smaller commercial spaces in retail corridors are also being considered because they can be useful places for programming and have extremely low overhead. Since patrons now have the ability to order any book in the system and have it delivered to their closest branch, not every branch building needs a ton of books. These are the kind of decisions we want our libraries to be making: how to deliver the best services to the most people.
To sum up, the libraries are NOT the neo-liberal foe so many advocates seem to be angling for. If anything they are breaking out of some of the elitist constraints Carnegie had envisioned for them. (He thought the libraries would be places for boot-strapping members of the under-classes to “civilize” themselves through their own efforts; spending money on classes would have defeated the purpose.) Moreover, the libraries are not, in my view, bending to fashionable whims destined to expire in a few years. They are not sacrificing worthwhile endeavors for “popular hang-outs” or “glorified Internet cafes” as so many condescending researchers have been suggesting. On the contrary, face-to-face instruction and interpersonal advice and book delivery and, yes, access to technology when so many people can’t afford broadband access, is about as traditional (and as democratic and progressive) as it gets.