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City Service Review: Buffalo and Erie County Public Library

City Service Review: Buffalo and Erie County Public Library

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.

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Buildings in Buffalo that Look Like they Could be Found in Star Wars

Buildings in Buffalo that Look Like they Could be Found in Star Wars

Listening to any architecture expert yakking incessantly about the marvels of architecture in the city of Buffalo, New York, one can almost hear the voice of Ted Mosby from How I Met Your Mother: “Fun fact! Did you know Buffalo is one of only two cities in the United States to feature architecture from Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, HH Richardson, and Frederick Law Olmsted? The only other American city with that combination is Chicago!” And, ’tis true. Very few other cities can boast the kinds of architectural heritage contained within the Buffalo city limits.

If you were to drive down the thruway above downtown Buffalo taking the occasional cursory glance over to see what you’re missing, your primary reflex would be a look of awe. Unfortunately, it’s not a good kind of awe. The later buildings of Buffalo have a way of standing well above the good architecture, and those later buildings seem to have all been built at a time when Buffalo city planners were obsessed with the 50’s and 60’s version of what the future would look like. The result is a series of prominent monstrosities whose presence gives Buffalo one hell of a butt-ugly skyline. Some of the buildings look like they can be spotted as set decoration in the background of the Star Wars movies. Now, I’m one of the biggest Star Wars fans you’ll ever meet. Star Wars is famous, beloved, and popular for many reasons, but its displays of futuristic buildings is definitely not one of them.

Main Place Mall
To paraphrase Douglas Adams, if you were to take the Death Star, crush it into a rectangular shape, and plop it right down into the middle of downtown Buffalo, you would be wasting your time, because it looks very much as if someone has already done so. The Death Star analogy is appropriate because of what was ripped up in order to make room for Main Place Mall: Several blocks of handsome Victorian buildings as well as the stunning Erie County Savings Bank. It was one of many projects done in the name of urban renewal in 1969, in a misguided attempt to bring people back to shop downtown instead of in the suburban strip malls. Now instead of a powerful testament to the city’s heritage, there’s just a hulking, black, horizontal slab. The most depressing aspect of it, though, is not what’s on the outside, but what’s on the inside: Pretty much nothing. Main Place Mall may be the most useless shopping mall you’ve ever seen. There are two floors. The first floor has a decent pizzeria and good coffee shop, but mostly there’s a Key Bank, a dollar store, an optometrist, a newsstand…. And that’s literally about it, them and a few others. The second floor has nothing but a food court for the people who work downtown. There’s literally more space in Main Place Mall for rent than there is being rented.

Main Place Tower
This is part of Main Place Mall. Take the description above and make it vertical, and you’ve got it. I can’t be the only one who thinks the city is missing out on a golden tourist opportunity by not renaming this building the Galactic Empire Stock Exchange Building.

Buffalo Convention Center
The Convention Center is a remainder of the Brutalist style of architecture, which flourished from the 50’s to the 70’s. One of the identifying marks of the Brutalist style is the look of a concrete prison. From the outside, the Buffalo Convention Center looks like a Rebel Alliance base on a lucid world like Yavin or Endor. In fact, it’s easy to look at the Convention Center and see it standing in for the brief shot of the Alliance base on Yavin in Episode IV, and it’s even easier to picture the Millennium Falcon launching from it. A former indie rag in Buffalo, the Buffalo Beast, actually made a list about the worst things in downtown Buffalo. It named the convention center and transfixed a photoshopped picture with the Falcon in front of the Convention Center, going on to accuse it of choking off the roads to other streets. It raised the question, at least to me, of just how much damage it could actually do, since it’s basically right across the street from Main Place Mall.

Buffalo City Court Building
Wait a minute, are you sure this is a courthouse and not the actual prison? That’s exactly what it looks like. It’s another example of Brutalist architecture, and it was built with minimal windows, so for the better because judges might want to look out the windows instead of doing their jobs. Seriously, that’s the reasoning that came into play while building this thing. I know the Empire usually likes to avoid the mess of prisons and dispose of people by shipping them off to the mines of Kessel, but this place would make a fine prison, or a great Sith Palace, or a small cottage befitting of the Hutt clan.

One HSBC Center
This one might be stretching the Star Wars theme a little bit, but anyone who has ever seen this place knows that if the Yavin Temple ever needed a parking garage, this sucker is it. The tallest and most prominent building on the Buffalo skyline is easily the city’s biggest architectural blight, and a mistake of such epic proportions that the skyline would become about 40 percent prettier upon its razing. In the Star Wars universe, it could also possibly be used as a good slum building on Coruscant. Being as how the One HSBC Center is the butt-ugliest building on Earth, maybe we could also count the fact that, when I’m crowned Galactic Emperor, my first act will be to have this thing demolished by statement – a nice hailstorm from TIE Fighters, providing, of course, that the tower isn’t actually capable of withstanding a full fighter assault. From the looks of the place, that’s entirely possible.

