Sunday, August 14, 2011

Three Hours at the Library


Every week, I spend three hours volunteering at the circulation desk at the Hudson Area Library. My time slot is noon to 3 on Friday afternoon. I've been doing this for a while now--at least six years, possibly more. When I started volunteering, I was on the library board, and spending time at the circulation desk gave me firsthand knowledge of the library and what happened there which informed my thinking as a trustee. In the months since the library board announced its intention to leave 400 State Street, volunteering at the library has had its painful moments, but I soldier on, trying to keep my seditious opinions to myself--at least for the three hours that I am the "face" of the library, sitting behind the circulation desk. 

When I arrived at the library this past Friday, a farewell party for departing library director Corey Fleming was about to begin. I offered to work the circulation desk while the staff and other volunteers gathered in the Children's Room for pizza and farewells. 

The first thing I noticed when I settled at my post was a photocopy of Parry Teasdale's editorial from Columbia Paper, "Library move makes sense," lying on the circulation desk, presumably for patrons to see and read. Since I'd already read what Teasdale had to say, my first instinct was to rip it up and toss it into paper recycling box under the desk, but my better angels shouted down the demons in my brain, and I slid the editorial out of sight under the big calendar on the desk instead. 

Now Parry Teasdale has never been much of a friend to the Hudson Area Library. Back in 2002,* when the library was making its second attempt to become a Special District Library, the library board designed an advertising campaign meant to put the annual cost to the average homeowner of the library becoming a tax-supported institution into perspective by comparing it with everyday purchases--a cup of coffee and a doughnut, a tuna salad sandwich, a bag of movie popcorn. In an editorial in the Independent, Teasdale blasted the library for running an ad campaign based on "junk food."

Teasdale's recent Columbia Paper editorial suggests that he was influenced more by the current board's propaganda than by any real knowledge of public opinion in Hudson. In his concluding paragraph Teasdale crows: "It's not the speed and decisiveness of their actions that distinguishes this project. It is the responsiveness of the board to the needs of the public. . . ." Their responsiveness to what they've decided are the needs of the public is more like it.

From where I sit behind the circulation desk, I have heard many people, in the months since the library board announced its intentions, comment on the decision to abandon the building, and only one of those people expressed any kind of support for the move. That person--a rather self-important woman who popped in one afternoon to use the public access computers--had no ties to Hudson (she told me she had a weekend house in the far northeastern reaches of the county) and obviously little knowledge of the city. Seeing a board press release on the desk about the move, she proceeded to lecture me about how the City of Hudson, because it was "so big," had to be rich enough to support a "big and beautiful new library." My response to her was the same as my response to the people who asked, with emotions ranging from sad disbelief to outrage, why the library was moving: "I'm the wrong person to be talking to about that."

Even the library board can't seem to muster a group of people who are demanding the course of action they are pursuing. In May, the board held the first of what was supposed to be a series of "listening sessions." With the exception of one man who expressed the opinion that 400 State was too significant a historic building to house a public library, implying, it seemed, that a public library--one of the greatest democratic institutions ever created--was, in the spectrum of architectural worthiness, on a par with methadone clinics and homeless shelters, everyone who turned out for that meeting expressed the desire that the library stay in its historic building. Three months have passed, and there have been no further "listening sessions." It appears that the library board may be waiting until they have carried out their plan before listening to the public, when public input can only influence the way they retrofit whatever new space they've acquired. 

To return to the thread of this narrative . . . soon after I had tucked the offensive editorial out of sight, a young woman presented herself at the desk with a book she wanted to check out. I scanned her library card; then I scanned the bar code on the flyleaf of the book. When I did the latter, something bizarre happened: I got a message informing me that bibliographical information needed to be entered before the book could be checked out and to proceed I had to enter authorizing initials and a password. In my years of working the circulation desk, I had never encountered this before, so I summoned library assistant Emily Bennison from the pizza party in the Children's Room for help.   

