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Op-ed column: 18-month library shutdown a major disservice

Op-ed column: 18-month library shutdown a major disservice

An open letter to the trustees of the Schenectady County Public Library: With all due respect, ladie
Op-ed column: 18-month library shutdown a major disservice
William Brown/Newscom
Photographer: William Brown/Newscom

An open letter to the trustees of the Schenectady County Public Library:

With all due respect, ladies and gentleman, have you lost your minds? You want to shut down the main branch of the library for a year and a half, and with only one month’s notice?

Stop and think a moment, something you apparently failed to do earlier, when the current problems might have been avoided, or minimized. We are not talking about a drugstore or a gas station, whose regular customers need travel only an extra block or two for aspirin and oil. We are talking about the public library, the hub of cultural life — and for many people, social life — in the center of the city.

You report that traffic (a mean, impersonal term for “people who want to read books or listen to music”) at the main branch is 1,400 a day. Can we afford to turn away that many people, people who are, and I’m choosing my words carefully, people who are the lifeblood of the city?

Don’t worry? No, worry

You may not like the metaphor, but it’s an apt one. What happens to the body when you diminish the flow of blood for a year and a half?

Your answer, according to the article in Thursday’s Gazette, is “Don’t worry. Only 10 percent of those 1,400 come from the 12305 ZIP code.” The implication is that only 140 people a day will be shut out of the library.

To which I reply, in the euphemism of my sainted mother, who almost always used the barnyard phrase itself, “Bushwah.”

First of all, it’s a mistake bordering on criminality to summarily dismiss even 140 people a day. In addition to people stopping to borrow a book, that 140 will include young children learning to appreciate books and music and storytelling; it will include school-age children being tutored in difficult subjects or being helped to finish complex projects; it will include seniors who come to read the papers or to meet with friends. These are all vital functions of a center-city library.

But 140 is a bogus statistic. Unless you have someone checking each patron’s home address — a thing that has never happened in the hundred or more times I’ve been in the main branch — you cannot know where all your visitors come from. So either you count the cards that are used that day, or you count the total number of cards you’ve issued.

If it’s the cards used that day, you are ignoring everyone who does not use a card, or does not have a card. Those are likely to be people who live nearby, who can stop in every day, who don’t need to take materials out. Or those who — living nearby — use the library as a social center more than a cultural center.

Cultural magnet

And please, please, do not underestimate the library’s value as a social center. It will speak very badly of you.

If the statistic is based on the distribution of all cards, it ignores two more important points:

- Those who live nearby are the ones most likely to visit the main branch.

- Those who come from farther away, who did not go to their nearby branch of the library, did so because there was something in the main branch they could not get at the local branch.

In short, all of the 1,400 who come in on any given day are there because they want something they cannot get elsewhere. So stop with the “10 percent” bushwah.

A final point to answer other objections: Even if every one of those 1,400 people came to the library from another county, think what that would mean. It’s 1,400 people who are visiting, using, appreciating Schenectady’s center city every day.

You ought to be doing everything in your power to keep those 1,400, and more, coming into the city daily.

And as long as I’m wound up, here’s another charge for you to answer.

Neither the trustees nor, apparently, anyone else, knew until two weeks ago that this project — in the works for how long? — would require that the library be closed.

What does it say about the wisdom, foresight and overall competence of the board that no one bothered until now to investigate that aspect of the project? To set this whole thing in motion, and never once bother to find out how much it would interfere with normal operation of the library suggests — in the most generous interpretation I can devise — that you are spectacularly naive.

So, what basis is there for us to trust your judgment about the best way to continue this project? The president of the board says the library must be closed for 18 months. Otherwise, it will take a year longer and cost a million dollars more.

Really? In your already-established naivete, you perhaps do not understand the numbers in a public works project. The $7.7 million cost, and the 18-month deadline, are figments of a combined imagination. They represent a compromise between what the planners assume it ought to cost, and what the trustees think the taxpayers will tolerate.

One more factor: These are numbers that have yet to be reconciled with the reality of contractors’ bids, or the even more brutal reality of final bills.

Delays, higher cost likely

Allow me a prediction, one which I will be overjoyed to see proven wrong. The project will not be completed in 18 months, and the cost will exceed $7.7 million. The overage on both numbers will be at least 25 percent.

Look again at one of the alternatives you considered: Spend half a million dollars to convert nearby empty space into a temporary library.

“Not a wise expenditure,” says the board president.

Wrong. It looks very good right now, and will look downright brilliant two years from now, when the expansion project still is not complete.

And finally, it is disingenuous at best to use arbitrary numbers — rather than concern for the public good — to decide to close the library. As I said before, this is not a gas station or a drug store.

It’s a center of learning, a cultural beacon, a gathering spot for a wide variety of valuable and even necessary activities. It’s a magnet for the center city area.

You close it at our peril.

Phil Sheehan lives in Scotia. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

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