Albany Public Library opens new libraries and new doors
to the people of Albany
Kathryn Geurin and Shawn Stone
by Joe Putrock
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.
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
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.
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.”
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
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
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.
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.”
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
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
J. Bach Branch Library
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
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.”
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
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.
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.”
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.”
Hill/West Hill Branch Library
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
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
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.
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
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
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).
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
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
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.
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]
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.
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.”