April 26, 2018

New York City Libraries Relatively Unscathed; New Jersey Still Taking Stock

(This story was last updated at 12:15 p.m. on Nov. 8)

Queens Library Far Rockaway, Peninsula

At the Queens Library’s Peninsula branch in Far Rockaway, the high water mark reached over the door handle.

As New York City public transportation crawls back to life and New Yorkers struggle to resume their lives after Sandy, those seeking refuge–or simply reading materials–will be able to plug in and warm up at 88 of the New York Public Library (NYPL)’s 90 branches in The Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island, albeit with slightly altered hours. Regular hours are expected to resume on Friday. Nov. 9.

The South Beach branch in Staten Island reopened on November 8, leaving only the Hamilton Fish in Manhattan, and Dongan Hills  in Staten Island still closed.

Some 55 of the 90 branches had already reopened by Nov. 2. The rest, including the main 42nd Street branch, remained closed on Thursday–mostly due to power problems rather than flooding, said Angela Montefinise, NYPL’s Public Relations Director.

Remarkably, NYPL’s system, incorporating libraries in Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx, suffered virtually no structural damage, said Montefinise.

The power outage at the main building had wider effects throughout the system. “The data center controlling our catalog and web site are at 42nd Street,” Montefinise said. While services were down there, patrons weren’t able to check out materials from the branches. However, NYPL put up temporary page with list of links for those who needed help in the meantime.

Montefinise confirmed that there was “absolutely no damage to our off-site storage, and our collections are safe and secure. We don’t anticipate any issues whatsoever with off-site delivery.”

Other Sandy response measures instituted by the NYPL included redeploying staff members whose branches were closed to other libraries, additional free programming for kids and teens while the public schools were closed, and waived fines on 390,000 items originally due between October 26 and November 11, until November 13.

NYPL canceled its annual Library Lions fundraising gala, originally scheduled to be held on Nov. 5 at the main branch. Instead, the library is donating the food which would have been served at the party to Staten Islanders who suffered losses from Hurricane Sandy. NYPL employees will help serve the hot meal, which will feed about 600 people, on Tuesday, Nov. 6.

NYPL staff help on Staten Island

Anne Coriston, Vice President of Public Service at NYPL and Chief Librarian at Mid-Manhattan Theresa Myrhol help organize donations of clothing and essentials in Staten Island.

“Not one Library Lions ticket or table buyer has requested a refund,” Montefinise told LJ. The responses Marx received “were all extremely supportive of the decision to cancel. We will issue new tax receipts that will dub the donations as contributions instead of ticket purchases,” she added.

In the New York City borough of Queens, where regions were devastated by the storm and fire, “We’ve got four libraries that are in disaster mode that will need reconstruction,” Queens Library CEO Thomas W. Galante told SLJ on Wednesday morning. Three of those libraries suffered flooding from three to five feet, reaching the computer monitors, he says, and causing electrical damage. The entire facade of the Peninsula branch library has crumbled, pushed off by water flowing out of the library building. Libraries in Arverne and Seaside were also badly damaged. A fifth library in the Rockaways sustained no structural damage, but has no electricity.

main room at the Peninsula branch

The main room at the Peninsula branch

“We are still assessing” how long repairs will take, Galante says, perhaps ”weeks or a month, versus months.” Still, Galante feels that Queens fared “pretty well” from the storm.

Like all New York City libraries, Queens libraries remained closed on October 31. But Galante said that 55 of the 62 Queens branches would open on November 1, and staff will “help people with any kind of FEMA applications and other services” they need related to the disaster. Children’s programs will run as usual, but Galante noted that staffing will prove difficult because of subway closings.

On November 2, the Queens Library sent its Book Bus to the Rockaways to help community members charge their cell phones and electronic devices and access information on disaster recovery and filing for assistance. Staff are receiving in-depth training in FEMA procedures and applying for assistance, according to Joanne King, the library’s director of communications.

The bus, situated in front of the closed Queens Library @ Peninsula, also offered books to borrow. And it’s not just a onetime thing: The Book Bus will be parked in front of the library every Monday, and Tuesday through Saturday until the permanent library re-opens, which is expected to take several weeks.

Residents charge phones and other devices outside New York University’s Elmer Holmes Bobst Library. In response to power outages throughout the region, many libraries offered charging stations.

New York City has three separate library systems: Queens, NYPL, and Brooklyn.

