Thursday, August 25, 2011

Summertime, libraries, Brooklyn, Jerusalem

It's mid-August. The kids' summer camps have long since ended. Every day is an exercise in parental ingenuity: how to keep the children occupied in a positive way. How to keep eyes off screens, grubby little fingers off keyboards.

Outdoor excursions are important in summer, at least to our family. But reading is also an activity that -- in the mind of yours truly, a former librarian -- is strongly associated with summer vacations. August, as I remember it from childhood, is public-library prime-time.

Granted, the Brooklyn of my formative years was a public-library-goer's utopia. Perhaps I was spoiled -- though I do recall a certain famous NYC fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s ("Ford to City: Drop D--d") in which public library hours were curtailed. But that didn't leave much of an impression.

Israel has never developed the kind of public-library culture that exists in the US. The municipal library systems here vary greatly in caliber from locality to locality, and there are no professional organizations with sufficient clout to set and enforce standards. I'm not sure why the Israeli public-library sphere has evolved so little over the years. Books certainly are expensive here -- like everything else; how Israelis have managed to obtain reading material all these decades in the absence of quality public libraries, I cannot imagine. (But then I have trouble understanding how they can afford expensive new cars, trips abroad, etc., on their Israeli salaries.)

It's worth pointing out that a neighborhood branch of a municipal public library system doesn't have to be anything grandiose. Some of my fondest Brooklyn-childhood memories are of a modest storefront library that was located around the corner from our home on East 58 St. I was sorry when it later moved a few blocks away to a new, larger building at a busy commercial intersection. The storefront library had perfectly complemented the sleepy little strip of shops around the corner from us on Ave. T: the old-style luncheonette with the swivel stools; the cool, dim grocery with its fascinating stacks of canned goods -- themselves like bookshelves in a way; the perfumey drugstore with its aisles of greeting-cards; the Chinese laundry with the honest-to-goodness Chinese family living in its back room.

The little library nestled among these stores might not have served the adults of the neighborhood very well, but from a child's perspective, it was "right-sized."

Nostalgia aside, it is worth noting that, even before a proper, dedicated library building was built to serve this part of southeast Brooklyn, the municipal library system recognized the need to provide services to the local taxpaying population. In the absence of a building, the municipality rented a store and set up a library in it, with regular opening hours. Not too difficult, right?

The Jerusalem municipality was capable, in the past, of coming up with solutions of this kind, in order to serve residents in newer neighborhoods where library buildings had yet to be built. If I'm not mistaken, both central and eastern Pisgat Ze'ev had public library branches operating on the premises of local schools, within a reasonable time frame after these areas became populated. Nothing fancy, for sure. But serviceable. Normal, convenient opening hours. Someplace to take your kids for an hour or two on a hot summer afternoon. Someplace to read a magazine, get some books.

Something happened during the Lupolianski mayoral administration. Suddenly, it became okay to disenfranchise taxpaying Jerusalemites -- to penalize them for deciding to live in the city's newer neighborhoods. Suddenly, the lack of a library building became a good excuse for simply neglecting to provide library services. Send the bookmobile in there 2-3 times a week for an hour. That'll do.

Below is the site where a public library is slated for construction, in the neighborhood of Jerusalem where I live -- Har Homa:

Plans for this site also include kindergarten buildings and a small synagogue (the neighborhood is in a perpetual state of crisis regarding both kindergarten and shul space).

The photo above was taken about half a year ago. The work has not advanced appreciably since then.

In lieu of a real library, our neighborhood's children have been served for nearly a decade now by this rather forbidding specimen of a mobile library:

For years I and my family snubbed the bookmobile. I had a "Mom-mobile" at my disposal and Baka wasn't too far away; we could get there on a weekly basis in summer, and perhaps once every six weeks during the school year. Not ideal -- certainly not walkable -- but it seemed pleasanter and more civilized to patronize a real (albeit modest) library every few weeks than to climb into that unventilated and unappealing little truck -- like a furnace in summer, and (so my kids claimed) reeking of cigarette smoke.

Then, a couple of summers ago, the arrival of a new baby made the trip to the Baka library less practicable. I went through the mobile library's irritating subscription process (writing out half a dozen deposit checks for a hundred shekels each, so my 3 older kids could each take out two books at a time). Of course I hardly expected the Jerusalem mobile library's circulation system to be integrated with that of the city's public library system as a whole -- seeing that the neighborhood branches themselves are not integrated as a Westerner would expect them to be: instead of having a library card that serves you at all municipal branches, you have to take out a subscription at each and every branch that you want to patronize, going through the annoying deposit-check process every single time.

