Thursday, May 17, 2007

City Should Be Ashamed Of Its Dark Libraries

Our Town downtown
August 14, 2006

You have to give The Daily News credit for talking about the paltry number of hours the libraries are open here, in its August 6 edition. Their writer, David Saltonstall’s opening line was: It is the shame of the city. It’s too bad they didn’t play it big on the front page. ‘Shame of the City’ would have made a bold cover story. We wish they’d have screamed it. They scream about other stuff.

This whole city from time to time screams about all sorts of things: Isiah Thomas, George Bush, cars, chain stores, taxi fares, subways, A-Rod. It amazingly-to-us never screams about those bad library hours.

Is it because the people who have the megaphones here don’t need the libraries, don’t use them, and so don’t think they’re that important? Is it because Barnes & Noble has partially filled the vacuum left by the libraries being dark so often? Or are libraries considered a kind of lower class thing? Like public pools and feeding pigeons. Where’s the Straphangers Campaign for libraries? Where are the politicians? Where are all of us?

We noticed it when we moved here seven years ago. We were shocked at how late the libraries opened in the morning, some days they didn’t open till after lunch. Some days not at all! Night hours were more uneven. We were embarrassed to tell our friends back home. Back there the libraries opened up every morning at 9:00 and closed at 9:00 at night. Seven days a week. It was where you went to read The Economist or USA Today or The New Republic. It’s where your kids met their high school friends to giggle and do research for a paper due tomorrow. It’s where the Xerox machines were. The libraries were as open as the grocery stores. 84 hours a week, with all sorts of comfortable chairs. Here the average branch is open 38.4 hours a week. Shame of the city is right. Shame on the city.

How does that fit with a city that has Lincoln Center and the 92nd Street Y? And Random House and a plaque that says e.e. cummings lived here on Patchin Place? How does it fit with a city that calls itself Book Country?

It doesn’t fit. You probably can’t really believe that the libraries are so not-open here. 38.4 hours a week? That doesn’t fit with any of your received notions about what kind of place this is. You wouldn’t be surprised if you read that some less progressive, less ‘literate’ places had meager library hours, but NewYork City?

You’ve been fooled maybe by the two lions at the big research library on Fifth Avenue with the banners hanging like it’s the Met. That place gets photographed seven days a week and tourists sit next to construction workers on the steps and eat panini sandwiches every day. Patrons also sit there on those steps in the morning waiting for the place to open. They could sit there all day on Sundays and Mondays. The place is closed on those days. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays it doesn’t open until 11:00. The lions and the banners are there every day. Maybe you thought that meant the place was always open for business. Imagine what tourists think when they find out they’re two hours—or two days-- too early to go up to the third floor to see the wonderful reading rooms they’ve heard about.

And what about kids? Students. They know what it means. Kids pick stuff up. If parents and leaders think store hours are more important than library hours, are you surprised they think checking out the gizmos at Circuit City is cooler than reading?

Maybe you don’t need the library for your life. You’ve got books and money to buy more. You’ve got magazines coming in the mail and you buy a newspaper every day, and your computer gives you all sorts of stuff to read. But there are parts of the city where a Barnes and Noble isn’t handy. And there are parts of town where there are no book shelves in the apartments and no desks and no magazines coming in the mail. Those places need libraries. Where can kids who live there go to do their homework, or read a magazine?

Two weeks ago in this space we suggested that the libraries in the city should be open till 11:00 every night. We’ll keep suggesting that. Shame on us if we don’t.

-- Bill Gunlocke

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