Q&A: Michael D. D. White of Citizens Defending Libraries

Photo by Mike Hicks

Q&A: Michael D. D. White of Citizens Defending Libraries

This week, the Daily News reported that Brooklyn’s central library needs $100 million in repairs for a host of problems including “a wrecked roof, cracked windows, creaky elevators, faulty air conditioning and ancient fire alarms.” Repair costs across the 60-branch system are estimated at $300 million. Meanwhile, according to the library, more than 40 percent of libraries’ boilers and air conditioners are overdue for replacement; and between 2008 and 2013, 200 positions at the library disappeared. This week, we sat down with Michael D.D. White of Citizens Defending Libraries to talk about the state of Brooklyn’s libraries and why they’re the lifeblood of the borough.

What’s the history of Citizens Defending Libraries?

We formed a year ago February, in response to the then-breaking news about how libraries were being sold and shrunk across the city. A number of news stories were revealing that the Bloomberg administration had plans to press forward to lock in sales and shrinkages before their last day of office, which was December 31, 2013. We formed in order to get the word out and put the pieces together. It was quite clear that their real interest had nothing to do with benefiting the libraries or the public, but they wanted to move forward on handing out real estate deals. And these real estate deals were definitely against the interest of the public.

One of the things that helped us initially was, right about the time we were forming, there was a comprehensive report done by the Center for an Urban Future — that was chock full of information. All of the information, I think, supports what we have been saying about how library usage is up, about how there was a massive defunding of libraries right at the time they wanted to sell them, and the absence of money in the libraries has been cited as the reason that they want to sell them. We describe this as “self-cannibalizing” sales of the library system. If you actually do reward the underfunding of libraries with the selling off and shrinkage of libraries to fund them, you’ll just get more of the same.

What’s your method of organizing?

We have regular demonstrations. I think they were surprised when we showed up at the first hearing on the library budget back on March eighth. We’ve had regular demonstrations outside of the libraries — sometimes we time those demonstrations to coincide with meetings of the library trustees, either the NYPL trustees or the Brooklyn library trustees. We haven’t yet focused on Queens. There’s a lot of focus in the city on the mismanagement in Queens. We agree with pretty much all of those criticisms in principle. But we have pointed out that we think that when it comes to mismanagement at the libraries, it’s more important to look at the other two systems and understand the scale of what’s going on, considering the vast amount of real estate involved.

And the response so far?

I definitely think we’re getting people’s attention. Early on we were told about a meeting where most of the local elected politicians got together in Borough Hall with Marty Markowitz, the then borough president, to say “Oh my God, what do we do about Citizens Defending Libraries? They’re getting a lot of attention and pointing out a lot of issues.”

And people have shifted in our position, and that’s good. I think we had an influence in the campaign for mayor. I don’t know that — until we highlighted the issues — that Bill de Blasio was ready to come out as he did and stand with us on the steps of the 42nd Street research library and call for a halt to the sale of libraries in the city, including a halt to the central library plan, a halt to the sale of Pacific, a halt to the sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library.

We formed because Bloomberg wanted to push a lot of things before he got out of office. There are a lot of things he wanted to have happen before he left office that didn’t happen. One of them was the central library plan. They wanted to start swinging sledgehammers to destroy the research stacks of the central library before Bloomberg was out of office. That was part of his final State of the City address. That didn’t happen. Had they gotten started, it was ultimately disclosed, that plan was going to cost a half-billion dollars, and that was before any cost overruns. We were saying that the numbers were probably going to be up in that area, but that half-billion number is hundreds of millions more than previously publicized by the NYPL.

Likewise, library officials said they wanted to sign a contract with a developer for the Brooklyn Heights Library before Bloomberg left office. They also wanted to have it firmly fixed in their mind that the approval of BAM South would be understood by the public to mean that the Pacific Street library would be sold. They backed off from that during the hearings for the approval of BAM South.

And they said they wanted to announce who had been selected as the developer for the Brooklyn Heights library in June. Well, the trustees meeting where they would have had to make that decision was on June 26th. They went into executive session to discuss the sale of real estate. One might presume that that’s what they were discussing. They came out, they did not announce that a vote was taken, they made no decision, and they did not announce that a developer had been selected. So we are slowing them up, and an important part of creating the kind of accountability that we’re talking about is to get press attention. We are still working on bringing information to people.

