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The Library in the High-Rise’s Lobby

So, have you heard the one about the library in financial trouble? You have!? Of course you have. That question hasn’t changed much in the last years, but luckily the punch-line keeps shifting. Granted, the laughter that usually follows is more of a resigned scoffing than the euphoric laugh of a brilliant solution.

One of the newer (not new, just “newer”) ideas that is being floated to help keep libraries afloat is the recognition that libraries sit atop something of immense value (at least in New York City). Is it a collection of tens of thousands of books and services to a community? No, of course not. It’s the property, literally the land atop which the library is built. This was explained in a recent New York Times article by Joseph Berger and Al Baker titled “Public Agencies, Needing Money, Give Up Land and Buildings,” (published March 17, 2013), writing about a library in Brooklyn the article notes that:

“It sits on land that developers crave, in a fashionable neighborhood where housing is in high demand. And so the library system, desperate for money to pay for $230 million in long-deferred repairs for its 60 branches, has embraced a novel financing model that is increasingly being used around New York City as a way to pay for government services.”

The idea goes something like this: the city would sell the location to a developer, the developer will tear down the library, the developer will erect some manner of tower of housing (or potentially offices) on that spot, and the developer would keep some area (such as the first floor) open and available as the new library. All of this—from destruction to rebuilding—would happen on the developer’s dime, meaning they would pay for the destruction, and pay for the construction (though it is not clear if they would also foot the bill for the various expenses involved in moving the library out and then moving it back in). It seems like an excellent deal, “seems” being the operative word.

Naturally, one of the early questions that comes to mind revolves around the matter of where patrons will go while they wait for their new library. City libraries are already straining to keep up with high patron demand at a time of low budgets, and “temporarily closing” a community library resulting in its patrons having to make their way to another library that is already burdened by insufficient computers and resources seems like it will only create further challenges (and this is assuming that people will have easy access to another library). This is not a concern without basis in reality, as the article mentions the Donnell Branch library (from NYPL), which was:

“vacated in 2008 and after some stumbles, a new library is expected to be built by 2014 inside a 46-story hotel and condominium tower, meaning that a popular library will have been shuttered for six years.”

Six years is a long time for a community to go without its library, and while this move netted a quick financial infusion for NYPL (which was surely needed), one wonders how expensive it was for other library branches to absorb the dislocated Donnell Branch patrons (and to say nothing of the Donnell branch employees whose jobs may have vanished). Even if one tries to argue that the computers from a closed branch can be set up at another branch this only creates a challenge of finding space in an already cluttered branch to set them up.

Many of the libraries in the NYPL system (as well as in the BPL and QPL systems) are in rather old buildings. The heating is bad in the winter, the A/C is bad in the summer, the ceiling leaks when it rains, and so forth. One has to be willfully blind to ignore that these are real and pressing concerns that frequently have very large price tags affixed to them. And these are costs that the city is not prepared to meet.

In a recent posting on this blog, the newest round of cuts to NYC budgets were discussed (the article was: “No Soda, No Tobacco, No Libraries”), and amidst this atmosphere of cuts it is pretty obvious that extensive maintenance projects are going to remain unfunded. Part of what makes this problem so serious is that this is hardly a new issue (and the budget cuts are hardly new, they just keep getting deeper), these repairs and upgrades have been needed for years, and the longer they are put off the more expensive it will become to fix them.

In writing about the proposed renovations to the Rose Reading Room at the main branch of the NYPL the New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman coined an invaluable term for describing this condition (indeed, I have quoted it frequently: “Demolition by Neglect“). Describing the sorry state of the stacks below the Rose Reading Room, Kimmelman wrote that it was:

“a space whose decades-long decline, through various renovation campaigns, suggests to me a kind of demolition by neglect.”

And what these bids to tear down aging libraries and stick glistening condos on the spot showcases is that this “demolition by neglect” is endemic to NY libraries (to say nothing of schools and public housing which are also mentioned in the NY Times article by Berger and Baker). It may seem in some ways absurd to tear down a library, replace it with a high rise, and stick a library into the bottom floor, but when you describe this as the only possible way to save the library it suddenly seems, at the very least, less amusing.

While the idea of “tearing down the libraries in order to save them” seems a bit worrisome, and questionable, the matter that I find particularly concerning is the question of how a library functions when it is “inside a 46-story hotel and condominium tower?” Public libraries (which is what is being discussed here) are public spaces, what does it mean for the library and its patrons if it is inside a hotel, which is a private space?

It is certainly possible that the new libraries will function as if they are ground level store-fronts, with independent entries from the hotel or condos or whatever else is in the building, but it is also quite possible that these libraries will find themselves in an odd space where they are sort-of “public-private.” After all, they will be located in privately owned buildings.

Many New Yorkers (and interested onlookers) received a rather unexpecte lesson in such “public-private” spaces when Occupy Wall Street pitched its tents in Zuccotti Park, which is a “public” park that is nevertheless owned and controlled by a “private” company. With the result, eventually, being legions of private security guards patrolling a “public” park. Could such “private” guards potentially be seen within a public library on the ground floor of a private building (note – this does not include private security groups that are directly contracted by the library [by being contracted by the library such guards are employed by the public])?

What if to reach the library a member of the public needs to cross a “private” lobby? Or, what if they must first sign in at a “private” security desk before crossing into a “public” space? And what if those private security guards, hired to keep that glistening building as a beacon to commerce, decide that homeless people are not welcome as patrons at this particular library branch? And will the city be able to guarantee—indefinitely—that the building owners won’t try to raise rent for the space so high as to push the library out?

These may seem like idle concerns, but they need to be raised. The developers want the land, and if they have to build a library on the bottom floor to get it, well, they’re willing to do that, but they aren’t doing it out of the kindness of their hearts. If they really felt such affection for the library system than perhaps they could offer their services to repair those aging buildings at a steep discount. Furthermore, developers are often able to get added “perks” for offering public spaces of one variety or another, and thus these “well meaning” moves are hardly selfless.

Libraries are public spaces, or “commons” if you will. And in a city (especially one like New York) libraries may very well represent some of the only public spaces where one can sit inside without being expected to buy something, and where one will find access to important informational resources (including computers). These moves to demolish libraries and rebuild them as the ground floor of a high-rise need to be recognized for what they are: this is privatization of public space. This is enclosure.

While it is foolish to suggest that libraries do not face serious financial problems, it is equally foolish to think that the best solution is going to be these quick fixes. After all, NYPL got $59 million for the Donnell branch, but a quick infusion of money cannot fix the larger systemic issues in a city (and a country) that would rather give sweet deals to developers than properly fund public libraries. A plan such as this sets up a situation where in ten years time the city will be forced to sell off these bottom floor libraries in a desperate attempt to scare up funding.

These new libraries will be smiley faces painted onto the heels of the jackboots of privatization. Don’t be distracted by the smiley face, look at the boot.

About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

One comment on “The Library in the High-Rise’s Lobby

  1. Pingback: NYC Libraries Survive Another Round | LibrarianShipwreck

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