Gotham Gazette

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Citizens Union

A Library Opens In The Bronx

In the month since the opening of the Bronx Library Center on Kingsbridge Road, at least three times as many people have been signing up every day for computer training classes than at the old Fordham Library that it replaced. During a recent drive, the new library had registered 150 students for classes by noon. This makes sense of course, since there is so much opportunity at the library to use the skills they acquire.

The Bronx Library Center is a technology haven, a focus that is clear as soon as you step beneath the swooping 80-foot-tall roof over an open-glass facade and walk onto the elegant terrazzo floor of the main entrance: there amid the Minnesota granite of the interior are large plasma screens and scrolling electronic announcement bars, both of which highlight forthcoming library events.

There are 127 computers throughout the building wired for Internet access. The library also has wireless capabilities, and provides 30 laptops that patrons can use anywhere on the premises.

Another technological innovation is self-checkout; there are still human librarians at the checkout counter, but their work is now made a little easier.

The library offers state-of-the-art technology in other, less obvious ways as well. It is the first "green" public library -- indeed, the first fully green public building -- in New York City, according to the the U.S. Green Building Council. It is largely illuminated by natural light and equipped with passive solar energy devices; energy costs are expected to be 20 percent less than a standard code-complaint building. Also, as the library itself puts it: "Approximately 80 percent of the building's wood-based materials were grown in environmentally responsible forests; over 90 percent of demolition debris was recycled; and 55 percent of its construction materials were manufactured within 500 miles of the site."

It is bracing to realize how long it took for the Bronx Library Center to be realized. The need for a new library was clear by the mid-1980’s. Officials say a new building did not become feasible until Con Edison closed its Kingsbridge Road facility in 1999. The library system acquired the land in 2001, and the new facility took five years and $50 million to build, with a combination of public and private funds.

In one way, though, the birth of this new library is well-timed. Since the Bronx Library Center was first conceived, a technological revolution has occurred in how people access information -- and not just how, but who. If more than 95 percent of public libraries in the United States provided Internet access by 2004 (up from 28 percent a decade earlier), individuals with very low incomes --$15,000 or less -- make up the largest proportion of Internet library users.

For many residents of the Bronx, which is New York City's least prosperous borough, the library is their best option for Internet access. At least half a million people are expected to visit by the end of the year.

Many won't just be checking out the computers. Although its technological offerings are impressive, the Bronx Library Center continues to provide services associated with traditional libraries. The library has the largest public reference book collection in the Bronx, as well as 200,000 print and audiovisual materials available for checkout. It features a 150-seat auditorium for public performances, and a story hour room for readings to children. Individualized career and educational counseling is available, as well as instruction in reading and writing for adults.

For all that, the library officials understand that the technology will be the main draw. But one of those officials, Gayle Snible, has already noticed a heartening trend: Many people have come to the library for computer training, and departed with books in their hands.

Marcus A. Banks is a librarian at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center 

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