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A Rare Event at the Central Library

The second floor of the Central Library, where once there were books.

When I worked at the Central Library, I wondered when it would come time to refinish the linoleum floors of the Grosvenor room and the humanities department. Bold, elongated rectangles stained the floors, marking the spaces where the colossal range bookcases had once stood. Traffic rubbed a streaking, discolored semicircle of wear around entranceways and computer aisles. Mysterious spills left pockmarks on the tiles around the study tables.

Although most of the area of the front of the library is newer laminated flooring, about half is covered with a golden-beige tile popular in municipal projects. The original color may have been “Champagne” or “Golden Wheat,” but where it is worn—and, with half a million annual patrons, it is worn everywhere—it’s the color of an aged newspaper. The library maintenance budget has been stretched thin for years, so moving all the shelves and furniture to strip and reseal the floors hasn’t been a priority.

It was easy, though, to clean the newly vacant second floor of the library for a party. This year the library board of trustees voted to close the library’s second floor to save money on utilities and ultimately lease the space out to private tenants. The at least 20,000-square-foot room has been relieved of the thousands and thousands of books that used to occupy its shelves, and its busy rows of computers. The Erich Mayer patent library, named in memory of a Buffalo librarian, has been removed. The desks and chairs are gone, moved to other areas of the library or put in storage. It is one of the finest spaces in downtown Buffalo. Floor-to-ceiling glass lines the north wall of the building, reflecting the city skyline in the glistening floor.

One floor of the library is pristine, while the public floor looks like—well, like somewhere you wouldn’t want to hold a $175-a-plate fundraising gala.

And that’s just what the library’s board of trustees is doing on November 5, in celebration of the library’s 175th anniversary. The event, complete with dinner, dancing, and a tour of the library’s rare materials, has been delicately titled “A Rare Affair.”

What is so rare about this affair? Well, the desire to pitch in $175 a person to hang out at a place that’s free the other 300-odd days of the year seems rare. It is probably also a rare opportunity to throw a party on 20,000 square feet of public library space. But this is their dodransbicentennial, for God’s sake, not a surprise 23rd birthday for old Terry from down the hall. Things should get a little special.

There will also be a silent auction of hundreds of autographed books from various donors, which I’m told exist, as well as reproductions of materials from the library’s rare book collection, which I have seen. A few of the items have been posted online (although I’d also say rare is the guy who’d pay $500 for a photocopied copy of The Federalist, even if it were bound in the endangered hide of a Chinese alligator.)

At the September meeting of the library’s board of trustees, Ann Leary reported that 31 tables had already been sold at $1,750 a pop, although the 14 board members were each expected to have bought a table. There is a contest for staff members, where the winner gets an invite.

You can almost sense the trustees’ relief in the minutes of the September board meeting, when Ann Leary reported that the second floor would be “transformed into something magical for the Gala.” In press materials, the hook of the event calls to the potential patron: “You’ve never seen the library like THIS before!” This is to say, I assume, clean, with booze, and without books. It makes you wonder why they don’t just clean up the whole place. Then they could have people over any time they want.

The gala is presented to advertisers and patrons as a fundraising event for people who like the idea of the library but wouldn’t necessarily set their foot in there if they started giving out free iPads. The people who make the decisions are not those who need or even use the libraries. There was great public outcry over stimulus funds being withheld from the library in the 2011 budget, threatening to significantly diminish the library’s public space, but very little fight was put up by the board of trustees, many of whom were donors to Collins’ campaign. All library systems have to do fundraising, and many have much more elaborate festivities than this, but this event is too little too late. Dancing the night away in what was once a library seems, somehow, dirty.

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