Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Letter from Brooklyn Public Library President, Linda E. Johnson, April 17, 2013: Examined. What Does It Really Say?

I am printing below, indented in italics, the totality of an April 17, 2013 letter that Brooklyn Public Library President, Linda E. Johnson, sent out by email to patrons of the Brooklyn Public Library about the BPL’s proposed sale and shrinkage of the Brooklyn Heights library.  Interspersed with the text of that letter is analysis about why that letter should not be reassuring or placating the way it was obviously written to be.

All the somewhat erratic bolding in the text of the Linda E. Johnson letter is the way that the original Linda Johnson letter, is bolded.  It looks like someone added it after the fact for things they wanted to emphasize.

(The BPL letter is sometimes redundant so bear with me if I am sometimes similarly redundant in response.)

The letter starts:
        A Letter from Brooklyn Public Library President, Linda E. Johnson

    April 17, 2013
Linda E. Johnson is the Chief Executive Officer of the Brooklyn Public Library.  The day this letter was sent out to `BPL Patrons,’ April 17, 2013, was the day after a meeting of the BPL trustees.  The sending of this letter was not publicly discussed at that BPL trustees' meeting (although there was an executive session supposedly about personnel matters where it could might have been discussed). For some reason, the BPL did not put this letter up on its website.
    Dear BPL Patron,

    Over the last few months, BPL has been sharing information with the Brooklyn Heights community about our plans for the future of the Brooklyn Heights Library. We hope this update on our efforts to create a better branch in Brooklyn Heights is helpful.
“Over the last few months, BPL has been sharing information”: Not mentioned is that the BPL was not sharing information with the public about the planned sale and shrinkage of the Brooklyn Heights Library for the very long time this was in the works.  This means that the for this very extended period the BPL was not sharing information the public could give no feedback or otherwise react about how this was a bad idea.  Now the public’s reaction must be rushed.

The BPL first started sharing information only at the end of January 2013.  Sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library was planned at least as far back as October 2011 and the BPL has quietly been considering selling libraries at least as far back as the summer of 2007, approximately the same date that the New York Public Library was arranging the sale-for-shrinkage of Donnell Library in Manhattan, the previous transaction which the sale-for-shrinkage of the Brooklyn Heights Library closely resembles in many ways.
    As you may be aware, public service at the Brooklyn Heights branch was crippled last summer by an unexpected failure of the building’s air conditioning system, resulting in sporadic closures.
The “unexpected failure of the building’s air conditioning system” occurred after the BPL decided to sell the Brooklyn Heights Library.  The citing of the air conditioning as a reason to sell the library was not announced until more than a year after the decision had already been made.  Virtually every time library administration officials say they want to sell libraries they cite problems with the air condition system.  This includes: Sale of the Donnell, demolition of the research stacks of the 42nd Street Central Reference Library, the Pacific Street Branch, etc.   
    In order to ensure consistent service this coming summer, starting July 1 and expected to end August 30, the Brooklyn Heights Library will be open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. After Labor Day, branch hours should return to normal.
The BPL announced plans cutting back on library hours amounting to a more than 50% shutdown of the library and said that they will also be “redeploying staff.”  The odd hours will be an impediment to use of the library and thereby diminish and disperse the constituency for the library’s continuation.  Citizens Defending Libraries believes that working air conditioning should be provided this summer and the library kept fully open.
    While reduced summer hours are not a long-term solution, the schedule is designed to allow us to keep our doors open and avoid the intermittent closures that occurred last year due to problems with the HVAC system, a system that requires a $3.5 million overhaul.
The library is arguing that sale and shrinkage of the library is the only feasible long-term solution to the problems they say the air conditioning poses.  Would you feel you needed to sell your home and move into a smaller apartment if your air conditioning went on the fritz?  The idea that the air conditioning in the 1962 building, renovated in the 1990s, would cost a pretty astounding $3.5 million to fix is highly suspicious.  These cited repair cost are far higher than original estimated numbers and the BPL has not been forthcoming with the furnishing of any bids upon which they could be basing this figure.
    Unfortunately, BPL faces a staggering $230 million in deferred maintenance across the 60 neighborhood libraries (including $9 million in capital repairs needed at Brooklyn Heights Library), but has received $15 million per year on average from the City to address these needs. The current situation is unsustainable. The time has come for innovative solutions to help us provide the service Brooklynites deserve.
The estimated figures for “deferred maintenance” to the extent that can be relied upon at all, have been built up while there was a deliberately underfunding of the libraries by the city.  This underfunding has been going on concurrently with the planning for sell-offs of libraries.  It’s an excuse not a cause.  Even the figure quoted for these multiple years of deferred maintenance for the entire BPL system is small.  It is roughly comparable to the subsidy for a year’s worth for subsidy for “Barclays” arena events, not withstanding that “More people visited public libraries in New York than every major sports team and every major cultural institution combined.”
    To address the problems at the Brooklyn Heights Library, we hope to build a new branch on the existing site on Cadman Plaza. Our project involves selling the property and working with a private developer to build a new facility as part of a larger building, at no cost to BPL or taxpayers.
This says that the new library will be “no cost to BPL or taxpayers” but it doesn’t say that it will be at no cost to the public which is what there will be when publicly owned and necessary assets are sold.  There will be a cost to the public when the public has to endure a significantly diminished level of library service until a new library is provided and public will also suffer detriment from the proposed shrinkage.  As for there being no cost to the BPL (and implicitly to the taxpayers supporting the BPL) the BPL previously issued information that there would be cost to the BPL that it characterized as small.

