Noise In The Library


Take your Kindle and shove it!

That pretty much sums up the anger of patrons of the 92nd Street Y’s Buttenwieser Library following last week’s announcement that the Y was shuttering the nearly 80-year-old beloved book room.

The library’s plan is to replace the 3,000-square-foot, 30,000-volume library with a Wi-Fi reading room on the ground floor that will include some new fiction (in traditional book form), laptops and Amazon’s electronic book device called the Kindle. Smaller book collections will be dispersed throughout the institution.

With a failing economy and a decreased demand for traditional library services, Y officials decided that an overhaul is crucial to the institution’s survival.

But for lovers of the library — who this week launched a “Save the 92Y Library” Facebook group that has more than 200 members — the Buttenwieser helped give the institution a soul.

“The Y prides itself on its intellectual curiosity,” said Neal Sher, 61, former head of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and a former Justice Department official. “You can go anywhere for a nice gym.”
In response to an onslaught of angry phone calls, letters and e-mails about the library’s closing, the Y’s executive director, Sol Adler, stressed that library services will not stop and are simply being “reconfigured” to match the community’s changing needs.

The different book collections, he explained, will dwell in specialized locations according to their readership — the children’s books will move to the Early Childhood Center and the poetry books will move to the Poetry Center.

“The ability to take out books, the ability to have a comfortable quiet space to meditate and read will be there,” Adler said. “The whole building is going to become a library in essence. …

“If we’re not planning for the future we’ll become irrelevant very quickly,” Adler continued. “We’re making certain that the Y stays healthy and continues to serve the hundreds of thousands of people that it serves.”
Library lovers aren’t buying the argument that only old-timers are using the Buttenwieser.

“It’s a living place, it’s a breathing place. People rely on it. I see every race, every level of financial ability. I see every level of activity in there,” said Samantha Shubert, 44, whose entire family uses the library regularly. “The idea that no one uses the library anymore is so contrary to my experiences.”

To Shubert, a bunch of scattered collections throughout the building is equivalent to disbanding the library entirely. Along with friend Anna Culbertson, the two began the Facebook group.
Shubert said she was so disappointed by the Y’s decision that she also wrote lengthy letters to Adler and to Helaine Geismar Katz, the associate executive director. Both letters, she said, remained unanswered.

“Why is a Jewish institution of this stature of the Y closing the library when Jews throughout our entire history have above all things wanted more knowledge, wanted more study, wanted more opportunities for understanding?” she asked.

For many neighborhood families, Shubert continued, Buttenwieser is where children proudly receive their first library cards, in a close-knit, comfortable space for intellectual development.

“They’re introduced to a library and the value and the fun of taking out books,” agreed Linda Levinson, 55, who admires the way librarian Lynn Feinman uses a raccoon puppet to encourage reading among the children.

Without the library, Levinson also laments that the Y will just become yet another fitness facility on the Upper East Side, and she has asked to withdraw her membership should the library close.

What angers some members most, however, is the fact that neither the library staff nor nursery school parents were informed in advance about the administration’s plans to make these changes. And though the directors stand by their decision to restructure the library, they do admit that they may not have initiated this process in the smoothest way possible.

“We’re planning on communicating with some of the folks who would be returning in the fall, and the truth is, we probably could’ve communicated better,” said Beverly Greenfield, a spokeswoman for the Y.

For Adler and his staff, closing Buttenwieser is a key step in reorienting the 92nd Street Y toward the digital future — hence the Kindles. But for angry patrons, it is the end of an era.

“When you destroy a library it’s gone. And if you have second thoughts in a year or five years or 10 years that’s too bad because it’s over,” Shubert said. “Why rush a decision that’s irrevocable?”