It’s a pretty well-known statistic in Buffalo that the city has a high school graduation rate just north of 50 percent, and that this percentage – which only popped up in the last several years – actually marked an improvement over previous decades where the graduation rate notched under the halfway mark. Some one in every three adults in Buffalo can’t read above a third grade level. It’s tough to lay the blame for Buffalo’s literacy rate at the feet of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library system, though. It’s not perfect, not by a long shot, but it does what it can in a place which tries to shut itself in.
The main branch of the system – which is simply referred to as the Central Library – is located in Downtown Buffalo, just a block to the east of the lightrail line at Lafayette Square. You can’t miss the building, although that’s more because of its location than by any architectural merit – the damn place looks like some kind of extra cardboard scenery out of a Star Wars movie. The current building first opened in 1963 as another one of those doomed economic redevelopment and urbanization projects that decimated Downtown Buffalo in ways which would cause wet dreams for Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay. It replaced a building by Cyrus LW Eidlitz from 1887 which fit Buffalo’s old architectural ethos like a glove and came off like a European castle/Greek-style church hybrid. Using only pictures, the old building and the current one look to be around the same size. Of course, the new building, being of that disastrous “modernist” style, floats above Ellicott Street, connecting the front entrance at Lafayette Square with a back end on the Ellicott/Broadway/William intersection. While it spans two blocks, it also covers only two floors – as opposed to three or four in the old building – and that’s only two if you include some new bathrooms and office space on the second floor. I wonder what happened to all the books that used to be up there.
Yeah, there are only books on the first floor. Fables Cafe and the fiction section are in the front half, and the back half has the nonfiction section and media room and computers… Hell, let’s just shorten everything by saying the back has most of what makes the Central Library the CENTRAL LIBRARY. The cafe is a nice little addition, but I’ve never eaten any of the food outside of a couple of snacks and cups of coffee, which were pretty good. Since a lot of people like to read and write at cafes, the library is a perfect atmosphere for one, when I’m finished with my weekly librarying, I prefer to visit Perks Cafe, a local indie joint which is right across the street.
The Central Library has some nice little special sections which make it stand out. One is The Center for Afro-American History and Research, and if you need to do research on African-American history in Buffalo, this is where you want to go to do it. Central Library has managed to beat the institutionalized racism you see everywhere in the city and provides the entire Western New York region with the largest African-American history resource center around. Books, microfilm, and records of prominent organizations – like the Urban League – are in there. Central Library also includes a collection for disabled people – large-print books, audiobooks, radio receivers, and descriptive videos are floating through circulation too. The Grosvenor Room is the home of the local genealogical society as well as a bountiful harvest of stuff regarding local history. And the Mark Twain Room is an exhibition room featuring Twain’s original handwritten manuscript for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. If you’re wondering how Buffalo, of all places, managed to get ahold of a literary treasure of that magnitude, then you have to understand that Buffalo was once a far more important city than it is now. Twain was briefly a member of the Young Men’s Association, which was what was around just before the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library was established. Twain personally donated the manuscript himself in 1885, and was a Buffalo resident at one time when he spent a couple years with one of the local newspapers.
If you want to borrow a book, you get three weeks. CD’s and movies are weeklongs. You can order items and make reservations, but the library charges for those services for some reason. Can’t say I know why. This is a habit which only cropped up in the last few years – they used to do it for free. Now it costs a buck per item. The obvious tradeoff here, though, is the fact that there is a copy of pretty much everything you can name floating around through the system somewhere. The library has never failed to deliver something I asked for. Still, the library grants you a charge account of up to $10 before you’re not allowed to do anything anymore, and that’s between fines and requests, and if you make a lot of requests, that $10 compilation is going to arrive quickly. The requests I made were $1 each.
There are a lot of interesting and informative events that happen right in the center of the building, which isn’t some special event room of its own. It’s literally right out in the middle for everything, for all to see, making it convenient for people to just stop off for a few minutes to listen to the lecture or watch the video. A lot of clubs meet there, and there are tax classes and computer classes.
The only problem you’re likely to have with the services is that the system runs entirely on a self-checkout. The librarians will perform renewals and take returns, but they’re not allowed to check your swag out for you. The self-checkouts can be a major pain in the ass, too: You would be amazed how easily the computers make checkout errors. Sure, it’s usually no problem if you’re placing one item on the checkout pad, but any more than that and there’s a 50/50 shot of something not reading right. That means you have to keep on scanning it until it does read the right way. Once you’re trying to check out anything over four or five items, chances of an error shoot up to nearly 100 percent, and you end up having to separate everything anyway. It would be a lot less tedious to just have the librarian get it out of the way quickly.
As far as the Central Library building goes, it’s bright and quiet, but I can’t emphasize this enough: Stay the hell out of the first floor bathrooms. Use the recently-remodeled bathrooms on the second floor. Not only are they bigger and better-working, but in the first floor bathrooms, illicit things tend to happen. If you need the one stall offered, there’s likely to be someone in it shooting heroin or snorting cocaine. Sketchy characters drift in and out, and while they are most likely to leave you alone, it’s really not a scene you would want to be around in case something goes wrong.
The Buffalo and Erie County Public Library seems to have changed quite a bit in my absence – the children’s section is a lot smaller, the movie and music sections were condensed and consolidated, the computer policies changed, and the second floor is basically nonexistent – but it’s still around for people with reading habits. Or the many people who would be best off developing them.