Saturday, June 8, 2013

Irony Of Ironies: Urban Librarians Unite, Holding A “We Will Not Be Shushed Read In June 8 & 9th! Sign Up Now!” Event, Wanted To “Shush” Citizens Defending Libraries About It.

Urban Librarian Unite is having a read-in event (publicized above) to protest the underfunding of libraries but they don't want you to come to it if you are opposed to the real estate deals selling off and shrinking the New York City library system
Urban Librarians Unite is having aWe Will Not Be Shushed Read-In June 8 & 9th! Sign Up Now! event inviting people to “take a stand against the outrageous proposed cuts to our beloved New York City public libraries.”

Citizens Defending Libraries has a petition that demands that “Mayor Bloomberg stop defunding New York libraries at a time of increasing public use, population growth and increased city wealth.”  The petition has well over 11,000 signatures, most of them online.  Citizens Defending Libraries (of which I am a co-founder) put the Urban Librarians Unite “We Will Not Be Shushed” event in the online calendar where it makes available all New York City library related events likely to be of interest to its petition signers and others.

And then Urban Librarians Unite wanted to “shush” Citizens Defending Libraries about its “We Will Not Be Shushed” event.  Why?  Because the Citizens Defending Libraries petition statement continues with the observation that “Shrinking our library system to create real estate deals for the wealthy at a time of cutbacks in education and escalating disparities in opportunity is not only unjust, it is a shortsighted plan that will ultimately hurt New York City’s economy and competitiveness.”
Notwithstanding that Urban Librarians Unite posted on the web that it was inviting “readers, library lovers, librarians, families, and even unsuspecting people just wandering by in front of the library” to participate and join “together to take a stand” against cuts that both organizations were formed to oppose Urban Librarians Unite demanded that Citizens Defending Libraries remove information about the public event about library funding from the calendar because Citizens Defending Libraries was opposing the real estate deals.

Urban Librarians Unite expressed dissatisfaction with the Citizens Defending Libraries testimony at Wednesday’s June 5th City Council Budget hearing where Citizens Defending Libraries called those real estate deals into question.  See: Testimony By Citizens Defending Libraries At June 5, 2013 City Council Committee Hearing On Library Budget Issues.

Here are some excepts from that CDL testimony:
City Council members will say that this underfunding is unjust and must be reversed.  Citizens Defending Libraries wholeheartedly concurs in calling for an end to such underfunding at a time of substantially increasing library use and city growth.

* * * *

On Monday, at the first portion of ths City Council committee hearing concerning budgeting for New York City Library budgets and library funding Anthony W. Marx and Linda Johnson, the respective heads of the New York Public Library and the Brooklyn Public Library, testified that they had a problem approaching donors asking that they give monies to fund the libraries because they cannot make a `credible’ case that any money given to the libraries by such donors will not be immediately subtracted out by the mayor of New York in budget cuts.  Indeed, supporting the observation that there are games being played that we must guard against and that are damaging to the public, Committee Chair James G. Van Bramer concluded with an acknowledgment that the annual budget dance around libraries is a `game.’
The testimony called for the City Council to intervene and investigate how city funds being supplied to the libraries were being plundered in these real estate deals.  As the city is providing the “lion’s share of all the funding for the libraries” Citizens Defending Libraries called for the City Council to seek the same assurance that big charitable donors insist upon to assure that their donated funds will not be “squandered or otherwise made meaningless.”  This made Urban Librarians Unite unhappy.

As much as Urban Librarians Unite sought to kerfuffle with Citizens Defending Libraries over the issue Citizens Defending Libraries did not agree to have Urban Librarians Unite dictate what should be included in its calendar items.  Instead, after much back and forth Citizens Defending Libraries accommodated Urban Librarians Unite by inserting notice of the following wish from Urban Librarians Unite, essentially a dis-invitation to the Urban Librarians Unite event directed to an important segment of the population:
•   Important Note Respecting One Of The Events In The Calendar Above-  The Jun 8 – 9, 2013 24-Hour Library Read-In by New Yorkers Standing Up for Libraries- Hosted by Urban Librarians Unite.  This is one of the events on the calendar not organized by Citizens Defending Libraries (most are not).   Urban Librarians Unite (created circa 2008) contacted Citizens Defending Libraries to express their wish that Citizens Defending Libraries communicate Urban Liberians Unite's wish that people not come to attend their 24-Hour Library Read-In event if they believe:
    •    We shouldn’t be selling off our NYC libraries the way we are.
    •    We shouldn’t be shrinking our library system assets
    •    It is a matter of public concern that we are getting less than appropriate value when these assets are sold, and/or
    •    Public representatives should assert themselves to protect these public assets.
Urban Librarians Unite also informed CDL that they considered inclusion of this publicly advertised (previously come-one-come-all event) public event in the calender “unacceptable.”  In other words they wanted to Shush us about their "We Will Not Be Shushed Read-In June 8 & 9th! Sign Up Now!" event.  Urban Librarians Unite objected to the testimony CDL delivered at the City Council budget hearing on June 5, 2013 and apparently there was concern on their part that people with negative feelings about library sales and shrinkage might participate in the event to express their opposition to underfunding of libraries, or that such people might communicate with attendees of the event about this related subject. CDL doe not allow those holding public events to dictate exclusion (or inclusions) of information in the calendar about relevant library-related events (mayoral forums, library trustee events, etc.), but agreed, in this instance, to express the above about ULU's conscientious efforts to exclude public opposition to the library sales and shrinkage from their message. 
The first communication coming from Urban Librarians Unite making the totalitarian demand that Citizens Defending Libraries remove from its calendar the event designed to capture "unsuspecting people" (library patrons) " just wandering by in front of the library” came in a phone call from an upset Lauren Comito, listed as on the board of Urban Librarians Unite. (We knew Ms. Comito from before because she had come to one of the first Citizens Defending Libraries organizational meetings.  Back then Ms. Comito expressed a desire to avoid the politics library underfunding, and subsequently our communications with Urban Librarians Unite dropped off.)

