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Delaware Branch Library

For the People

The Albany Public Library opens new libraries and new doors to the people of Albany

By Kathryn Geurin and Shawn Stone

Photos by Joe Putrock

 

Something Old

On a sunny day on Broad Street in Albany’s South End, the Victorian row houses are a checkerboard of boarded windows and crowded stoops. At the heart of this often-neglected neighborhood, the John A. Howe library stood deteriorating for decades, but in March, the historic building reopened as a restored beacon of knowledge and opportunity, thanks to a $5.2 million renovation—just one branch’s share of the Albany Public Library’s sweeping Branch Improvement Plan. The $29 million project, which was finalized with the opening of the Arbor Hill/West Hill Branch last weekend, facilitated the renovation and expansion of three existing branches, the construction of two new libraries and the purchase of $1.7 million of new materials for the library collection.

All five of the branches are LEED certified, energy efficient and environmentally friendly buildings. All are now owned and operated by the library. All have community meeting rooms, available not only for library programming but for public use and community meetings, and all are organized into adult, teen and children’s sections—creating safe, engaging and age-appropriate spaces for neighborhood youth and adults alike. The collections at the three renovated branches boast 90 percent new materials. The collections at the two new branches are entirely new, built from the ground up and catering to the interests of the community.

“We talked to the community, and more importantly, we listened to the community,” says APL assistant director Tim Burke. “We had well over 100 meetings leading up to the referendum and, during the design phase, we went to every group of people that had a stake in the branches. We talked to them and found out what they wanted and what they valued in their libraries. These buildings are successful because they are a reflection of what the community wants.”

By vote of the citizens of Albany, the public library system separated from the control of the city of Albany in 2002 and rechartered as a separate public entity. Immediately after the rechartering, the library board began to plan the next step for the library system. In February 2007, after an active and enthusiastic campaign, the library brought a referendum to Albany voters, who supported the 30-year bond to fund the Branch Improvement Plan by a two-to-one margin.

The timing was ideal: When financial crisis hit the global market only months later, the Branch Improvement Plan was already under way. As the economy contracted and library services diminished nationwide, the Albany Public Library system was enlivened and expanding.

“We didn’t have a crystal ball,” says Burke, “but it sure looked like we did. It was really fortuitous that we were able to get this in place before the balloon went up on Wall Street and things started kind of spiraling from there.”

“The good news is,” he adds, “statistically it’s proven, not just in Albany or New York, but across the country, that public libraries are more used, and arguably more important to their communities in times of economic stress. The good news is: We have five brand-new branch libraries for neighborhoods at a time when, arguably, they need it the most.”

On the wide sidewalk behind the Howe Branch, a father and son shoot a basketball against the building’s brick wall, while a gaggle of kids tumbles down the steps, ladened with books and backpacks. Inside, the historic library has been restored to its original 1929 glory. The adult computer section is filled to capacity, the teen room is bustling with after-school energy, and in the children’s area, kids work on homework and pluck books from beautifully refurbished hardwood shelves.

Taped to a pane of the building’s recently restored windows, a poem, set down in crayon, reads, “There’s no place I would rather be/The library/Getting some knowledge and doing my work/And then comes the rest.” In the next window, a construction-paper creation depicts two silhouettes holding hands—the artist and his children’s librarian, Tori Russo.

As if to prove that art does in fact imitate life, on this afternoon, Russo is tucked into an armchair, reading from a picture book with hushed enthusiasm to two of the library’s diminutive patrons. One sits curled, sucking her thumb, against Russo’s shoulder. The other squats on the cushioned seat, tugging at her beaded braids, as if ready to spring into action with the turn of the next page. The vignette is framed by the tall wooden arch of the library’s grand windows and flanked by dark barrister bookshelves and the historic Rip Van Winkle fireplace.

Patrice Hollman, branch supervisor for the Howe branch and the Delaware and Bach locations, has seen the effects of the transformation on the library and the community. She calls Russo a rock star for her successful weekly story-time program. The last one drew more than 80 children to the library.

Before the renovations, librarians held story time outside the library, at day-care centers or in classrooms. “It wasn’t even safe to have a bunch of little kids sitting on the floor here,” says Russo.

A file of pictures on her computer reveals the sorry state the building had fallen into after years of neglect. Dirty, shattered windows with broken panes cast dim light on plaster walls crumbling under peeling paint. Huge holes in the ceiling rendered shelving and floor space below unusable for fear of leaks and falling debris. After the boiler broke, two temporary blowers crammed between bookshelves provided heat for the entire building. The before pictures are heartbreaking, but the final results are inspiring.

“We get a lot of kids who come here to hang out every day,” says Russo. “A lot of our kids are regulars. Our teens are regulars. They’re here multiple times a week to use the computers, to come to the programming that we do, to just have a place to sit with their friends for a while.”

