Commentary

Nice Idea Bill, But . . .

by Partha Banerjee

Brand new computers donated to the City's poorest public libraries sit unused in their boxes. Donated by the Bill Gates Foundation, these machines may have to be sent back. There's little space to put them and a lack of trained staff to run them.

The Aguillar Public Library on East 110th Street in Central Harlem received some of these new computers as part of a major grant from the Gates Foundation. Today,10 Dell PCs and two Hewlett Packard printers sit in boxes on the floor near the exit turnstiles. The library doesn't have enough room to install them.

"We just do not have enough space to put them," Assistant Librarian Francisco Mejill said. "We may have to return them all to the main library."

Carmen Vega, 37, a local resident who does not have a computer at home and comes to the library to use computers and learn the Internet, was surprised. "I don't know why they have those new computers sitting on the floor," she said.

The Gates Foundation, a Seattle-based charitable organization funded by software giant Bill Gates, and run by his father, recently gave $640,000 to the City library system for an Urban Library Leadership Grant. The grant was "to cover the costs of approximately 200 PCs and 22 servers for 22 buildings," Valisa Smith of Gates Library Initiative said.

The City library administration underplays the problem. Rebecca Churchill, publicist for the library system, thinks it is doing a pretty good job of accommodating all the newly received computers. "We work to the best of our abilities," Churchill said. "They will find room."

The George Bruce Library on West 125th Street is operating from a makeshift trailer while its regular building is going through a yearlong makeover, due for completion in February. Because of the acute shortage of space, the library carries only 3,000 volumes, down from its original 30,000. No room for the newly-received computers, of course. To make matters worse, many of the Bruce users, including parents and their school-age children, have opted to use other nearby libraries such as the Aguillar.

"Yes, people are coming here from George Bruce, I know," Gloria Wilson, Assistant Librarian at the Aguillar library said. "Our library just isn't big enough."

Shortage of trained staff is the other major problem City public libraries are facing, exacerbated by the unexpected Gates bounty. Mark Consani, Supervising Branch Librarian at George Bruce, worries about the smooth functioning of his library when it goes back to its renovated site. "We've had major cuts in staffing in recent years," Consani said. "It's difficult [to operate smoothly]."

"Staff shortage is a serious problem," another branch librarian in East Harlem, who wanted to remain anonymous, agreed. "We do not have enough librarians trained in library science. Most public libraries are running with trainees. They are all overworked," she said.

The $640,000 donated by the Gates Foundation training facilities and access to the Internet for library users in technologically-lagging areas in Manhattan and the Bronx. But serious shortage of staff and space is keeping the libraries from fulfilling their obligations to the donors.

The Foundation finds it troubling. "We can't police everything," Velisa Smith of the Foundation said. "We assume they [city libraries] are using the computers."

Norman Holman, Director of the Office of Branch Libraries, feels the staff shortage problem is real. He knows that many vacancies at City libraries cannot be filled because the "salaries are not competitive." A newly entering City librarian makes between $30,000 and $34,000 a year. According to many librarians, this is one of the lowest starting salaries in the country.

Holman believes a labor contract for branch libraries will be negotiated with the City of New York in the future, although he thinks such a negotiation may be a "ways away."

Holman thinks the installation schedule for the newly obtained computers is moving forward. "I don't think there is any space problem at all," Holman said. "This is new information to me."

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Partha Banerjee is a graduate student at Columbia University's School of Journalism. He has recently published a book on the rise of religious fundamentalism in South Asia is now published. He can be reached at pb268@columbia.edu.

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