Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Conundrum For Those Wanting To Donate To Libraries: People Who Would Use Our Donations To Shrink and Sell Off Libraries

Reading Citizens Defending Libraries flyer before entering  Friends of Brooklyn Heights Branch Library October 21st fund raising gala- Author Evan Hughs enters captured by Jonathan Barkey's photography
A good place to start this article is with the deliberate underfunding of New York City libraries by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg at a time of their greatly increasing use. . . 

At City Council budget hearings at the beginning of June, 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 Mayor Bloomberg in budget cuts to the system.  Citizens Defending Libraries (a group I helped found) followed up at that hearing with testimony that it was also not possible to make a credible case to potential donors that funds given to libraries would not be squandered in real estate deals as libraries like Donnell get sold off at a fraction of their value to the public.  (See: Testimony By Citizens Defending Libraries At June 5, 2013 City Council Committee Hearing On Library Budget Issues.)  Citizens Defending Libraries has also given similar testimony on more recent occasions.  (See: Testimony By Citizens Defending Libraries At June 27, 2013 State Assembly Committee Hearing On Selling New York City Libraries and Report on Monday, September 30th City Council Hearing On Sell-off of NYC Libraries Plus Testimony of Citizens Defending Libraries.)
Citizens Defending Libraries might have gone a step further in its testimony: Not only is it a concern that libraries paid for with taxpayer and charitable contributions will be wasted when libraries are sold; donors ought also be concerned that their donations will be directly used to sell, shrink and dismantle New York’s library system assets.

This was the concern raised by Citizens Defending Libraries when the Friends of Brooklyn Heights Branch Library held a fund raising gala event on October 21st that featured Evan Hughs, author of “Literary Brooklyn.”  See: ‘Literary Brooklyn’ gala celebrates 20 years of the Friends of the Brooklyn Heights Branch Library, by Samantha Samel & Mary Frost, Brooklyn Daily Eagle and Friends of Brooklyn Heights Branch Library to hold 20th Anniversary gala fundraiser, by Samantha Samel, October 17, 2013, Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Why?   Because the Friends of Brooklyn Heights Branch Library holding the gala and taking donations from people wanting to “support” the library has been playing a key role in easing the path and moving forward the sale Brooklyn Heights library.  It has given cover to the Brooklyn Heights Association to similarly advance the probability of a sale with the BHA saying its is “simply supporting the position of the librarians and the Friends of the Library.” See: Saturday, April 13, 2013, Condoning The Sale and Shrinkage Of The Brooklyn Heights Library, Does The Brooklyn Heights Associations Think Of Friends Group As A Fig Leaf? It Should Think Again.

So it was that Citizens Defending Libraries handed out flyers to those entering the event, saying: “Please don’t allow your money be used to sell and shrink public libraries.”  

Citizens Defending Libraries flyer for event
It urged:
    •    Please donate money only on condition of its proper use-  Put the following restrictive endorsement on the back of the check for any donation you make: "This check may only be deposited on condition that the BPL not sell off libraries, The Brooklyn Heights and Pacific Libraries properties included."
And cautioned:
    •    If you give money to the Brooklyn Public Library and you do not make your gift upon such conditions you should assume that your money will be used to advance real estate deals that benefit developers, not the public.
The Friends group and the BHA take pains to distinguish that they are not supporting the sale and shrinkage of the library, asserting that they are only condoning or not opposing the sale, but that is a fine distinction that seeks to overlook the practical effect of their actions.  Meanwhile, there are attempts to represent that something quite the opposite is happening.  In its article about the gala the Brooklyn Eagle quotes Friends group president Deborah Hallen representing herself not as someone condoning the dismantling of the Brooklyn Heights Library but as a “watchdog” for the library:
Hallen said that FBHBL’s role is to be the best watchdog as possible for the Heights branch
My response as set forth in a comment to that Brooklyn Eagle article (some of which was also addressed in the flyer handed out that night):
President Hallen of FBHBL [the so-called “Friends” group] continues to play a duplicitous game when she  represents the “FBHBL’s role . . .to be the best watchdog as possible for the Heights branch.”