Only nine of the 60 branches in the Brooklyn Public Library’s system were closed due to damage on November 1, said director and chief librarian Richard Reyes-Gavilan, who walked four and a half miles to work from his Greenpoint, Brooklyn, home to his office at the Central branch at Grand Army Plaza. The closed branches are in coastal areas, including Sheepshead Bay, Gerritsen Beach, and Coney Island. Damage is still being assessed, but Reyes-Gavilan says that some branches, particularly in Coney Island, may face long-term closures.The Bedford Library is scheduled to reopen on November 20.

At the open branches, “Internet access has been spotty and our web site has been down, because our internet service provider is in downtown Manhattan,” Reyes-Gavilan said.

Looking forward Reyes-Gavilan is beginning to ask questions like, “Is it the best idea for our ISP to be located in downtown Manhattan? It’s the financial capital of the world, but it seems to be a vulnerable place.”

Coney Island branch

Coney Island branch

The more daunting problem is that Brooklyn’s facilities are aging. “If this were to happen again a year from now we’d be in the exact same position,” he said. “The average age of the 60 buildings in our system is 57. Before Sandy, we had $240 million in deferred capital maintenance. I wish I could say that there’s something we could do to prevent flooding but there’s not. We’ll be as vulnerable six months from now as we are now.”

“We should be thinking about more public programs concerning disaster preparedness,” Reyes-Gavilan adds.

In the meantime, Brooklyn is helping with disaster recovery. The Central Library is collecting donated supplies and distributing them (as well as books) via bookmobile in the heavily impacted Brooklyn neighborhoods of Coney Island and Red Hook.

Manhattan’s Inwood Library, the northernmost Manhattan branch of the NYPL system, was largely unaffected by the hurricane. As a result, users have flocked to the library, and their first question is, “Do you have Internet access?” says library manager Yajaira Mejiait,. To accommodate the influx of children, the library added a craft program and screenings of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and The Avengers.

Westchester, New York’s White Plains Library was also inundated with people seeking wireless access a way to charge their devices, says director Brian Kenney, who added that some 200 more patrons than usual are taking advantage of the library’s extended (10 am-9pm) hours. Kenney was formerly the editorial director of LJ. The library converted its meeting rooms to workspaces and temporary offices, acquired extra power strips to accommodate everyone, and turned over staff wireless access points for public use.

Patrons are coming to the library to find out the latest news on storm relief, and the library, like others, is showing family movies. Libraries throughout Westchester are providing the same kinds of services, says Kenney.

Outside the City

Severe impact from Sandy was felt as far inland as West Virginia, where the hurricane met with a cold front, generating a huge blizzard that dropped between two and six feet of snow in several parts of the state overnight. Initially, about 200,000 residents were without power. State Librarian Karen Goff said that 14 branches are still closed on November 2 due to outages and blocked roads.

“The impact of the storm was greatest in the central mountain counties,” Goff said. “As of 12:30 today, only 14 of West Virginia’s 175 public libraries were still out of service. They are located in the counties of Barbour, Boone, Fayette, Preston, Pocahontas, Raleigh, Randolph, Tucker, and Webster. I spoke with the Director of the Richwood Public Library in Nicholas County yesterday afternoon and she had just received news that power had been restored at the library. She anticipated opening the library today but did not expect any other staff because of road conditions.”

Elsewhere, in New York and New Jersey, assessments are still being made.

A fallen tree near the New Canaan, CT public library. Downed trees cut power lines throughout the region, leading to widespread, long-term outages for many residents.

“We’ve gotten very limited reports out because those still effected are still dealing with the aftermath,” said Jeremy Johannsen, interim president of the New York Library Association. However, he anticipates that the vast majority of impacted facilities are in Long Island, severely hit by flooding.

As in New Jersey, Johannsen notes that post-Irene, New York libraries have placed greater focus on disaster preparedness. “You position your library as best as possible to deal with these emergencies. We’re always happy to help people, and not at all surprised to see the library community come together in the aftermath of these events.”

He added, “We are anticipating a fundraising campaign via our NYLA disaster relief fund to gather support” for impacted facilities. “Our annual conference is next week. We will be fundraising there in a number of informal ways.” NYLA raised $9,000 following Irene for libraries in need. NYLA’s disaster Relief Fund website is hosting a list of libraries in need as a result of the storm (some 15 at press time) several of whom had already received a check from the fund, as well as listing contacts for those who want to help further.