The method the BPL proposes of “working with a private developer” in a “public-private partnership” to build a new facility raises the specter that the BPL will likely not be receiving the best possible price for the property sold and that it will likely not be the best developer either.  Most of us now think of such partnerships as developer-driven private-public partnerships where public officials defer while the developer takes over government functions.  The BPL has stated that it is considering turning this development over to Forest City Ratner (which in 1988 was given the adjacent subsidized property without bid) even though the Ratner firm is notorious for abuses of such partnerships and not fulfilling promises of public benefit.
    Based on our plan, we hope to:

    •    Construct a new, modern branch in Brooklyn Heights. The new neighborhood branch will still be a public facility, owned by the City and operated by BPL, as are most of our libraries. It will be comparable in size to the publicly accessible portion of the current branch and will remain one of the largest branches in BPL’s system. The Business & Career Library, currently located within the same building, will move to BPL’s Central Library on Grand Army Plaza.
“Modern,” is a BPL euphemism for libraries that get rid of books in order to facilitate shrinkage.   The BPL says that it s not actually getting rid of books and therefore not actually shrinking, saying that there will still be books but the books will be turned in to a “back office” operation with off-site places that books will be sent to and will come from.  It’s just that you won’t be able to find books at the library the way you used to.  Linda Johnson says about books becoming less and less the mission of the libraries: “And it makes me sad too, because I love a book as much as anybody does.”

The “comparable in size” description is tricky.  Note that with a growing city, the growing use of the library, and the redevelopment of the site bringing in money and making expanding use of the property rights associated with the site, that the library isn’t growing, or even staying the same size.   Thus “comparable” becomes the operative word.  But it is only comparable to some of the space, not all of the space, and only to what the BPL considers the “branch” library, not the Business and Career library that has always been a functionally integrated part of it.  The BPL is decommissioning this library as a centrally located main library. 
    •    Take advantage of the value of property in the neighborhood to deliver a new branch in Brooklyn Heights without diverting funding from other parts of Brooklyn. We receive far too little money to properly maintain our buildings. This plan allows us to provide the library service Brooklyn Heights needs without taking money from other neighborhoods.
The BPL has acknowledged that it is motivated to sell the most valuable of its properties first.  So far that is acknowledged to mean this and the Pacific Branch library, which is also next to Forest City Ratner property and yards away from its highly subsidized “Barclays” arena.  The BPL doesn’t seem to acknowledge that these are the same properties that are the most valuable to the public, the most expensive or impossible to replace with true equivalents once they are disposed of.

The reference that implies that the sale of libraries, particularly the Brooklyn Heights library, is somehow to avoid “taking money from other neighborhoods” is a transparent attempt to divide the public and to suggest that the public oughtn’t to be united in its opposition to this sale and shrinkage of the Brooklyn Heights library.  But other libraries like the historic Pacific Street will be similarly sold.  The BPL’s strategic plan says that all of its real estate is to be subject to such `leveraging’ but it is not yet fully disclosing all its plans.  Incremental disclosure by the BPL serves a divide and conquer strategy and to tamp down public reaction.  In actuality, no library is taking money from other libraries because the underfunding of libraries is artificial.  Libraries cost a relative pittance to properly fund.  What actually takes money from the libraries is the deliberate underfunding of them to generate an excuse for these sales.