So we subscribed, my kids used the mobile library a few times that summer ... then stopped once school started up again.

The mobile library comes to Har Homa only 3 times a week, for an hour or, at best, an hour and a half at a time -- somewhere between 3:30 and 5:30 pm. What this means is that a child who goes to school outside of the neighborhood (a large proportion of Har Homa's children fall into that category) and comes home at around 4:00 pm, has little chance of making it to the mobile library, after unpacking his/her day for Ima and grabbing a bite to eat. What is more, many organized after-school activities, such as martial arts or music lessons, conflict with these miserly mobile-library hours.

As things worked out, my kids were unable to make use of the Jerusalem mobile library during its operating hours in Har Homa.

What is needed, clearly, is a local library that offers services during the normal range of hours for a Jerusalem branch -- from 2:00 pm to 7:00 pm, 4 or 5 afternoons a week. Whether that library is operated out of a storefront rented by the municipality, or in a caravan planted in one of the schoolyards -- that's for the iriya to decide.

Har Homa, for those not aware of the local demographic situation, is overwhelmingly a neighborhood of families with young children. Basically, an entire generation of children has been growing up here without library services worthy of the name. Nine years is an awfully long time for the "new neighborhood" excuse to be employed. And library service is hardly the only sphere in which that excuse is being employed.

Not that things are altogether rosy in Baka. To get to my summer 2011 library saga: I decided to try the mobile library again this year. Not out of any enthusiasm, but because I found out that the Baka library would be closing for two whole weeks during August.

Based on previous years' experience I had been expecting the library to close for one week, when the community center that houses it shuts down for "concentrated" staff vacations. One August day a few years ago I arrived in Baka with my kids expecting to pass a couple of pleasant hours in the library, only to find, along with other families that had come for the same purpose, that the library was closed for the week -- nobody had bothered to post notices beforehand. When I inquired afterward why the library had shut down for a week during the month when it was probably most needed, the librarian told me that it is unsafe to keep the library open while the community center itself is closed.

That, unfortunately, sounds like a typical Jerusalem Municipality solution -- rather than getting a security guard to stand at the entrance to the community center so the library can stay open during peak season, they just cancel services for the duration (ditto for several other Jerusalem public libraries housed within community centers).

A public library branch, even a small and poorly-equipped one, represents a considerable investment of public resources. Isn't it a horrible waste of resources for a library to shut down for even one week -- let alone two -- during the summer vacation?

In despair, I decided to try again with the mobile library. However, I had misplaced the sheet I once had detailing the bookmobile hours. I spent quite a while online trying to find the information, ultimately reaching this page which lists bookmobile hours for other neighborhoods, but makes no mention of Har Homa. The mobile library does not appear on the list of Jerusalem public libraries provided at the municipality website.

Okay, I could just have picked up the phone to the main branch at Beit Ha'Am and asked. But as it happened, the bookmobile was there one afternoon while I and a couple of my kids were walking down the street. So we climbed on in. My kids chose a few books for themselves; but when we tried to check them out, the librarian was unable to locate any record of our subscription. It's all hard-copy, you see. The index card had been lost.

I didn't have any checks on me and couldn't re-subscribe. So we left the books behind and went home. A few days later, we subscribed at the Gilo library branch (which has its own building, so it doesn't close during August). I hadn't thought of it as an option before, as I had understood the English children's book collection there to be quite minimal compared with Baka's and it's important to me that my kids read in both of their languages ... but in the end it was fine. My oldest found a Hardy Boys book that he had never read before, the staff displayed a heroic degree of understanding when my toddler threw a tantrum over a sippy cup that didn't belong to her, and we were able to combine the library visit with a trip to the Gilo pool next door. My only gripe: having to haul a stroller up a flight of stairs to get to the library, which was built in the days before anyone thought of access. A person who gets around in a wheelchair could not make use of the facility (and I gather that this is the case at other Jerusalem branches as well).

1 comment:

Batya said...

I'm glad you found a library. I think my kids were members of a mobile one when we lived in Bayit V'Gan. There's a nice one in Shiloh and a large one in Ofra, but it's a flight up.