The state of affairs among most libraries in New Jersey is still uncertain and likely chaotic. Four days after Sandy struck, “We don’t yet have an idea of the destruction” of libraries across the state, says New Jersey State Librarian Mary Chute. “It’s too soon.” Massive power outages have prevented local librarians from reporting on their libraries’ conditions. But Chute assumes that the hardest-hit libraries are those in the devastated coastal areas of Cape May and Atlantic City. The State Library is maintaining an Excel document listing the status of New Jersey’s libraries, as well as providing information on disaster recovery.

Karen L. George, director of the Atlantic County Library System, told LJ, “Atlantic County Library System was actually very fortunate. Despite having three branches on barrier islands we only had damage at the Brigantine Branch.  Our lower level flooded several feet high. Luckily it is primarily meeting room and restrooms, kitchen, offices and storage on that level.  We are in the process of having wallboard removed, appliances, fixtures, furniture and such removed, and are salvaging what we can. We have yet to determine a reopening date, but are hopeful that we can partially open the second floor where most of the collection and our circulation area is housed, while reconstruction work goes on below.”

Kenneth Sheinbaum, director of the Monmouth County Library System, said he was similarly fortunate. Of the two branches still closed on November 7, “Holmdel needs only electricity. Oceanport will be cleaned, sanitized, and restocked (bottom shelf or two) and reopened in a few weeks.”

Ocean County was the hardest hit, with five branches still out of commission as of November 7: Beachwood, Point Boro, LBI, Upper Shores, and Bayhead.

On November 2, the New Jersey Library Association announced the formation of the Rebuilding New Jersey’s Libraries fund.

“Many of our communities and their libraries have been affected by Sandy. We will not know the full extent of the damage or impact until all power is restored,” the association explained in a statement released Friday afternoon. “In response to numerous requests, the New Jersey Library Association has created a way for those in New Jersey and all across the country to donate to the Rebuilding New Jersey’s Libraries fund. All monies will be distributed to New Jersey’s libraries once more assessment is completed.” Contributions can be made here.

Contributing to the Broader Recovery

Michele Stricker, Associate Director of the New Jersey State Library’s Development Bureau, added that after Hurricane Irene, New Jersey libraries developed detailed and practical disaster preparedness programs, tailored to the size and needs of their libraries. In part, New Jersey put together these plans in response to the growing reality that public libraries are unofficial but critical places of refuge for people during times of disaster.

“Based upon the State Library’s existing relationship with the New Jersey Department of Labor, NJDOL has contacted the State Library regarding possible temporary usage of library locations to expedite recovery efforts,” Chute wrote in a followup e-mail. “NJDOL proposes using those libraries that have re-opened in the eight counties designated by the federal government for immediate aid as locations to reach customers affected by the storm (Atlantic, Cape May, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean and Union) The Department of Labor would send staff representatives to those libraries to help our shared customer base apply for any temporary jobs that might be available should grant funding be awarded.”

After the storm, the door count doubled at the Piscataway, NJ Public Library.

In addition the New Jersey Library Association is hosting on their site pictures and stories regarding recovery activities, and libraries are encouraged to enter their information and photographs there. The effectiveness of New Jersey’s programs in the wake of Irene will become clear in the next few days.

Those New Jersey libraries that are able to operate have sprung into action.About 50 people were waiting to get into the Princeton (NJ) Public Library (PPL) when it managed to open its doors at 11:00 am on Tuesday, October 30, the morning after Hurricane Sandy unleashed its wrath along the East Coast. About 80 percent of Princeton was without power, but PPL was lit, warm, and wired, operated by a skeletal staff and volunteers who were able to maneuver their way, most on foot, through streets laden with downed trees to the downtown library. Adults and kids flooded into PPL with their laptops, preparing to hunker down, play games, read books, and watch family movies until the library’s regular closing time at 9 pm.

Meanwhile, the New Canaan (CT) Library was also open, packed, and buzzing on Tuesday—receiving patrons until 10 pm (usual closing time is 6:30), says teen services librarian Gretchen Kolderup, who estimated that about 75 percent of the city had no electricity. A town curfew had gone into effect early Monday afternoon, sending people home, Kolderup told SLJ in an email, but she got a mid-afternoon call from the city’s office of emergency management saying that the library would open at 9 am Tuesday. Since then, the library has been showing movies, and “everyone—staff, patrons, administration—seems to feel a sense of camaraderie with one another,” Kolderup said, adding that the director had been at the reference desk since the library opening.

