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The Shrinking Central Library

Where once there were books: the cost of Chris Collins's threat to defund libraries.

The Buffalo and Erie County Public Library will spend about $1.7 million to renovate the mostly vacant second floor of the library, preparing it for use as offices and a multi-use meeting space, according to minutes of the library’s board of trustees.

The public area of the second floor was closed earlier this year to save money on lighting, heating, and staffing the 25,000-square-foot business science and technology section. The library also closed the after-school teen room and a computer lab, which held computer literacy classes. The only public space that remains is office space leased by Literacy Volunteers, a Buffalo nonprofit offering assistance in reading and English language learning. The newly founded advisory council Arts Service Initiative is expected to open its headquarters there in 2012.

$542,000 of the construction cost will come from a New York State public library construction grant. The remainder will be paid with library funds and a $250,000 allocation from the county. All told, the renovations will include asbestos abatement, remodeling, and improved lighting, as well as improved surveillance cameras around building entrances and other key areas.

The $14 million construction grant is available annually for all public libraries in New York.

According to Linda Todd, a library development specialist for New York State and overseer of the grant program, the Central Library grant is problematic, since it would be used to lease public library space to outside groups. “Public library construction law would not allow such an activity,” Todd says.

While the space on the second floor will no longer be filled with tables, books, and computer terminals, deputy director Ken Stone says that the area will still be available to the public. Rather than closing the space, Stone says that the area is being repurposed to be used by arts and literacy groups as a meeting space. “Everybody is being squeezed by funding,” he says. “If we can come together and lower each other’s costs, it makes sense to try and do it.”

Stone expresses little regret over having to limit the size of the library. He says that closing the second floor was the best way to keep operating costs down at Central. In fact, he says, the library runs better now than it did when the second floor was open. Moving all of the public computers to the first floor has actually improved the area. Security guards are better able to do their jobs. “It’s quieter down there than it was before. There’s less disruption, because we were able to refocus our resources.”

Librarians Association president Tim Galvin isn’t happy about closing the library’s second floor, but he sees it as a symptom of a larger problem. “There’s a lot of negative morale,” he says. “We’ve seen the whole Central library reduced to a minimalized operation.” Low morale, he says, comes from a change to a top-heavy organizational model, and a lack of trust in the library’s administration. The library fires plenty of lower-paid librarians, but keeps their higher-paid supervisors, and tries to fill in the vacancies with part-time workers. Earlier this year, in what Galvin refers to as “the weeding debacle,” roughly 70,000 books were ordered removed from the collection, often without librarian oversight. That weeding project opened up the space for the library to remove the second-floor stacks. Galvin says a lack of job security has led librarians to be resentful. “There’s a change in the philosophy of what librarianship can be,” he says.

After working for five years in the business science and technology section of the library’s second floor, Galvin is sad to see the section closed. “It’s discouraging to see what happened…and walk in there and see the emptiness.”

At the root of this debate, of course, is money. The idea of closing the second floor came on the heels of a threat by Erie County Executive Chris Collins to cut $4 million in funding from the county. The cut was proposed in the summer of 2010, causing the library to plan worst-case scenarios for draconian layoffs, library closings, and the downsizing of the Central Library. Collins argued that libraries need to generate their own revenue and become less dependent on public funding. Since 10 of the 15 members of the library’s board were appointed by Collins, they quickly extended his dream of running the county like a business into running the public library like a business.

When public outcry caused some Republicans in county government to vote with Democrats to get the $4 million back, Collins cut a deal with them to add $3 million back to the budget. This was seen by some as too little too late, as the initial reaction to the threat of lost funding resulted in the termination of nearly 50 positions, shortened operating hours, and the closing of the second floor of the Central library.

This fall, perhaps understanding Buffalonians’ passion for their libraries, Collins offered to shift $2 million in maintenance costs from the library to the county. This would bring the county funding for the library to $22.2 million, the level set in 2010. Collins has said that the library needs to have a separate taxing district, so that taxpayers can vote on the library budget the same way they vote to fund public schools. The library board is in the planning stages of making that change. County Executive-elect Mark Poloncarz has opposed the library taxing district, and has promised to making funding the libraries a priority.

The library system was eligible for about $773,000 in state construction grant funds this year, and the remaining $121,379 will be used for capital improvements at three county libraries. The Town of Aurora library will have its roof replaced, and new sidewalks will be installed at the West Seneca and Eden libraries.

The state grant, which is available to fund 50 percent of library construction projects, has made great yearly improvements to the library system. The Central Library’s rare book room is now contained in an archival, climate-controlled space thanks to a $326,000 grant in 2006. RFID book security and inventory technology has been instituted in many libraries. Branch libraries have been renovated to become more accessible to patrons with disabilities. In the past 10 years, grants have been used to improve lighting, make buildings more energy-efficient, update public restrooms, and generally make public spaces more pleasant.

These improvements coincide with a 12 percent increase in library use and a 92 percent increase in computer use since the beginning of the recession in 2007. In rough economic times people flock to the library to apply for jobs, go online, be entertained, and sometimes just to have a place to go and rest on a cold day. As budgets are tightened, it becomes more and more difficult for libraries to provide for their patrons in their greatest time of need. Galvin’s outlook on the future of librarians seems bleak: “We are an endangered species,” he says.

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