The main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library is located in the heart of the borough, at Grand Army Plaza, and surrounded by an impressive triumphal arch through which Abraham Lincoln rides, victorious, following the defeat of the South in the Civil War, by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and by the Brooklyn Museum, home to one of the best collections of Egyptian art in the world. The prestigious building of the central library fits well into this ensemble and sets its own accent. The first plans for its creation date back to 1903. Construction was begun in 1912, during the Art Deco era, a style still visible on a section of the rear façade. Because of the United States’ engagement in the First World War, however, the building could not be completed. Only after the end of the Great Depression and in the context of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal was the central library finally finished, in 1941. Since then a number of structural changes have been undertaken in its interior – the redesign of the reading room of the archive of Historic Brooklyn Photographs, the addition a few years ago of a lecture hall, or the remodeling of the library café a few years ago. But, unfortunately, there are limits to the modernization efforts, due to the building’s historicity: all the library shelves, for example, are built-in and so massive that the construction of new shelving would cost a fortune. And yet the library is flexible in terms of current demands: not only are most of the reading rooms equipped for wireless internet access, but, for those with laptops and notebooks, the Grand Lobby and the Plaza of the library as well.
Political lobbying work, in contrast, enjoys a long tradition at the Brooklyn Public Library. Steve Schechter, director of Government Affairs, enlightened me on the library’s close collaboration with local Brooklyn politicians as well as on the systematic maintaining of contacts with influential politicians on the City Council. This network, sustained for years now, pays off in annual budget consultations, for which Steve Schechter has coined the expression, “budget dance”. He always begins his efforts in the spring, as in New York the fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30 of the following year. In the current discussions on budget cuts, originally scheduled at 22%, the Brooklyn Public Library profited decisively from its contact with the speaker of the Democratic Party on the City Council, who is pro-library. On site, the campaign was supported by “advocacy teams”, whose members work in the branches and continually keep local politicians updated on the library’s achievements as well as informing them of the library’s concerns. Such extensive lobbying work calls for knowledge that the library staff receives through training seminars. Their time is well-invested, for without the active promotion of the work of the library, politicians cannot know what benefits people, and they themselves, derive from “their” branch library. Troubling to Steve Schechter are the long planning timetables for new construction or renovation work. As it is not uncommon for these plans to take ten years from the time they are approved by politicians until they are completed, local politicians, whose term in office is limited to eight years, often prefer projects that are more quickly visible. Nevertheless, the Brooklyn Public Library is attempting, with its 2008 “Strategic Real Estate Plan for the Branch Libraries”, to secure the continuity of its modernization process.
Sunday, 11. October 2009
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