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The 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 library system.

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 meeting space.

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 worse.

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 world.

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.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

www.mjoy.org

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