Monday, January 22, 2007

COMMENTARY: Library improvements vital to Albany

First published in the Times Union: Sunday, January 21, 2007

On Feb. 6, Albany voters will be asked whether to approve a significant upgrade of the city's branch libraries. Many citizens are naturally asking: Why now? What's wrong with the libraries we have? The short answer is that surging demand and faltering facilities have created a situation that requires immediate attention.

Last year, the Albany Public Library circulated more than one-million items, and handled nearly as many visits. Since 2000, use of our facilities is up 67 percent and circulation has spiked 53 percent. This fits with a national trend of library use doubling in the past decade, and counters the theory that the Internet has rendered libraries obsolete.

In fact, the overwhelming amount of information available on the Web is driving bewildered people to libraries for help determining which Web sites have credible information. Growing numbers of people also are coming to us for assistance with health research, government applications, job searches and computer training. This is all in addition to the traditional visitors who want to check out books, magazines and a growing selection of electronic media.

We are doing our best to meet this heavy demand in generally small, outdated facilities that need costly repairs. The 90-year-old Howe library has a leaky roof, falling plaster and temporary heating units. None of our branches have space for new books, more public computers or program areas for teens. Access for the disabled is substandard. The New Scotland branch is closing because of the renovation of School 19, and it will not be replaced unless voters approve the referendum. And our tiny Delaware branch has an uncertain future because of a monthly lease arrangement.

With all of that in mind, it is understandable that our publicly elected board of trustees feels a responsibility to act. The trustees have spent the past several years working with hundreds of citizens and a wide array of experts to develop a branch system that will feature modern, environmentally sustainable facilities equipped to meet the needs of Albany's residents in the 21st century.

The branch improvement plan renovates, relocates or builds five neighborhood libraries, and expands service to Arbor Hill/West Hill for the first time in 40 years. The plan reflects that our trustees heard the insistent voice of Albany's neighborhoods to build on the strong tradition of walkable branches; they agreed with the concerned citizens who urged the creation of productive places for teens to go after school; they responded to complaints about limited collections and hours; and they acted on the persistent plea for community meeting rooms.

If voters approve the referendum, Albany's renovated and new libraries will also feature:

Larger children's collections and space.

Small meeting rooms for tutoring.

Public computers for each age group.

Full access for the mobility impaired.

Wireless Internet access.

Sustainable "green" designs.

The cost for all of these improvements is $29.1 million -- including construction, borrowing costs and new library books -- or about an additional $47 a year for the owner of a home assessed at $100,000.

The benefits in this plan for library users are obvious. But what about those who don't regularly visit the library? National studies show the benefits of good libraries extend to everyone by producing a stronger economy, a better educated population and higher property values. A new study from the Urban Libraries Council and the Gates Foundation concludes that public libraries play an important role in economic development efforts because they build technology skills, boost entrepreneurial activity and contribute to the creation of vibrant, livable places. Researchers for this study repeatedly found that libraries contribute to stability, safety and quality of life in neighborhoods.
Cities and states across the country report that for every dollar spent on libraries, approximately $4 to $10 is returned to the community in wages, purchases and savings for individuals and small businesses.

That's one reason why U.S. cities are making major investments in libraries. Poughkeepsie; Springfield, Mass.; Hartford, Conn.; and many communities on Long Island have all undertaken major library improvements in recent years. Leaders of these cities tell us that new or improved libraries spark positive economic and social change and become the heart of their neighborhoods.

I encourage you to visit our Web site ( to see preliminary site plans, polling locations, details on costs and answers to frequently asked questions.

All members of the public are invited to meetings at the main library during which library staff and trustees will answer questions about any aspect of this project. The meetings will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Friday, 6 p.m. on Feb. 1.

This is an extraordinary moment for our library system and our city.

Our proposal is a result of the first strategic, long-range facilities plan in the 150-year history of the Albany Public Library. Its approval by referendum would bring about the first major capital investment in Albany's libraries in more than 80 years.

I hope every registered voter will go to the polls on Feb. 6 and participate in a decision that will have a very significant impact on our city's future.

John Bach is president of the Albany Public Library Board of Trustees.

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