The shrinking of the Brooklyn Heights Library will tend to make it a library that will serve only the neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights.  Right now people come from many neighborhoods to visit the library so this shrinkage is, in essence, a somewhat discriminatory eviction.
    While we are excited about starting to work on our new Brooklyn Heights branch, we recognize there are some questions about our plans. Please understand:
The BPL recognizes that the affected communities are not buying their story and that questions have been raised about their true priorities by Citizens Defending Libraries and others.  In other words the community is not excited about their plans to sell, demolish and shrink libraries.
    •    This project is a response to the serious issues facing the Brooklyn Heights building that leverages the unique value of the building’s location.
“Leverages”?: Wouldn’t it be better in such a document to abandon the Wall Street and PR speak for plain English?   If there is “unique value of the building’s location” then the BPL really ought to realize and take into account something obvious and related: that the library there are selling also has a unique value to the public, not just to those they are selling it to.  To reiterate, its unique value means that once sold we can never recover what was lost.
    •    BPL is not closing the Brooklyn Heights Library. In fact, we are developing a plan to build a new, better, more modern library of comparable size to the public portion of the current branch, so that we can serve the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood for generations to come.
The BPL is, in fact, planning to close the library.  How long it will be closed may be speculated upon.  This transaction is modeled on the 2008 closing of the Donnell Library in a sale for shrinkage deal.  It is still closed and will not be reopened until at least 2015, eight long years.*  “Better, more modern” is an obfuscating description for a smaller library where there will be fewer of the current resources, including fewer books, which Linda Johnson in interviews has described as old fashioned.  The library will not be “comparable size” to the current library because be they will be evicting the Business and Career Library, which is an integral part of the existing library and the main system library it currently is.  The BPL’s idea is that the much smaller library can be considered equivalent because they don’t need to count the reduction of whatever space they chose to attribute to these services they are evicting from this location.
(* NOTE:  I just updated this (4/23/2013), correcting the completion date as 2015.  Previously, it said 2014 which was my prior information, but apparently the date has now been pushed further out according to the NYPL's website.  The information doesn't Google up because the NYPL website refers only to the “NYPL’s 53rd Street Library is scheduled to reopen to the public in 2015" without mentioning it by the now infamous name of “Donnell.”  The new, postponed 2015 date was called to my attention by the following Library Journal article about these sell-offs that is well worth reading: For Brooklyn PL, Planned Sale of Branches Promises Opportunity, Provokes Concern, by Norman Oder on April 22, 2013.)
As for serving the “neighborhood for generations to come”: in a bigger, wealthier, growing city where the library usage is up 40% programmatically and 59% in circulation, and even more in Brooklyn, we need bigger libraries, not smaller ones.  In addition, it is not just a question of choosing to insularly serve the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood alone: This library is on the Brooklyn Heights/Downtown Brooklyn business district border and is located at the borough's business most central trans hub.  This library should continue to serve Brooklyn and the rest of the city and the surrounding neighborhood.  The selectively narrow referencing of “Brooklyn Heights” should invite scrutiny as to what the goals here are.
    •    BPL does not plan to reduce hours at the Brooklyn Heights Library beyond the summer. We will implement shortened hours for the summer, running only from July 1 - August 30, after which normal operations will resume.
This seeming promise on the part of Ms. Johnson and the BPL to resume “normal operations” after August 30, should be regarded with skepticism, especially if it is being interpreted to imply that the Business and Career Library will be brought back to the Heights after August 30.  The BPL has said that it intends effectively shrink the Brooklyn Heights library by evicting the Business and Career Library.  (To the extent that Business and Career Library would continue to exist at all it would in some other incarnation jammed into Grand Army Plaza branch together with whatever other libraries they ultimately decide to jam in there when shrinking down the system.)  The BPL’s spokeperson, Josh Nachowitz, even told one reporter that it has been their plan to do this for years.

Mr. Nachowitz says that it will be redeploying staff when it does the more than 50% shutdown of the Brooklyn Heights library this summer and that the Business and Career Library’s services and programs will be relocated to Grand Army Plaza at the same time.  Mr. Nachowitz said that the BPL’s plan was to bring the Business and Career programs and services back to Brooklyn Heights at the end of the summer but said that this intention was subject to what he described as “a giant asterisk,” the BPL's subsequent determination that there was sufficient funding to do so.

