In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful

This week I went to the last of Trenton’s five libraries, (the other four having been closed forever some three years ago due to lack of funding), and to my surprise I found that a new circulation desk is being installed. According to the sign in front of it, this desk is being built to speed up checkout. Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had to wait in a particularly long line at the library, so I decided to attend the board meeting and find out why we need a new desk when we’ve had to suffer so many cutbacks, layoffs, and closures over the last few years, and this is what I found.

The library board meeting which was supposed to begin at 5:30 didn’t start until 6:00. As my sister and I waited for the meeting to begin (shut out in the hall like a couple of servants I might add), I observed that the door to the administration area of the library, like most of our beautiful library’s old doors has a glass panel in it. Only, this panel has been covered with a black material preventing library patrons from looking inside or being seen from within.

Once the door had been opened we found five people in the room: Kimberly Matthews, the library director; Crystal Smith and Patricia Smith, board members; the secretary; and a representative of the accounting firm that audits the library. Before the meeting began, and as everyone settled herself, the director mentioned that she had heard someone say that the new desk was, “too good for Trenton,” and wasn’t that sad? The two board members present murmured their assent, and registered their disappointment in those who would think so little of our city.

Because two board members plus the director does not constitute a quorum, (the reason my sister and I had been required to wait before entering the room, and the reason the meeting began so tardily, it was determined that two additional board members would participate via telephone, or more accurately, that one board member would participate by phone while another would be represented by someone else on the phone. These two being duly reached, one on the office phone and the other on the director’s cellphone, and put on speaker, the meeting began with what appears to be the standard announcement that the meeting had been announced in the newspapers in accordance with the Open Public Meetings Law and on the library’s website. I was surprised to hear this, having checked the library’s website not ten minutes before leaving my house for the meeting, and found neither any mention of upcoming meetings, nor a record of past meetings after August of last year.

The meeting then began in earnest, and during this time the director mentioned how well the library had done in managing to procure a beautiful, granite topped desk for a mere $15,000, when a library supply company would have charged $50,000. Now I’m overjoyed to know that our beautiful, granite topped desk does not cost $50,000, truly, I am. But our library needs a brand new, $15,000, granite topped circulation desk about as much as our otherwise neglected park needed a brand new $17,000 sign with the name of our errant mayor displayed oh so tastefully beneath it. When the meeting opened for public address I brought up my concerns:

1) The Desk

According to our library’s director, the current desk has been in use since the ’70s, and while it may appear to be perfectly sound to the patron, it is, in fact falling apart on the other side, and some shelves have already fallen down. Moreover, the new desk is positioned so that the librarians will not have to do anything so difficult as turn their heads to see patrons entering the library, an important security measure, (because we all know Trenton is populated almost exclusively by the criminal classes). If anyone reading this knows anything about construction, please let me know in the comments, I’d like to go with you to the library and get an estimate on the cost of repairing our existing desk and the necessity of replacing it.

2) The library switched to cards that have patrons’ pictures on them a few years ago, and as a woman in niqab, (the Islamic veiling of the face from strange men), I was a little upset about that.

The director was gracious enough to agree with me that I should not be required to show my face to all and sundry just so that I can borrow a book, although I do not recall a compelling reason for incurring the expense that I’m sure must have been involved in changing the system. Mention was made of members of the public attempting to obtain library cards using the names of others, but it seems to me that this could easily be prevented by requiring the presentation of a valid form of ID when signing up for, or renewing a library membership.

3) I owe some fines, and I wanted to pay them, but without photo ID I was unable to do so. Now I can almost see the purpose of requiring photo ID before lending a book, but to refuse to accept cash, especially when the library is suffering financially, is mind boggling to me. One of the board members smiled at me and appeared to agree with my statement that I ought to be able to pay a stranger’s fines if I please, let alone my own, but this issue was nevertheless not resolved. To be fair, this may be my fault, as I forgot to bring it up a second time.

4) For most of our library’s history, library employees were required to reside within city limits, but this rule was dispensed with a few years ago, and our current director is not, in fact a Trentonian herself. When I asked why the rule had been changed, I was told that being a resident of the county is sufficient. I pointed out the fact of my inability as a city resident to freely borrow from the Mercer County library system, and was told by the director that she agreed with me, and Trenton’s library ought to be included in the Mercer county system.

Unfortunately, I allowed myself to be sidetracked at the time, but it occurs to me that no one said, “employees of our library ought to be allowed to live elsewhere,” that was just decided. Perhaps in a quiet little unannounced meeting behind a blacked out door by a board that may or may not have been entirely present at the time. In case you were wondering, apparently the reason the rule was changed is that in order to be director of a library, one must have a Master’s degree in Library Science. Trenton being made up almost entirely of illiterate criminals, the library board was, of course, unable to find such a being in the city, and the city suffering from a great housing shortage, the woman they did find could not discover anywhere a house or apartment in our city.

