Categorized | Education, Money

For Morrisania, the Public Library is a Refuge

by Alec Johnson

On East 169th Street, the Morrisania branch of the New York Public Library’s red brick façade shines in comparison to the surrounding sandy brown brick apartment buildings. Inside the 100-year-old building, book-lined walls surround clusters of tables frequently filled with children  and adults reading.

A teamwork-oriented staff at the library has bolstered circulation significantly this year by reaching beyond the bookshelves and engaging the community.

“We are a beacon in this community,” said branch librarian Colbert Nembhard, about the library, which has loaned 86,547 books since 2008, a circulation increase of about 20,000 for the year.

Because of the staff teamwork, Nembhard says he is not overly worried about losing one of his five, full-time professional staff at such a busy time because of budget cuts to the entire New York Public Library system.

“Everyone takes turns going out in the community, said Nembhard, who has been working in the city’s libraries for 30 years. The staff  juggles visits to shelters, schools, senior centers, and hospitals with regular in-house programming at the branch.

“On a weekly basis we do at least five programs,” Nembhard said. “Outreach gets more people to come. We are very busy.”

Ramon DaSilva has worked as an information assistant at the branch for four years. He helps people use computers and the library’s on-line card catalogue. While in Morrisania, DaSilva has led many outreach programs along with the team. He will be transferred to the High Bridge branch when it re-opens this winter after a two-year renovation.

The outreach programs — which include library card registration for sick children in hospitals and Nintendo Wii tournaments in senior centers, adult computer classes, story times and class visits in the library — may need to be cut slightly when DaSilva leaves.

“We might not be able to do as much,” Nembhard said, “but we will try our best to do what we can.” He is more concerned with what would happen if additional staff members were unable to work. “If we’re only left with four people and one calls in sick, that could be a problem,” said Nembhard.

The public libraries are experiencing $57 million in cuts across the board this year. However, Nembhard said, staffing is a priority for the library system, which is why DaSilva will be transferred. “By taking from one branch to the next, they aren’t getting laid off,” he said.

When not out on outreach, DaSilva mans the information booth on the ground floor of the library and assists patrons in signing up for computers and finding materials. The branch has 20 public computers. According to DaSilva , the computers are almost always in use and people sign up and wait in line for their turn. “They are almost never open,” he said.

Recently, Leon Wentt, 27, spent the afternoon at library because he needed to use a computer. Wentt said that he took advantage of the hour wait for a computer by reading. He appreciates the “good community environment” fostered by the library and said the greatest appeal is its “affordable convenience,” as he pointed to printers, scanners and the copy machine.

DaSilva believes that outreach programming is instrumental in bringing so many people into the library. Each year, library statistics are tabulated by fiscal year, July 1 to June 30. The programming and classes doubled from 401 in 2008 to 853 this year and 138,718 individuals walked through the library door.

Nembhard is working on innovative ideas to get around the staff restructuring. Although he is not exactly sure what those will be, he knows they will get around it.

“We are committed to the community and are striving for service excellence,” he said. “We may not be there yet, but that is what we’re striving for.”

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