PPL had learned from Hurricane Irene how critical its role is in times of disaster, says communications director Tim Quinn. When Irene struck in August 2011, 4,500 people streamed through the library doors, 2,000 more than the daily average. A lot more than 4,500 came yesterday, he says, though the library had not yet tallied a full count of patrons by 7 pm. School was not in session when Irene hit, adds Quinn, and many people were out of town. Not so this time.

Quinn had made his way to the library early Tuesday morning, and seeing that the electricity was up and the WiFi functional, assembled his “worst case scenario” staff—including a non-librarian neighbor who manned the reference desk all day, refusing breaks. The library ran family movies “day and night” its community room, says Quinn, and will continue to do so as long as the schools remain closed this week. The shelves are emptying—“There’s only one copy of any of the ‘Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’ books left,” says youth services librarian Suzanne Savidge—and when the computer outlets filled up, teenagers organized an impromptu chess tournament, with the librarians’ permission.

“It’s wall-to-wall people and children,” Savidge said, adding that “the teenagers are asking, ‘Can’t we have an overnight?’”

The Caldwell, NJ Public Library entertained families with a movie night.

While Sandy has spawned other such inspiring stories, the grim extent of the storm’s damage to public and school libraries in harder-hit areas has yet to be determined. Other areas of New Jersey remained in full disaster mode on Wednesday morning.

The South Orange (NJ) Public Library, north of Princeton, was designated the town’s primary evacuation center. Emergency personnel started arriving on Monday. In the storm’s aftermath, patrons are using the library to power and warm up, as many of them had no heat in their homes. Library director Melissa Kopecky says, “We’re always a shelter for the community. We’re doing what we always do.” Staff computers have been made available to the public, people are reading and charging phones in the stacks, and volunteers and stranded students from Rutgers University have stepped in to help out the bustling library.

Like PPL, the Roxbury Public Library in Succasunna, NJ, is one of the few places in town with electricity and, as of 11 am, Internet access. Patrons were waiting outside before the library’s usual hours—prompting staff to open early to help some of the 83 percent of town households and businesses without power. Minimal damage (to a fence) hasn’t deterred staff from their usual schedule, and the scheduled ‘tween Halloween party was still a go. Library director Will Porter stated, “The parking lot is overflowing, and the library is as busy as I’ve ever seen it.”

“My library has been closed since Monday,” said Liz Burns, youth services consultant for the New Jersey State Library for the Blind and Handicapped in Ewing Township, NJ, and SLJ blogger. “There is no power for school libraries and nothing is being done at the moment. A mandatory curfew is in effect from 7 pm to 7 am to keep people off the streets in the dark. There’s not even any kind of emergency power for streetlights.”

Impact on School Libraries

Damage to New York City school libraries had not yet been fully assessed. “Most of the New York City school buildings are closed, and I don’t have a sense of the damage yet,” Richard Hasenyager, director of library services at New York City Department of Education, told SLJ October 30. Hasenyager held out a bit of cautious optimism for the city’s school libraries, however: “Many of our school libraries are located on the second floor. Many times we complain about it, but at times like this, we’re very happy.”

“Our facilities group is assessing the situation and we are not to bother them, Hasenyager said October 31 in a follow-up email. “They will be presenting an update soon, but I don’t know when.”

Of New York City’s 1,400 public school facilities, 200 had suffered damage, New York Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said in an October 31 press conference with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Department of Education spokesperson Erin Hughes added that 86 schools were without power, and 76 functional school buildings had been used as evacuation shelters. Schools will not reopen until November 5.

“Because of the lack of power and telecommunications in some parts of New York City and Long Island, it has been difficult to get a full report on the status of libraries,” New York State Education Department spokesperson Antonia Valentine reported on November 2. “With nearly 200 school districts closed, many more school libraries are also closed…it will likely take some time before a full report is compiled.”

With much of lower Manhattan and coastal areas of other boroughs flooded, a vast swath of Manhattan below 34th Street still without power due to an explosion at a 14th Street Con Ed substation, and subway stations brimming with damaging salt water, it’s not yet clear how long Sandy will keep the city in a holding pattern. As subways remained inoperable at press time, New York City public schools were closed through Thursday, November 1.