There’s been a lot of reporting recently about the dire state of the central branch. What’s your take on the situation?

I think it’s unfortunate that these stories, which should be generating questions, are timed to come out immediately after when questions could be asked. We just went through City Council hearings, and the library heads were before the City Council on June third. That would have been a good time to have these stories before the press, before the public, and to bring them to speak to the City Council about what their needs were. Very similarly, the day before the City Council hearing was the day that the New York Times ran a story that the NYPL had an entirely new budget for its alternative to the central library plan. So it seems that they’re timing the presentation of the information to the public in order to avoid environments where they could be asked questions.

I’d also say that if the public is confused about how much needs to be spent on the libraries these days, then perhaps that’s intentional on the part of the library officials.

We know that the Bloomberg administration was cutting back on the funding of libraries, and we know that the Bloomberg administration wanted to sell the libraries, and we know that they were citing the underfunding of the libraries and their consequent need for funds as a reason to sell and shrink the libraries. So when they come forward with inflated, hard-to-deal-with cost estimates, we think it’s a reason to be cautious and very suspicious.

The Central library has gone through some recent renovations. If they had such dire emergencies that they were facing in terms of proper maintenance of the library, were they spending the money correctly on undertaking the more cosmetic things?

The shuffling around that they’re doing to shrink other libraries — they say they’re going to be moving the Brooklyn Heights Business and Career Library into the Grand Army Plaza library. We don’t think there’s room there to cram it in. They’re not building anything new. But it becomes more confusing when they’re shuffling space around.

What’s the state of the branch libraries?

That’s a very interesting question, because the public needs to know, and the public doesn’t have all the information that it needs. For instance, we just figured out that there’s a program that was put through at the end of the Bloomberg administration -— this was formalized in the summer of 2012 — with the creation of a private not-for-profit called Spaceworks. You see with Spaceworks something that people might consider analogous to the use of charter schools to privatize the public school system. The city has been including money for Spaceworks in its budget, but when that money is used, the public space of the libraries, frequently city-owned space, then comes under the control of this private company, and it will no longer be library space. So you get the shrinkage of the libraries, and patrons are gradually peeled away by giving them fewer and fewer services.

There hasn’t been a disclosure of what libraries they’re going to shrink. In Brooklyn, they have only disclosed two Spaceworks projects — the Red Hook library and the Williamsburg library. If all the plans were laid out and known, there would be a lot of public outcry and resistance. But by laying out plans piecemeal, one library at a time, with denials that other libraries are involved, there’s an attempt to minimize opposition and divide and conquer the public that might oppose it. While there was a long list of libraries that they gave to developers in the summer of 2007, they have never disclosed what libraries were on that list.

When we had people leafleting outside of the Clinton Hill library, the leafleters were told they couldn’t be in the library and they couldn’t be too close to the front door. Then one of them was invited in for a meeting at the central branch, where they were given assurances that the Clinton Hill library was not going to be sold. Then we asked, “For how long is it not going to be sold? Well, in the case of the Brooklyn Heights library, you didn’t tell the public it was going to be sold until 2013, but the decision was made at least by 2008.” They said, “All right, we’re not going to sell the Clinton Hill library for at least fifteen years.”

We’re trying to find out more about what’s going on with the Sunset Park library. In the case of the NYPL, they said they want to do a consolidating hub up in northern Manhattan that sounds like it might involve a number of the Harlem libraries, but the details aren’t out even though they’ve had that plan since at least 2008.

And the Red Hook branch?

That’s an example of something nobody knew about. Just a month ago at the City Council hearings on June third, Public Advocate Tish James was using her five minutes to ask Brooklyn president Linda Johnson what other libraries were being sold off and shrunk. And Linda Johnson was giving Public Advocate James the information that the only library on the table was the Brooklyn Heights library, and she did not mention the Williamsburg library or the Red Hook library. She talked about how they were looking for partners and opportunities for all of the libraries, because the Brooklyn Public Library strategic plan calls for leveraging all of the real estate in the system. But she didn’t mention the Red Hook library, where that’s precisely what they’re talking about — they’re talking about Spaceworks as a partner to take over space. She also didn’t mention Sunset Park.