5) A few years ago I went to the library looking for a book in the stacks (the dusty backroom of the library where books that are infrequently checked out are stored), and I learned that an entire section of the alphabet had been arbitrarily cleared from the stacks and unceremoniously thrown away. I believe the number of books to have been somewhere in the area of 2,000, but my memory may be deceiving me. I’m not talking about culling here, where books are sorted and discriminatingly disposed of, hopefully with a minimum of waste. When I brought this up, no one present seemed to have any memory of such an incident, and I was told that it was nothing but an ugly rumor. I’ll try to find out a little more about it, in shaa Allah.

6) I bemoaned the loss of the children’s room, and the attendant coziness. This went unaddressed.

7) I mentioned the fact that while the meeting commenced with what the agenda calls the, “announcement of compliance with the Open Public Meetings Law,” I had been unable to find any mention of meetings beyond August on the library’s own website, and I was told by the director that she would look into it. I checked today, and the library’s website has since been updated, (though the minutes for many meetings remain unposted).

After the meeting had officially ended, which is to say when the real decisions are made, the possibility of librarian-less lending was discussed. Our library’s board is currently considering the following:

1) a bookmobile which can visit 24 locations in a two week period

2) a redbox-like machine which could simplify the DVD lending process, $27,000

3) a book vending machine which could hold up to 300 books

4) a computer which could be used by library patrons to reserve items, $5,000; and lockers which could be set up throughout the city where one could pick up one’s reserved books

Just so you know, this computer would be placed in city hall. When I mentioned the fact that I was uncomfortable with the prospect of wasting $5,000 on a computer that city hall absolutely does not need, I was told that this is where politics comes in, and what I don’t understand is that seeing this machine in their lobby daily will hopefully spur the new administration to such thoughts as, “Look at what a good job that library’s doing. We should give them more money.” I don’t know about you, but the last person I’d give tax payers’ money to would be someone who would throw away any of it on a gesture.

5) and last, but not least, never re-opening any of the four defunct branches, which by the way, still have hundreds, if not thousands of unprotected books in them. I learned this last when I mentioned my concerns that while many of these things sound very interesting, I would prefer to see the money that would be spent on them going towards the re-opening of the libraries. This is what I was told:

1) We cannot afford it. It seems it would cost something like a million dollars to re-open even one branch. I’m not sure about the exact numbers, too many expenses were mentioned for me to keep track, but this is what I remember.

1. As long as the libraries remained open, they were grandfathered into compliance with the ADA, meaning they didn’t have to have all of the elevators and bathrooms and other such things that the Americans with Disabilities Act requires of a public building, but since they’ve been abandoned, re-opening them would necessitate all kinds of repairs and changes, none of which would be cheap.

It seems to me that this is the kind of thing one would take into consideration before opting to close down a library in a poor city.

2. The maintenance of the library’s buildings is the responsibility of the city, not the library, and over the years the city had lapsed on the fulfillment of one obligation after another, forcing the library to finance many things that were not actually its responsibility, thus nearly bankrupting it. According to the director, had the other libraries remained open, all five would soon have failed.
I find myself wondering if it would not have been a better idea to sue the city, than to deprive so many residents, perhaps forever of access to the library.

3. When the branches were shut down and turned over to the city, all of the newest books were removed, (anything that had been published in the last two years), and no one knows the condition of the remaining books which have lain unattended in uncared for buildings, (which were not in the best repair when they were occupied) for the last three years. Basically, the four branches were cannibalized, with their best materials and their computers brought to Academy St., and re-outfitting one would be more expensive than running it had been.

The mere thought of all of those books just moldering away is appalling. How is it possible to say, “We can’t afford such and such,” when we have wasted so much of what we had?

2) We don’t need them.

According to our library’s director, Trenton only needs one library. The East branch, for example was in gang territory, and because of this it wasn’t worth the money it cost to run it. The only patrons were children who came in after school, and while that’s nice, they could have been equally well served by a daycare. When I said that books might be good for the children, I was told that a literary aspect could easily be added to any daycare.

Now, I forgot to mention this at the meeting, but I know a Trenton child aged 6, who didn’t discover that bookstores even exist until last week, when the word bookshop came up in her homework. Her older sister, 8, had had no idea of their existence either. And these are children who love to read. If anyone needs a library, it’s children like this.

Trenton kids read, something the library once knew, having had a children’s program by that name, and some of these readers’ sole experience of books will be at the library. What about the thousands of children who don’t live within walking distance of Academy St.? Do they not need the experience we all grew up with, of a little corner in their neighborhood library, where they can go to learn about the world, to read a Rapunzel story that they didn’t learn from Disney, or just to be a child, in a peaceful place that’s been designed just for them? Anyone who thinks they deserve any less than this, while advocating an unnecessary granite-topped desk must assuredly have her priorities out of order.

If you live in Trenton and care about anything mentioned in this post, please respond. Share it. Comment on it. Write your own post. Let the people who don’t care about our city or our children know that you do. And most importantly, attend the meetings. Go to the school board meetings. Go to the library board meetings. Find out about the people getting ready to run for mayor, and when the time comes, vote. If you don’t like the person you vote for, vote them out next time. Your city needs you, and as long as you give her nothing, she’ll give you exactly what you’ve given her.

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