Elizabeth Naylor-Gutierrez, the NYC DOE’s library coordinator for Manhattan and Queens, pointed out that “First responders are looking at residential buildings, not schools,” so conditions are difficult to assess. Similarly, Freeport, Long Island, high school librarian Rose Luna had no idea what condition her school library would be in, since Freeport, in a flood zone, has more urgent problems: over 80 percent without power, and ocean waters gushing into homes as far as two miles from shore, she said. Because her school library is also on the second floor, she remained somewhat hopeful.

In the meantime, the question of what to do with, and say to, anxious children posed a challenge. FEMA director Craig Fugate encouraged parents to read with their children, according to a news report, and readers Tweeted their top picks at #StormReads. On WNYC Radio’s Brian Lehrer show October 30, Rosemarie Truglio, Sesame Street’s vice president of education and research, teamed up live with Elmo, reassuring frightened child callers who were biding their time at home, and doling out tips to adults about what to say to young kids about the storm. (Listeners were encouraged to tweet questions to @briahlehrer). Truglio’s main points: Keep your routine, listen closely to your child’s questions, don’t give them more information than they can handle, and empower kids by helping them with clean-up and other post-storm efforts as is appropriate.

Sesame Street also offers a hurricane coping kit, and a Youtube video showing staff brainstorming and filming of a hurricane-themed show in which Big Bird’s nest is destroyed. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network site provides more suggestions on how to help children during this time.

Meanwhile, at the New Canaan Library, Kolderup and staff have been handing out cards to new patrons and coaching others in how to use ebooks. She said, “We’re turning the storm into community goodwill, recruitment, an outreach.”

Coordinated Response in New Jersey

The New Jersey State Library, the New Jersey Library Association, and Library Link NJ are coordinating support for the state’s library community, Chute noted in a followup e-mail. Links to these and other pertinent resources are found on the State Library’s website. NJSL’s IT staff has been on duty throughout the story, and is working to restore internet access where possible and update webpages on behalf of affected libraries. NJSL also plans to post a google doc spreadsheet that will allow affected libraries to update their status or contact the State Library for assistance.

Faced with regional disasters including major electrical blackouts, terrorist attacks, and now two major hurricanes in the past 14 months, the New Jersey System has taken a proactive approach to disaster preparation, Chute said.

“We have pursued grant opportunities and partnerships to strengthen infrastructure and networks. The following is a listing of some of the proactive disaster preparedness and preservation activities undertaken by the NJ State Library over the past several years.”

Additional reporting by Shelley Diaz, Mahnaz Dar, Michael Kelley and LJ/SLJ Staff.

 Disaster resources

Disaster Assistance

Guide to Navigating FEMA and SBA Disaster Aid for Cultural Institutions

Resources for Salvage of Cultural Collections

American Institute for Conservation

Other library-related Hurricane Sandy news:



















NYPL updating list of open branches: https://sites.google.com/a/nypl.org/public/

Michael Kelley About Michael Kelley

Michael Kelley (mkelley@mediasourceinc.com) is the former Editor-in-Chief, Library Journal.

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  1. I thought the name of the storm was Sandy and not Irene. I guess the new Editor isn’t in place yet.

    • The article talks about lessons learned from Irene, in the context of discussing the effects of Sandy. I think you read too quickly.

    • Michael Kelley Michael Kelley says:

      correction made in first paragraph. thanks for pointing that out.

  2. Veronica Sorcher says:

    I may be mistaken but I think the Irene/Sandy mixup happens again a bit further down in the paragraph that starts, “The state of affairs among most libraries in New Jersey is still uncertain and likely chaotic. Four days after Irene struck, “We don’t yet have an idea of the destruction”…”

    Thank you for an excellent article, by the way.

  3. The DISASTR-OUTREACH-LIB listserv is posting information on libraries and Sandy, as well as resources for disaster-related health information.
    You can join the listserv at http://sis.nlm.nih.gov/dimrc/dimrclistserv.html.

    See the archives for recent messages on Sandy:

    Cindy Love
    Disaster Information Management Research Center
    Specialized Information Services Division
    National Library of Medicine
    National Institutes of Health
    Bethesda, MD 20892-5467

    *Support for librarians providing disaster information outreach to their communities.*

  4. NYPL reader says:

    Doesn’t the NYPL Research Library have storage facilities in New Jersey? Is that offsite collection OK too?

  5. Meredith Schwartz Meredith Schwartz says:

    I checked with NYPL and updated the story: the offsite collection is fine.