One M&T Plaza
This building doesn’t fit in with the classic Buffalo motif, but then again, neither do any of the other buildings on this list. One M&T Plaza, though, actually doesn’t look bad. It was the brainchild of architect Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of the original World Trade Towers. The design similarities include the long, slender windows and the way the building is handsomely capped off on the top. It will be a fitting place to start if the Empire ever expands to the point which requires the inevitable Earth Empire College to open a Buffalo chapter.

Buffalo and Erie County Public Library
It’s not in my nature to decry libraries, but the Central Branch looks like the architect was trying to mock up a nice fortress designed for the Imperials before deciding to redesign the ends to show support for the Rebels.

Book Borrowing

I’ve come to the theory that you can’t appreciate the quality of a good public library system until you find yourself using a system that’s entirely different. I don’t plan to do a whole lot of complaining about the systems in either Chicago or Buffalo. Both of them are very good at what they do, but it can be quite a shock to see just how the concept of borrowing books can differ from one place to another.

Chicago’s system is more expansive than Buffalo’s. But this, of course, can easily be expected. Chicago is the third largest city in the United States, and Buffalo probably hovers around number 60 or so. So it’s a given that Chicago’s system is going to have more books and more copies of any given book as well. Chicago’s system has a bit more of pretty much everything; the main library branches in downtown Buffalo and the Chicago Loop are respectively two stories and ten stories. The Chicago system has more computers, a media room for kids, and a nice mini-theater where I once lucked out enough to hear author John Updike speak.

The Buffalo system never was good about holding events, but it does contain a nice coffee shop.

Unfortunately, Chicago has so many people that problems have sprung up from the library system not being quite successful enough. Chicago’s main branch has well over 100 computers, all of which will be occupied unless you show up whenever the library opens every day. If you try to get a computer on a Sunday, you may be stuck waiting upwards of two hours on a day when the library is open for only about five hours. Although, with the wide selection of books available, you’ll have plenty to read while waiting for your turn on the computer. If you miss your session, it still counts towards the two hourlong sessions per day the system allows you, and if you don’t accomplish everything you need to in a single session, you’re not going to be allowed any extra time to finish. Even if you got extra time, it wouldn’t matter because there’s still going to be someone waiting in line behind you anyway. The Buffalo system has less than 100 computers, but there is very rarely a crowd beating you down for a turn on the computers either. When your hour is up, it’s easy to go up to the help desk and ask for a few extra minutes.

This contrast manifests itself even further if you try to get onto a waiting list for a reserved book. If a book is popular, you can still get it delivered to the local branch in Buffalo within about two weeks, tops. In Chicago, I don’t think I’ve ever waited less than a month. I order The Beatles’ Revolver album and waited six months. When I received word that I had s reserved item waiting for me, I didn’t actually know what it was, as I had not reserved anything in awhile and forgotten I even ordered Revolver in the first place. I assumed after the first few months that my name was removed from the list for some reason and accepted the fact that I would never see it. But it is quite a testament to how good the Chicago system is that they were so determined to get me that copy of Revolver, even if I forgot about it.

Chicago’s main branch is an impressive brick building with statue owls perched on the roof, while Buffalo’s gets lost in the shuffle of faceless office buildings. But Buffalo’s smaller, localized branches make up for what the downtown branch lacks. Buffalo’s localized branches look like they were all built from the ground up with the sole purpose of holding books in mind. They feature open spaces and walls lined with books, with plenty of room to move around. Chicago’s local branches are crammed with equipment, with the people basically in the way. Some of the local branches in Chicago are little more than storefront businesses which happen to lend books.

The way the systems handle fines is where the Buffalo system really establishes itself as the front runner. The Buffalo system understands poverty and transportation problems and is more than willing to accommodate and forgive. When I first left Buffalo, library patrons were allowed access to their accounts even with fines on their cards, as long as those fines didn’t exceed five dollars. Since leaving, the system has apparently allowed people to incur fines of up to ten dollars. Once the limit is maxed out, your account is suspended, which means you can’t borrow anything; you’re still allowed to use the computers.

Chicago’s system should understand poverty, but it holds a much better grasp of gangster strongarming. You are simply not allowed to be late in returning any of your items. If you are, your account is cancelled until your fines are completely cleared, and in Chicago an account suspension means you can’t use any of the available services, not even the computers.