Ms. Comito expressed a concern that Citizens Defending Libraries was not calling for restoration of library funding.  Since her concern seemed to be expressed in earnest, even if it was a peculiar perception, (and evne though she hung up on us when talking) her concern seemed to deserve a response and I provided the one below:    

This was our testimony yesterday:
Citizens Defending Libraries wholeheartedly concurs in calling for an end to such underfunding at a time of substantially increasing library use and city growth.
See attached for the full letter.

So no, we are not in disagreement with Urban Librarians Unite that funding should be restored.  In fact, another point we make is that the given that the current funding crisis coincides exactly with the ginning up of these real estate deals to shrink the library system (including, as a result, staffing) we see the real estate deals and shrinkage as actually being a cause of the deliberate "unjust" underfunding, therefore another reason to fight them.  (One reason we are fighting for baseline funding.)

I don't know what you mean when you say you know what happened in the Donnell deal but I don't think it is was a good thing for the public.  [Ms. Comito had said on the phone that she was not naive and knew what happened at Donnell but did not elaborate about what she meant by this.]

With Donnell, the Central Library Plan and every library sell-off plan the details of which have actually seen the light of day, including the Brooklyn Heights library, there has been a consistent and substantial diminishment of the publicly owned assets (usually by 2/3rds to 3/4ths) with no benefit to the public while others are benefitting in nontransparent top-down concocted deals that, like Donnell, benefit connected players in the real estate industry.
    •    Donnell Library: Reduction of public library space by more than two-thirds (from 97,000 square feet to 28,000 square feet- NY Times figures, though by other calculation it is more extreme).  Library worth perhaps $120 million to the public in terms of continued ownership (based on recent transactions) is sold to net $39 million.

    •    Central Library Plan:  Reduction of public library space by more than two-thirds or about three-quarters (from 380,000 square feet down to 80,000 square feet- That’s the 139,000 sq/ft Mid-Manhattan plus the 160,000 sq/ft SIBL plus the 80,000 sq/ft of stacks being destroyed.  In the very recent past, before the real estate guys took over it was proposed to nearly double Mid-Manhattan’s space, increasing it by 117,000 square feet for more library services) The cost of this 380,000 square foot shrinkage is $350 million or more. It is not paid for by the real estate sales because they bring in less than that amount (Marx referred to bringing in $300 million at least a $50 million loss).  Instead, the shrinkage is justified because it is asserted by Marx and the NYPL that a smaller library (with fewer librarians) might cost $15 million a year less to run.  Most savings of this sort involve personnel cost reductions, not brick and mortar.  (I agree with you that libraries are more than something just physical.)
    •    Brooklyn Heights Library: Reduction of public library space by more than two-thirds (from 62,000 square feet to 15,000 or maybe now 20,000 square feet).  Cost benefit to the public this time?  Not out yet, but it’s supposed to be a “partnership” arrangement rather than a request for bids arrangement and likely with Forest City Ratner with a record of abusing those relationships.  (The no-bid arrangement for the BAM South library to "replace" the historic Pacific branch- hearings were Tuesday morning- started out as an RFP to build a "parking garage" which through partnership has become something extravagantly different and more generous for the developer.)
Do we really want the library officials currently running the system to take these transactions and use them, as proposed, as models for sales and shrinkage throughout the system?  You say you understand these things.   Our understanding of them is such that we have to oppose the shrinkage now and hold the line so that it doesn’t spread with things like the plan for northern Manhattan and the plan to similarly “leverage” all of the BPL’s real estate.  We also believe that it makes sense to do as we have and call for a moratorium on real estate deals until proper funding is restored: That is likely, faster than anything, to result in a quick restoration of funding.   Doing the opposite and letting underfunding be an excuse for real estate deals (the exact thing they want) is only likely to result in more underfunding (because it leads to more of what they want).