Ms. Hallen has never offered the clarification Citizens Defending Libraries has long requested: Does she believe that she and the FBHBL can oppose the BPL’s plan in any respect at all, or must she and the FBHBL support the BPL’s planned sale and shrinkage in all respects?   She has circulated guidance to the effect that the FBHBL cannot oppose the BPL’s plan in any respect at all, meaning that the FBHBL can’t complain about even the smallest detail of the BPL’s plans.  She has emailed her FBHBL trustees telling them in very emphatic and specific terms that they cannot oppose this sale-for-shrinkage of the library and that she wants resignations from any of the trustees who want to tell her “we need to stop the sale.”

It seems rather evident that Hallen favors the sale and looks for opportunities to drive it forward despite sometimes suggesting to people that she privately, in her personal capacity, opposes the sale and shrinkage but just can’t oppose it as part of the FBHBL group.  Why else would she seek to diminish reaction to the sale-for-shrinkage of the library by adopting and repromulgating the BPL’s talking point that the reduction from 63,000 square feet of space to just 20,000 square feet of space (one quarter of it underground) somehow won’t reduce the “usable” floor space?  Her careful parsing of language here, mimicking the BPL’s, is specifically meant to obfuscate for the casual reader that the planned sale-for-shrinkage envisions the eviction of the Business and Career Library portion of the library.  Thus she seeks to disregard what, even by her calculations, would be a 50% reduction of the library’s size.

The FBHBL’s role is obfuscation, not that of watchdog.  
Raising money for a library that is to be sold and shrunk?  It does seem odd.  The attempt to address the oddity came in the form of statements from Judy Stanton, Executive Director of the Brooklyn Heights Association, that the money was for “books.”  But this assertion takes on its own odd cast when you notice that books are disappearing from the shelves of the Brooklyn Heights library; The books that were previously there are not any longer as they make way for the pending real estate deal and shrinkage.  See: Saturday, September 14, 2013, Empty Bookshelves As Library Officials Formulate A New Vision of Libraries: A Vision Where The Real Estate Will Be Sold Off.

Just one of the many pictures in the linked to article of empty library shelves in the Brooklyn Heights library and in other NYC libraries being readied for sale
The Brooklyn Eagle said that at the event Mr. Hughs spoke about Norman Mailer’s “conviction that something important is always at stake in a book” and noted that “Libraries . . function with a similar standpoint.”  That said, with all the books that are disappearing and the dismantling of NYC libraries, a lot that is at stake is being lost.

There were reportedly 50 to 70 attendees at the Friends gala.  Many of them were appreciative of the points raised in the Citizens Defending Libraries flyer, with a fair number seeming surprised to think about the information and points presented.  A few attending were from Citizens Defending Libraries.  Outside, Citizens Defending Libraries may have collected more new signatures for its petition than there were people attending the event, though that wasn't the original intention of the evening.  Most people in Brooklyn Heights oppose the sale of their library, probably well over 95%, but there are still many people who still do not know that libraries are being sold off.  Even so, even as the gala was going on, you could look in the window of the library to see the empty shelves cleared of books.
The absence of books in the library can be seen from the street at night when the library is closed.  If and when the library is actually sold off to a developer for development will we look in to see worse?
It is not just giving money in Brooklyn that poses a concern.  Donated money and taxpayer dollars are being used to fund the efforts to sell off libraries in Manhattan.  The sale of the very important and beloved Donnell library paved the way for more library sales and shrinkage by the New York Public Library with the proposed consolidating shrinkage of its Central Library Plan, recently redubbed the “42nd Street Library Renovation.”  The plan is now in disarray with nothing workable currently before the public because activists were able to bring attention to how rushed and poorly conceived it was.  Nevertheless, the NYPL has hired a very high-priced lobbyists, the Parkside Group, to promote what currently is impossible to identify as anything but just a library sell-off and shrinkage. (See: New York Public Library Hires Firm to Promote Renovation Plan, by Robin Pogrebin, October 24, 2013)

One of the reader comments to the article:
I really hope it's not donor $$ that's being used for this PR campaign.
My response:
It is donor money. And taxpayer money too.
Citizens Defending Libraries testified at the City Council hearing on the selling off of the libraries about the impropriety of using such money for lobbying and compared it to situations where the New York State Attorney General has investigated in the past.  (See: Report on Monday, September 30th City Council Hearing On Sell-off of NYC Libraries Plus Testimony of Citizens Defending Libraries.)