“It’s just become this place that everybody wants to be,” says Hollman. “People walk into the grand entrance now, and they say it looks like Grand Central with this great expanse and the tall windows. We breathed new life into this building. We gave it new life. People walk in and they just stop and stand there. They look around them and say ‘It’s beautiful.’”

Until this year, residents of the Delaware Avenue neighborhood were served by a 2,400 square-foot satellite branch sandwiched in a strip mall between a laundromat and a Subway. It didn’t even come close to meeting the neighborhood’s needs. “It wasn’t big enough,” says Burke, “and the physical facilities and the reliability of the building systems weren’t adequate. It wasn’t a positive experience for the library user.” The tiny branch struggled with heat and air-conditioning problems, persistent food smells from the sandwich shop and water leaks from the laundromat. Burke shudders a bit at the recollection. “Other than fire, the last thing you want in a library is water.”

In the end of December, the new 9,500 square-foot Delaware branch opened its doors to the public. The branch was met with an enthusiastic turnout of more than 1,000 area residents at its opening celebration.

The former home of the Chicorelli Funeral Home, the Prarie-style building underwent a $4.7 million renovation. Its systems were overhauled and the space was transformed into a cheery modern library.

John J. Bach Branch Library

According to Burke, it was the ideal space for a library. “We always kind of had it on our radar,” he says, “it’s right on the bus line, right in the middle of all the activity on a very major street in the city. It has a lot of visibility. It’s very easy to get to for everybody in two neighborhoods, both in the South End and the Delaware neighborhood, and it is a huge property.” In a stretch of city where most lots are 25-feet wide, the Delaware branch has a large parking lot and still had room to develop green space and an outdoor programming area.

Hollman describes the branch as sweet, joyful and an anchor in the busy neighborhood she calls both work and home. “The neighborhood deserved so much more,” she says. “Transforming the funeral home into this top-notch little branch has totally changed the neighborhood.”

“It’s a place for everybody,” she says, emphasizing the community’s ethnic and economic diversity. “Everybody comes to that library—it’s amazing. We’re always swamped. It’s a cliché—‘if you build it they will come’—but in this case, they came. I knew it would be a huge success, but it even exceeds what I envisioned.”

The statistics support the anecdotal enthusiasm. Year to date, circulation is up more than 17 percent systemwide from 2009, and the increases in door counts are even more significant. Howe and Delaware have both seen consistent increases in circulation and usage. At the Pine Hills branch, which was renovated from a one-story branch on the first floor of the former New York Telephone building into a 19,000 square-foot, full-service library, circulation and computer use have more than doubled. The door count has tripled from last year’s numbers, and the number of new borrower registrations has more than quadrupled. As of May, 729 new borrowers had registered at the Pine Hills branch (as compared to only 180 by May 2009). Howe welcomed 283 new registered library users, the Delaware branch 668.

Statistics aside, it’s the life at the branches that tell the story of their success: a computer class under way at Delaware; tutors and students bent over books in the private study rooms; kids sprawled on the floor at Pine Hills, toys cast aside in favor of books; a line of children and adults forming at Howe’s circulation desk; a librarian pausing at a computer to help with spelling questions.

“One of my staff members at the Delaware branch,” says Hollman, “helped a young lady with her college essays.” She submitted her essays and earned not only college acceptances, but a number of scholarships. “She came back to thank him, for sitting with her and taking the time to help improve her essays, to help her go to college. Without those scholarships, she wouldn’t have had that opportunity.”

“There are so many stories like that,” says Hollman, stories of community and knowledge and opportunity. “Every day, at every branch. We’re giving people a chance.”

—K.G.

kgeurin@metroland.net

 

Arbor Hill/West Hill Branch Library

Something New

This is the moment everybody’s been waiting for: The opening of the Arbor Hill/West Branch of the Albany Public Library. It’s been an enticing construction site for a long time; finished, the appealing glass-fronted building is in striking contrast to everything else on this stretch of Henry Johnson Boulevard between the I-90 on-ramps to the north and the bridge that takes commuters up out of Arbor Hill and into Albany’s Center Square to the south. Amid the stodgy buildings of the last 15 years—the ex-call center and the now-underused police station—and the 19th-century houses and low commercial buildings in various states of repair, the new library is pleasingly provocative.

Which seems to have been the intent.

As Common Councilwoman Barbara Smith says, when reached by phone a few days after the opening, “We are an underresourced community.”

There’s no denying that. It’s been 50 years since this end of town had a library, and 30 years since a small section—by some accounts, a couple of shelves—of the then Arbor Hill Community Center was designated as a library branch. But “underresourced” goes beyond just a library.

“There’s a premium on space in Arbor Hill,” Smith correctly points out; aside from churches, places for the community to gather are few and far between. She’s pleased that this branch has been “designed so that the community can use it,” adding, “it’s going to be a marvelous asset.”

It is gray out, but the heavy rains of the morning have paused as it nears the hour of the grand opening. Two smiling men are stationed at the entrance, welcoming people to “your new library.”

