Trenton’s un-libraries are still steaming ahead. Mayor Tony Mack reopened the former Cadwalader branch on June 4, according to the Times of Trenton. That’s the third of four library branches that had been closed due to budget cuts, leaving Trenton with only its main library operational.
As LJ reported, Trenton’s Mayor and Council couldn’t provide the approximately $800,000 the Trenton Free Public Library (TFPL) required to keep the four branches open part time. Instead, the Mayor chose to reopen the buildings as “learning center libraries” not under the control of the library board or administration for a fraction of the cost. They can’t legally be called libraries, since New Jersey state law requires libraries to be governed by the library board and run by librarians.
There will be two publicly paid employees at the Cadwalader branch while it’s open (3-7 p.m. on weekdays), one of which is a security guard. But it, like the other non-libraries, will be staffed largely by volunteers, which the Mayor called “desperately needed.” At the second center’s reopening last month, city officials said they hoped to hire three part-time employees to manage each facility at an annual cost of $75,000 for salaries, general operations and upkeep.
That’s up from the $30,000-$50,000 per branch the Mayor had initially forecast, and it is still not enough. Although the minutes for recent Trenton City Council meetings are not yet available, according to local blogger Jim Carlucci, who live blogs the meetings, Mayor Mack “is asking council to allow/approve paid employees to staff the learning centers, etc. He admitted you cannot depend upon volunteers.”
Carlucci told LJ that the Mayor mentioned “two or maybe three” employees per learning center: two part-time and a full-time park ranger (for security), but “did not give a dollar figure that I recall. When asked about where the money would come from, I think he referred in a general way to his request for an end of year transfer of funds into the Recreation budget from other departments.” (The Learning Centers are being run by the Recreation department.)
“The request was denied by council,” Carlucci said, in part because the existing budget had been overspent with no accounting or reporting back to the governing body. A 2013 budget hearing for the Health and Senior Services and Recreation departments scheduled for June 11 was cancelled at the last minute.
Though Trenton city council members called on Mack to hold off on opening the rest of the centers until the city’s legal department and new business administrator Samuel E. Hutchinson could review the project, it seems unlikely that he has done so. Although at press time neither Hutchinson nor acting city attorney Walter Denson had yet responded to LJ’s request for comment, On May 2 Denson was quoted by the Times as saying “we weren’t really consulted on the legalities of this,” and Mack cut the ribbon on the former Briggs branch only six days later.
Briggs received repairs to vandalized toilets, broken heaters, a water-damaged carpet, and the air-conditioning system, and still requires minor roof repairs. Cadwalader was repainted, and had its roof repaired and carpets replaced, prior to its own reopening, the Times quoted Mack as saying. The fourth former branch, East Trenton, will open by the end of June, the Times quoted city officials as saying, once extensive water damage has been repaired.
Carlucci said he’d visited the Briggs and Skelton Learning Centers with Councilwoman Marge Caldwell-Wilson. They found delayed openings, loose power cords, and no Internet access. According to the Times, the mayor’s office plans to distribute 25 computers to the four ex-branches within the next few months.
For now, books cannot be taken out of the learning centers, but the Times says the mayor’s office plans to establish a borrowing system once it takes inventory of the contents—technically still the property of the TFPL—and sets up a catalog. The city is also planning to solicit new books from “other organizations, grants and purchases from the learning center budgets,” and offer tutoring and ESL classes.
Members of the Mercer Street Friends nonprofit have offered to help run literacy programs at the Cadwalader center. The group Men of Hope hosts an afternoon tutoring program for 23 children at the Skelton center, according to Mack, and members of the nearby Westminster Presbyterian Church have “pledged their assistance” to the Briggs center.
Although Mayor Mack is aware that the centers are not libraries—“We cannot be a library, so just look at this as a public building with books,” he said when opening the first of the Centers—according to Carlucci, Mayor Mack cited Total Community Library Service, Guy Garrison ed., as his template for the learning centers at his June 12 biannual review. (This is ironic since the book reports on the proceedings of a 1970s conference sponsored by the American Library Association (ALA) and National Education Association; ALA is, of course, a strong proponent of hiring credentialed librarians, as is the New Jersey Library Association, which issued a strongly worded rebuke when the Skelton center opened. Garrison is the former dean of Drexel’s library school.)
TFPL Director Kimberly Matthews told LJ that the TFPL has proposed a number of alternatives for “providing additional library services throughout the community” in its 2013 draft budget, which was presented to Hutchinson on May 4. “We would love to explore a variety of different options of library service in an economically challenged city such as Trenton,” said Matthews. Options include “an Internet or Internet/bookmobile, and possibly book vending machines like they have in San Francisco.”