What effect do closings have on the libraries that remain?

I think it’s a vicious cycle. It decreases the user satisfaction and drives people away. Right now, for a long time library usage has been going up, but in the face of shrinkages and situations where you don’t have any books on the shelves, how long can library usage keep going up? If you do drive people away, if you drive them to doing things digitally from their homes, you then have a reason to get rid of more libraries. But libraries as they’ve always existed in the past have been places of opportunity, where people can be served. Librarians can help you find and discover what you don’t know, and what you didn’t know you needed to know.

I happen to believe a lot of the solutions we’re going to need in the future are going to come the way Jane Jacobs suggested, from the ground up. It’s going to be the interaction of a lot of unexpected things and things coming together, and libraries are the kind of environment where you get that kind of interaction and growth and the serendipity of discovering what you didn’t know you needed to know.

There are some people who think that information is disappearing from libraries because people don’t want the public to be informed. I think that’s probably too conspiratorial, but it’s not that different from recognizing that we have a lot of people who think that they know what the public should know, and streamlining the libraries to provide only that. It’s a kind of top-down thinking, and libraries do not benefit from being streamlined. They can be shrunk that way, but they don’t benefit from it.

Why do Brooklyn’s libraries matter?

We say libraries represent democracy. They represent opportunity, a place where everybody is treated the same. What we see is that when we’re taking libraries away, it’s not for the benefit of everybody, it’s for the benefit of a few. And that’s contributing to a spiral, where it’s not just wealth inequality, it’s political inequality. Fewer libraries means less equality and less political equality.

Talk about the demographics of library patrons. Who are they?

I don’t think you could put a single face on it, because they are available to everyone. There are a lot of people who use libraries as a resource where it might be a little bit skewed to them not having as much money, so people who maybe can’t buy a book would use a library. We have a number of university libraries in the city — they’re very fine libraries, but you have to be associated with the university to use them and sometimes the restrictions are tighter than others. I think Mid-Manhattan; the Science, Industry, and Business Library; and the central reference library are all libraries that helped put CUNY students on an equal footing with private university students, and without them they’re at a competitive disadvantage. Certainly parents and kids use libraries like crazy. My kids were at the libraries all the time when they were growing up. When we’ve been leafleting, you watch the kids arrive, and they’re excited to be at the library, even if the shelves are now substantially empty of children’s books compared to what they used to be. But when you hand people a leaflet and say, “Did you know they want to sell and shrink this library?” the mood of the whole family crashes. It’s amazing how many people don’t know about these things.

What’s your vision for the system? In an ideal world, what would you like to see done with Brooklyn’s libraries?

I’d like to see adequate funding. Adequate means that we wouldn’t be shrinking libraries; it would mean that we would be thinking in terms of expanding libraries. One of the rumors is that they’re going to be substantially downsizing the biography, history, and religion sections at Grand Army Plaza in order to be putting in a video game section. That sounds horrible to a lot of people, but I’m not against a video game section.

Video games are becoming an important part of the culture, and I can see that they have a place there. I found an old article in the Brooklyn Eagle the other day about how they were worried about how television was driving people away from libraries. That turned out not to be true, but they viewed television as a competitor. I’ve argued that one of the reasons our libraries should be robust is that you should be able to go to the library and get a copy of the Avenger television series, so you know what culture was like, the kind of model Emma Peel was for women in those days. We should be growing our libraries to be able to include more stuff like that, rather than say it’s an either-or choice.

I also think that for money to be properly spent, we need library trustees who have a mindset that matches the public’s own about libraries, and I don’t think we have that at the moment. I’m concerned that among other things, it seems to be a little bit of a private playground for the library trustees. One of the programs they’re focusing on is where the library trustees will have their favorite authors come to their homes and read to them and a group of friends to fundraise. That just sounds like too much private fun for a public institution.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Mike Hicks is a freelance photographer and multimedia producer. He lives in Park Slope.

Also in this issue

Of a Feather

A 105-year-old group of binocular-toting Brooklynites is fighting to keep the borough’s avian habitats safe. By Kristen Scharold

The Hour of the Scavenger

An enterprising bibliophile trawls the streets of Park Slope. A comic by Frank Reynoso