Two parents with kids are overheard to say, “We thought it wasn’t open ’til one o’clock.” It’s 12:45 PM, but they’re ushered right in.

What will they find? Besides a guy walking around in a Subway sub suit, there’s a brand-new collection of 75,000 books, CDs, audio books, magazines and more. There is Wi-Fi for those with laptops, and more than 20 public-access computers for those without. There are two community meeting rooms—one of which can be seen through a big porthole-shaped window behind the front desk—and three small-group study rooms. (One of these study rooms is filled with trays of delicious-looking cupcakes.) And there is the grand space that greets you when you walk in the door, with its 24-foot-by-60-foot wall of floor-to-ceiling windows.

When it’s just another day as a library, it will be quiet. On this day, June 12, the place is buzzing. Kids are checking out the racks of shiny new books. Someone, somewhere must be doing face-painting, because a girl walks by with white whiskers. The biggest surprise is the large number of people who seem to be here on a straight-up library visit, going through and picking out books and DVDs to sign out.

That’s not to say that folks are unaware they’re at a party. A couple of kids are looking hungrily through the glass at those cupcakes. And, as it nears 1 PM, politicians are starting to congregate in the area near the lectern.

There are a lot of politicians. There is Mayor Jerry Jennings, looking sporty and relaxed, Albany County Executive Mike Breslin, Congressman Paul Tonko, and Assemblyman Jack McEneny. There are more Albany Common Council persons than it’s easy to count in this crowd, including Smith (Ward 4), Jackie Jenkins-Cox (Ward 5), Lester Freeman (Ward 2), Ronald Bailey (Ward 3) and Leah Golby (Ward 10). Who knows, there may have even been a few more.

At 1 PM, the ceremony begins. Library Board president Dennis Gaffney says that the completion of the library plan proves that “Albany is not just a city with a past, but a city with a future.”

Jennings, with an eye on the larger optics of the new library, points out that “tens of thousands of cars [will] drive on Henry Johnson Boulevard” past the branch every day.

The mayor is followed at the podium by a few more politicians, in order of descending rank. All of the elected officials, whether they are speakers or whether they’re just introduced to the packed house, are clearly very happy to be there. They all seem genuinely pleased that something good is happening near the border of two of the most distressed neighborhoods in Albany. (And contrary to popular notions, West Hill, west of the new branch, is arguably more troubled than Arbor Hill).

Albany Public Library assistant director Tim Burke, when asked later about the eagerness of people to use the facilities right away, chuckles: “At each one of these [opening-day] parties, I have marveled that there were people sitting down at the computers checking their e-mail, or applying for a job online, or what have you. They were doing this with the party going on all around them:”

Burke has seen the process of building and renovated these branches from the beginning. Asked about the larger vision, he says that “it’s about creating environments that people want to be in.”

That was the problem with the smaller, pre-renovation branches (and the nonexistent situation in Arbor and West hills).

“It wasn’t really about the staff,” Burke says, “because our staff knows how to create good programs. And it wasn’t really about the collections. It was about the facilities.”

In library-administration circles, the talk is of making libraries a “third place” to be—a place people return to when they’re not at home or at work. A place that isn’t commercial.

“We think with these facilities, we’re going to be that ‘third place’ in these neighborhoods where people want to be—because they’re comfortable places to be,” Burke says. “The information they want, the books they want, in a place they want to be—and, frankly, they paid for it, and they should use it.”

The first thing you notice about the John J. Bach Branch Library—the other brand-new library branch, located uptown on New Scotland Avenue—is the quiet. This isn’t because on a recent, sunny weekday afternoon, the place is empty. It isn’t. The young-adult section is quiet because the kids are still in school. But the kids’ section is populated with toddlers pawing books (and their parents keeping a close watch); and adults are wandering though the stacks picking out books, or sitting and reading, and typing away on computers.

It’s quiet because the building’s handsome, curved glass front is blocking out most of the street noise—a vehicle has to be the size of a CDTA bus to make any aural impression.

The building is shaped like an “L.” When you enter through the front door, the young-adults section is straight ahead. Turn left, and there’s the adult section, which faces New Scotland Avenue on the left, and the kids section, which, like the young-adults section, looks out on a garden.

This is one of the most charming aspects of the Bach library. A Kubota mini-backhoe and a “Ditch Witch” mini-mini-backhoe attest to the fact that it isn’t finished, but you can tell it will be a special space when it is.

Albany Public Library executive director Carol Nersinger explains that the “lovely garden” will be done soon.

“They are working on it as we speak,” Nersinger says. “We’re hoping to have it finished this week. It isn’t just planting that’s going in there; they’re building some reading areas [enclosed] with brick.”

Nersinger wasn’t with the APL at the beginning of the long process to build (and rebuild) these branches, but she’s delighted with the way everything has turned out.

“It’s always a library director’s dream to open up a library,” Nersinger says. “And to open up five. . . . And to see the response from the community; they’ve been waiting for these buildings. To see their faces, it’s very gratifying.”

—S.S.


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