Deal of the Decade
Is Albany’s proposal for a new system of branch libraries
worth the cost? After several years of planning, controversy,
and assessment, the upcoming Feb. 6 vote on the Libraries
for the Future plan has pretty much come down to that question.
The plan is ambitious, but desperately needed. The current
set of branches is wildly inadequate: There is no branch in
Arbor Hill or West Hill. The Howe Library is literally falling
apart. The New Scotland branch will close for good in a few
months when PS 19 closes for renovations. The tiny Delaware
branch is on a month-to-month lease in a strip mall with regular
flooding from a neighboring business. All of the branches
are inaccessible to the disabled, poorly planned, and costly
to operate. Add to this a 67-percent increase in visits and
a 53-percent increase in circulation since 2000, and you have
a system in quiet crisis.
It has been so bad for so long that the library system separated
from the city in 2002 in order to have a chance at actually
giving the city a coherent, well thought-out, sustainable
To peruse their proposed first step toward that goal in full,
go to www.albanypublic library.org. The plan includes a brand-new
branch for Arbor Hill and West Hill and the renovation or
moving of all the other branches. Every branch will be owned
by the library, accessible, energy efficient, and sized and
laid out in order to handle the system’s increasing demands
for computer use, teen and children’s programming and community
As with any project of such proportions, there has been controversy.
Metroland readers may remember reading about the dispute
over the siting of the new Arbor Hill branch, and the related
fight to get a new branch in West Hill. The results of those
discussions are still disappointing to some, but even the
most committed of them are supporting the current plan. “These
communities have been unserved for so many decades,” says
Councilwoman Barbara Smith (Ward 4). Though she hopes that
a West Hill branch can be on the table in the future, for
now she looks forward to “how we might combine the library’s
resources with others to make these neighborhoods more supportive
and get them up to a better quality of life.”
After all, if not having two libraries in Arbor Hill and West
Hill is bad, continuing to not have one at all would be far
Libraries for the Future is not a perfect plan. But it’s a
very good plan. And though there are those taxpayers for whom
a 1.2- percent tax increase ($50 to $75 per year for an average
Albany house) is not insignificant, I will still say boldly
that anyone who says this plan is not worth its costs is penny
wise and pound foolish.
Despite the seeming ubiquity of the products of the information
age, there are plenty of families who still can’t afford a
computer, an Internet connection or an ever-increasing pile
of books (not to mention a car to get to a bookstore outside
the city limits). Libraries help level the playing field a
little, giving the less fortunate a leg up, a second chance,
a refuge. Libraries, by virtue of being voluntary, can work
for some kids where school does not, notes Smith. “You never
know about the impacts of having a building that’s devoted
to knowledge that people walk or ride by regularly.”
That would be enough to make this plan worth it. But that
is far from being the only reason to support a strong library
system for Albany. Libraries are a public amenity used by
people of all walks of life. I certainly can’t imagine anyone
who would have room to actually own all the books I enjoyed
as a child and want my daughter to have access to. Certainly
those who know the value of a librarian in helping to find
information in a well-ordered reference section should realize
the irreplaceable value of one in helping people sort through
the chaotic mess that is the Internet.
Libraries are also some of the last bastions of democracy.
I mean that. In the past several years, libraries have been
on the forefront of protecting freedom of information and
civil liberties. They host an incredibly wide range of civic
functions, from English as a Second Language tutoring to neighborhood-
association meetings to screenings of political documentaries.
Libraries are the prime example of a place for people to gather
and interact with each other as citizens, “where we
get to practice [democratic] ideals,” as Louise McNeilly,
president of the Delaware Area Neighborhood Association says.
They are a commons of sorts in an increasingly privatized
Under the new plan, Albany’s branch libraries will better
fulfill this function through community rooms that will be
accessible for these sorts of uses even when the libraries
are closed. The benefits just in terms of neighborhood organizing
will be tremendous.
But let’s say you are, as chair of the library’s facility
committee Deborah Williams-Muhammad says, one of the “nine
people” in the city who doesn’t actually use the library system
for anything. This is still worth it to you.
For one narrow but oft-discussed example, having places for
teens to go and gather where they are welcome and safe “means
they won’t be congregating on your lawn,” as Williams-Muhammad
puts it. At least not as often.
On a much bigger scale, good libraries are centerpieces of
thriving neighborhoods. What they provide—from traditional
book and movie loans through cultural and civic offerings—is
a precious and catalytic mix. It’s exactly the kind of thing
any expert in city revitalization will tell you that households
and businesses with choices look for in a community.
And the market even knows it. According to studies from places
as diverse as Florida, King County, Wash. and Phoenix, Ariz.,
every dollar spent on libraries generates $4 to $10 in local
economic benefits. That’s a return you can’t beat.