It turned out that the book the young woman wanted to check out was one of the 6,000 books being discarded in preparation for the move, and it had already been removed from the collection electronically. Bennison peeled the bar code off the book's flyleaf and handed the book to the puzzled young patron, explaining that the book was hers to keep, and if she didn't want it when she was finished with it, she could bring it back to the library and put it in the "free box." 

On my trip back to the Children's Room, I'd noticed stacks of books on the floor in the corridor. Those books apparently were the most recent batch of discards. The young woman must have found the book she wanted to check out in one of those stacks.

The afternoon went on without anything remarkable happening until halfway into a last hour of my shift, when a young mother with two children entered the building. From the hallway, she said, "I hear the library is selling the building." I gave my standard enigmatic answer, "I'm the wrong person to be talking to about that," but she continued, "I wanted to know if they are selling the lions, because I'd like to buy them." I wanted to scream, but instead I said sympathetically, "I don't imagine they're for sale."

I've wondered what plans the library board has for the lions. Do they stay with the building, or do they go with the library? Back in 2003 or 2004, when then library director Frank Rees wanted to move the library to the 600 block of Warren Street, his intention was to take the lions with him, but the lions have more history with the building than they have with the library. They were installed in the 1860s, when 400 State Street was the home of Hudson River steamboat captain George Power. They had graced the entrance to the building for at least ninety years before there ever was such a thing as the Hudson Area Association Library, and they should stay with the building. If the library wants to abandon 400 State Street, they shouldn't cherry-pick parts of it they want to take with them. But worse still is the idea that the lions could end up as someone's lawn ornaments. That's as appalling as Rick Scalera's suggestion that the stones of the building would make lots of nice retaining walls. 

When 3 o'clock finally arrived, I sought out Corey Fleming to say goodbye and wish him well before beating a hasty retreat.  

* NOTE: The date in the fourth paragraph was originally given as "1999 or 2000" but has been corrected thanks to a comment from a reader who noted the error.  

9 comments:

  1. Carole, this is among the most truly moving, and truly heartbreaking, posts you have given us on Gossips, as you have daily brought before us and brilliantly commented upon Hudson's many triumphs and amazing great leaps forward as well as the (perhaps many more) tragedies, and the often simply ludicrous, sometimes ridiculous, and often truly destructive antics of the city's various small and contentious centers of power. The decision to move was bad enough. Discard 6000 books!! Sell the Lions? Sell the building? We all know what comes next. Astounding! What a rank offense to Hudson, to Hudson's history, to Hudson's people. Makes me want to cry.

    Byrne Fone

    ReplyDelete
  2. While agreeing with you 99% on the rest, was Teasdale editing The Independent in 1999-2000? I believe Vicki and Tony were still writing the editorials, and that Parry only arrived in early 2001 or thereabouts. Correct me if I'm wrong.

    --S.

    ReplyDelete
  3. What a painful read.

    6ooo books being discarded - WOW - all from our little library ...

    When will Hudson wake up and realize what a joke her self destructive decisions are !?

    ReplyDelete
  4. Well, Sam, I may be wrong about the year and probably am, because I am very certain that it was Teasdale who wrote the editorial--not long after he came to the Independent.

    ReplyDelete
  5. The first big Library vote that I remember occurring here was in March 2000; I really don't think Teasdale was working for The Independent yet. The next vote was something like September 2002. (I know, the dates are not the core issue.)

    --S.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thanks, Sam. It was, as I said in my post, the library's second attempt to become a Special District Library, so it must have been 2002. Mea culpa.

    ReplyDelete
  7. "Do you ever read any of the books you burn?"
    He laughed. "That's against the law!"
    "Oh. Of course."

    ~Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

    ReplyDelete
  8. To be fair, Manda, the books being weeded from the library's collection are not being destroyed; they're being sold in the Friends' book room.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I was thinking about the library and the books figuratively, not literally.

    ReplyDelete