I hope you stand with us one day.  And if you think any particular library looks shabby at the moment that may have a lot to do with the lack of funds we are all protesting.  (When developers want to get rid of something they work at making it shabby first.)

We had other testimony delivered yesterday that I can also send you that said, that as a substantial giver of funds, the city should do what any other substantial givers of funds should normally do, exercise control to make sure the intended benefit of those funds is effected rather that stolen. How else would you turn this around?: The plundering and shrinkage of assets itself compounds the system’s deprivation of funds.
Others are asking similar questions about how the library officials are wastefully pouring money into creating these real estate deals, like the $350 million potential net loss into the Central library plan and then asking for more money as if there is no irresponsible management of assets to be noticed.  For instance, New York Times architectural critic Michael Kimmelman tweeted the following and you can see the responses it generated:   
Nervy:@NYPL email begging donations for endangered branch libraries, which NYers really need+want, while it pours $$ into CLP @ 42nd St.
Kimmelman tweet
Click to enlarge.  Go to Twitter to see full conversation full size.  Some of the Twitter conversation in response to  Kimmelman's tweet
Ultimately, Christian Zabriskie, the founder and principal spokesperson for Urban Librarians Unite at events, stepped into the fray to demand the event be removed from the CDL calender of library events "immediately."  (The underscoring was his.)

Above, event at City Hall protesting the underfunding of libraries in which Urban Librarian Unite participated.  CDL was confused about what to do since the even was organized by libary officials want to sell libraries and shrink the system.  Some CDL members participated, others just watched.  Most people there said they did not want libraries sold or  the system shrunk.
Christian Zabriskie enlarged from the larger tableaux above and below

The City Hall event organized with library resources was similar to the April 18th City Hall CDL and Committee to Save the Public Library event event organized without those resources
Citizens Defending Libraries and the Committee to Save the New York Public Library had elected officials like NYC Comptroller John Liu and Assemblyman Micha Kellner
Citizens Defending Libraries and the Committee to Save the New York Public Library had representatives from a troop of girl scouts who came out to save the Pacific Branch Library they use.  Afterwards, the troop produced a wonderfully cute video making their plea (other videos available from CDL).  Following suit the NYPL City Halle event featured a mini-podium to feature children's pleas.
Mr. Zabriskie expressed concerns that he didn’t want Citizens Defending Libraries attempting to “co-opt” the Urban Librarians Unite event, given his strong disagreement with the Citizens Defending Libraries testimony, which he considered directly against his work, putting us at “diametrically opposite ends of this fight.”   Saying that he had “150 volunteers” to work the event he said he did not want fliers or petitions (information?) around that was not consistent with what he was working to achieve and that he didn’t want Urban Librarians Unite “members associated with” our testimony opposing the sale and shrinkage of library system assets.

Urban Librarians Unite was created in 2008, almost exactly the same time that the real estate deals selling off libraries were becoming public.  It was November 7, 2007, the very end of 2007, that the Donnell Library sale startled the public with its secrecy when it was suddenly unveiled as a fait accompli.  As noted, 2008 was also around the time when the underfunding of libraries, now used as an excuse to sell them, began to greatly accelerate.  Researching, I find that in all the years since it was formed in 2008 Urban Librarians Unite has apparently never raised questions about the library sales or shrinkages, never been critical about any of the big players or politicians involved behind the scenes.  The most radical thing I find on the ULU site is a link to a Zabriskie-authored American Libraries article sympathetic to the Occupy Wall Street library.
August 6, 2012 Zabriskie published an ebook on Amazon ($32:00?- 86 pages, no reader reviews or ratings) by the name “Grassroots Library Advocacy.”  The Amazon description refers to “rounding up advocates from the wider community and conducting a grassroots effort” and, despite the fact that Lauren and Christian previously communicated an aversion to being “political” it says it details “lessons learned . . . including advice for dealing with political leaders and the media.”

This fall 2011 article “Grassroots Advocacy: Putting Yourself Out There- Find fresh ways to energize support for libraries” (By Lauren Comito, Aliqae Geraci, and Christian Zabriskie) may have been a forerunner to that book: 
Are you trying to put pressure on politicians directly? Show up at a budget hearing and see if you can give testimony. Line up your speaking points in advance and rehearse them, be polite but firm, and dress professionally. Ideally, you’ll bring along a bunch of your friends and supporters, who will do the same.
This is the “fourth year of [the Urban Librarians Unite] hosting our 24-hour Read-In on the steps of the Brooklyn Public Library.”  The idea is sign up and symbolically read any literature you want on “the steps of the Brooklyn Public Library.”  I had been thinking of reading George Orwell.  I communicated that to Christian and Lauren.

It is interesting to think that if Urban Librarians Unite had not been formed in 2008 back when the sell-offs shrinking the library system started, that an organization like Citizens Defending Libraries (created this past February in response to breaking headlines with new information about the sell off of libraries) might have sprung into existence far sooner to expose how real estate deals that Urban Librarians Unite does not oppose are dismantling New York City's library system.

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