Another reader, Susan Bernofsky, commented as follows:
What a shockingly poor use of the library's resources. At a time when our libraries are in crisis, NYPL is handing over a nice fat wad to a consulting firm that will not help improve the library in any way, it'll just help the Board of Trustees sugar-coat a plan that the community has been opposing because it's bad for the community. Vote of no confidence!
How much donor and taxpayer money will be directed to this high priced lobbyist?  The word is that the initial contract is structured to fly low on the radar screen stated to be apparently lower payments, but one suspicious reader providing a link says this:
$25,000? You know, that's just their retainer. Monthly.
The article doesn't make this fact clear.


Powerful, politically-connected lobbying firms like the Parkside Group don't come cheap; you know that's one fat contract. As a retired PR professional, I'd put the Library's annual outlay for their services at a minimum of $1.5 - 2 Million --Likely more; even as high as 5M.

Do you remember the New York Public Library begging the public for contributions about six months ago? Now we know what they're spending our money on. It sure isn't on books, computers, librarians or longer hours at my branch.

This is truly a sad, sad state of affairs.
How outrageous can it get in tracing donations back to those who would put their efforts behind selling off New York’s libraries?  There is another evening gala fund raising event coming up on Monday, November 4th.  This one is held being held by the NYPL, its annual Library Lions Gala.   Most of the honorees like “Stephen Sondheim, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony award-winning composer and lyricist” are pretty noncontroversial, but the headliner for the evening is none other than “Michael R. Bloomberg, Mayor of the City of New York.”

Telling you to "DONATE NOW" the NYPL's webpage for the November 4th Library Lions event noting that it will be honoring library defunder Michael Bloomberg as the headliner above other honorees Katherine Boo, Helen Bernstein,  Junot Diaz, Marilynne Robinson and Stephen Sondheim
Remember how I said that Mayor Bloomberg’s deliberate underfunding of the libraries at a time of increasing use was good place to beginning this article?  Well it is also a good place to end this article.

Scott Sherman, in his recent article for the Nation (The Hidden History of New York City’s Central Library Plan- Why did one of the world’s greatest libraries adopt a $300 million transformation without any real public debate? August 28, 2013) was able to inform us, based his review of the NYPL’s minutes, that in the summer of 2007 (before Donnell was sold) the Bloomberg administration, including in the person of Bloomberg’s chief adviser and political strategist, First Deputy Mayor Patricia Harris, blessed the consolidating shrinkage of the library sales with indication of its enthusiasm.

It was afterwards that the mayor cut library funding way back to an astoundingly low level.  That low level of funding is now cited as a rationale for the selling off of New York City’s libraries.
From the pen of Mark Hurwitt
And now, at a fund raising event, an event where people will be asked to give money to support the libraries, the principal honoree will be Mr. Bloomberg himself, the defunder of libraries!  Does NYPL president Anthony Marx not remember the testimony he delivered before the City Council in June?  Does he not remember expressing how difficult it was to deliver potential donors ‘credible’ assurance that their money will be properly used?
Mayoral candidate de Blasio with Citizens Defending Libraries at 42nd Street library in July
The November 4th event is the evening before election day!  Presumably, the election of Bill de Blasio the next day will be viewed as a profound rejection of the Bloomberg legacy.  Mr. de Blasio has called for a halt to the sale of New York City's libraries.  See: PHOTOS & VIDEO & MORE- First half of July 2013: Two lawsuits against the Central Library Plan, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio Comes Out Against CLP.  The NYPL says it won't be producing any new plans to sell off and shrink libraries until after Mr. de Blasio takes office.
Author Evan Hughs enters to speak at the gala

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