Since claims of inadequate funding is the excuse for all of BPL’s decisions to do whatever they want in terms of the sale and shrinkage whenever they want to do it, it should not be expected that they won’t leave the library services at these lower levels.  They might not even consider that they have actually resumed “normal operations” since they may be considering themselves to be speaking here only of “normal operations” for what they consider may be one half of what currently comprises the library.
    •    BPL will not eliminate service in Brooklyn Heights at any time during the project. We will remain in the existing building until construction begins, and at that time will relocate our services and staff to a temporary space in the neighborhood.
The statement that the “BPL will not eliminate service in Brooklyn Heights at any time during the project” does not mean that services won’t be significantly reduced.  The existing library is currently 62,000 square feet.  The BPL has talked about having an interim library of as small as 5,000 square feet for the many years the library would be off site.  That hardly seems consistent with a representation that they will (or even could) “relocate our services and staff to a temporary space in the neighborhood.”  Spokeman Nachowitz told the New York Times that the new library would be provided at  “essentially no cost to the library system,” but this lack of service would amount to a substantial cost to the public that isn’t being taken into account. 
    The process to develop our new Brooklyn Heights Library will be complex and take years to complete. . .
The BPL would have us believe that it is not urgent to oppose sale and shrinkage of the library now.  At the same time they are arguing in other circles that its plans to sell and shrink the library should not be opposed because it is a “done deal.”  The BPL's plan is to have a contract that specifies that the library will be sold, exactly how much it will be shrunk and who the developer will be in the next couple of months and to execute that contract before December 31st, the last day of Bloomberg's term and before most of the public reviews.
    . . . We have formed a Community Advisory Committee comprised of key community stakeholders and local elected officials who will meet regularly. We will also present the plan at other meetings, including at the Community Board 2 meeting on April 24. Please visit our Brooklyn Heights Library webpage for continued updates.
The BPL itself formed the “Community Advisory Committee” ?  That may be a more tellingly accurate admission than the BPL should care to admit.  This “Community Advisory Committee” was formed with its principal members being something called “Friends” of the Brooklyn Heights Branch Library, Inc. and, saying they were there to support that Friends group, the Brooklyn Heights Association.  Strangely, both these groups are fully acquiescent to the BPL’s sale and shrinkage plans.  In a recent odd history that goes back to shortly before insider information about the sale of the library was made public, the Friends group has shrunk down to fewer than 200 members, less than half its former size.   The “Community Advisory Committee”  now also includes “local elected officials” partly because Citizens Defending Libraries informed elected officials about the committee and asked elected officials to invite themselves on board to monitor its activities.
    I will send you periodic emails about where we are in the public approval process and you can, of course, ask any of our branch librarians for more information. Additionally, you can email any questions or concerns to brooklynheightsproject@brooklynpubliclibrary.org.
The Community Board 2 meeting on April 24, 2013 is open to public comment: 6:00 PM at Brooklyn Borough Hall 209 Joralemon Street.  Linda Johnson does not say that branch librarians have fears about giving out accurate information about the proposal and have been told what they are to tell the public. Only if you earn their utmost confidence are they likely to tell you what they really think. Many librarians have been laid off throughout the system.  The NYPL has been having laid-off librarians sign “nondisparagement agreements” saying that they will not criticize such plans in exchange for severance.
    We look forward to continuing to work with the community to provide Brooklyn Heights with the best possible library service.

    Very truly,

    Linda E. Johnson

    President & CEO

Anthony W. Crowell
At the April 16, 2013 Brooklyn Public Library trustees meeting the chairman of the board publicly thanked certain unnamed trustees for making phone calls to the public about the plans to sell and shrink the library.  Presumably these were the phone calls elected officials received telling them they should ignore the public opposition to the plan.  The chairman, attorney Anthony W. Crowell, noted in that meeting that the plans had recently received a lot of press.  He said that, notwithstanding, the BPL still planned to “plow ahead” with the plans as originally described to the trustees.  Some individual BPL trustees are apparently uneasy with the plans.  However, we noted that after the meeting many of the existing trustees told us they could not talk to us.  I asked the chairman what was what with trustees talking and not talking to the public.  He explained that the trustees had been told not to talk to the public until they had been subject to education sessions to get the message right.  But if they don't talk to the public they can't listen to the public’s concerns.

By the way: It may be that if you are a real estate developer on the BPL board of trustees you do not need one of these education sessions to be talking to the public.
City Comptroller John C. Liu criticizing the plunder of the libraries at City Hall press conference last Thursday that was the culminating event of Citizens Defending Libraries Library Protection Week events.

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