During my conversation with James Neal at the Butler Library at Columbia University, he had mentioned casually that one hasn’t really entered the United States of America if one visits only New York City and Washington, DC. Both cities play a special role: one as a great, globally noticed metropolis with the status of an idol, the other as political power center, inwardly as well as outwardly. If one wants to find other facets of the “American way of life” in everyday reality, experiences of this kind are more readily available in the capital of New York State. The panoramic views of the beautiful Hudson River landscape alone are worth the two-and-half hour train ride to Albany. The arrival at the city of 95,000, however, is rather sobering. The Central Library of the Albany Public Library, which is part of the Upper Hudson Library system and serves the population of Albany as well as an additional 400,000 people of the surrounding areas, is in bad need of modernization. Plans for new buildings and extensive renovations already exist. But for now the funds have been exhausted by five other branches currently undergoing face-lifts – begun in the fall of 2008 and slated to continue until the spring of 2010 – all of the projects, by the way, have been “green” undertakings, with environmentally responsible building materials and energy consumption. The funds for modernizing the Central Library (which has an operating budget of $5.5 million) will still have to be fought for in political battles, as Carol Nersinger, Executive Director of Albany’s Public Library, and Timothy G. Burke, Assistant Director, explain during our tour.
William K. Stanford Town Library doesn’t count among the most modern libraries either, as we learn on our walk-through with director Richard Naylor. But as in the case of the Central Library, the population makes good use of this institution. Especially noticeable – and not at all comparable with the situation of German libraries – is the fact that the population pays a so-called library tax for the libraries in this district: the citizens have voted that a certain percentage of their taxes will be designated exclusively to libraries. This way the Stanford Town Library is an institution 100 percent publicly financed. For its political lobbying to maintain public support it even employs television: in its fully equipped recording studio right on the premises, the library produces films about its daily work; it also films special events or conversations with library patrons as well as with local politicians for broadcasting.
The Upper Hudson Library System owns a combined stock of more than a million media which can be borrowed without charge by every user in every library – an enormous logistical achievement. According to Philip W. Ritter, executive director of this association, the services his library system offers go far beyond media transit: Acquiring and presenting media in a library-befitting manner, obtaining and taking care of the IT-infrastructure, organizing educational offerings and the regular information exchange among the directors of thirty public libraries – all these functions run through this institution. Its work most resembles that of specialist positions for librarianship (if they even still exist) in Germany, or the regional “Biblioservices” in the Netherlands: competent, efficient, and price-conscious networking.
At the end of our trip Brigitte Doellgast and I visit the East Greenbush Community Library, situated in an idyllic landscape far away from the big city. But the work achieved at this library is not in the least provincial. Its very modern building invites customers - on Monday through Friday from 9am to 9pm, on Saturday from 9am to 5pm, and even on Sundays, from 1pm to 5pm - to discover the library’s diverse offerings. From the outside, the automated book return is actually open 24 hours every day of the week. In a conscious decision, generous space has been given for children and adolescents in the library. Just as in every other library in the USA, plenty of computer stations with free Internet access dominate the picture. And a multitude of events and exhibitions have turned the East Greenbush Library into a cultural center in a region with an otherwise rather modest cultural presence.
Michael J. Borges was responsible for putting together this informative and educational journey. He used to be very involved in local politics before he became Director of the New York Library Association. The NYLA has sensibly chosen the state capital of New York as its seat because all decisions about the libraries’ current budgets and future developments are made right here. In conversation with him it once again becomes clear that libraries in the United States view themselves much more politically than in Germany and that these American institutions are much more anchored in society. If one wants to put "libraries on the agenda” and keep them there, one needs to know how politics work and what politicians respond to; one needs to cultivate contacts continuously and consistently; and one needs to have the backing of the population as well as convincing user statistics. And it doubtlessly comes as an advantage that libraries in the US usually aren’t public institutions even if they are financed at least in part by public means. This guarantees them a position of greater independence – especially in times of crisis, which are inevitably times of conflicts about budget cuts. Even now it is possible to mount a public offensive to increase the budget for libraries in Albany. Success isn’t guaranteed but in Germany we are currently discussing once again massive budget cuts with the inevitable consequence of closing institutions. And the libraries will only see a fraction of tax revenues reflected in their budgets.
Monday, 12. October 2009
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