The long and noble history of free-lending libraries has come to a screeching halt under the aegis of the current board of trustees of the Great Neck Library. If the Library of Congress had done what this board has done, the nation would march on Washington.
Sixteen years ago, I coined the word bibliosanctum in a column I wrote for The New York Times Long Island section about our Great Neck Library. I described the library as an uncommon locale. Neither the word nor the description fit the shell of a library that remains now that the books are gone.
During the final stages of the Main Library renovation, 500 cartons of books were tucked away in the back room of the Parkville branch, and another 400 to 500 were downstairs in the cage at Main. At an average of 30 books per carton, the low estimate on this is 27,000 volumes, of which the board intended to discard more than half. These books, in fine condition, had been in storage for two years and were destined for the library shelves when Main reopened after renovation. This number does not include the more than 125,000 books the library threw away and had carted away without our knowledge and without our permission since 2014.
In the design of the new library, patrons have an unobstructed view of Udall’s Pond. To achieve this, there are fewer stacks and many of the shelf units are 3-feet rather than 7-feet high, cutting in half the number of shelves, where we used to run our eyes, and our finger, along a row of books and select our reading. Our library’s internal wealth apparently lost a competition with the scenery.
The books put in storage, we were told, would outrun the available shelves. Therefore, by board directive, a last-minute and secret scramble to discard books was forced upon a library staff that had opposed what we now recognize as the purposeful and continued annihilation of our Great Neck Library’s core. The librarians knew what is dawning on the rest of us: The discarding has stripped our library collection of its historic value, throwing out centuries of wisdom and creativity.
This most recent abandonment of the books, I will call it discard number 4, differs markedly from the previous discards. These books were still in storage when librarians were instructed to work from printouts, from lists rather than the actual books. Sight unseen, each volume received a D, K or B (Discard, Keep at Main, Send to Branches). The librarians and the technical services staff (who process books in and out of the library), like a chain gang before a whip, rushed to do the director’s bidding in the days preceding the reopening of the building.
The result of this blindness sentenced books signed by authors to be sent to the Salvation Army or Big Brothers, Big Sisters, institutions whose worthy purpose does not include a reverence for books. Nor do they distribute books to the underprivileged. It is not their fault we discarded first editions and illuminated manuscripts. It is not their fault when our books ended up in a dumpster.
The discarding began in early 2014, three years ago, long before the residents voted in October 2014 to approve the $10.4 million renovation bond.
Those earlier massive discards were accomplished by setting goals in the form of percentages: Each librarian was to eliminate 40 percent from his or her area of the library. Then, during the two years Main was closed, the board demanded an additional culling at the three branches, again measured by a target percentage.
To weed a library’s collection typically means to seek out and pluck out books whose pages are torn and marred, as well as volumes whose information is both out of date and of no historical value. This is done on a regular basis.
Libraries manicure their lawn of books. They weed. Yet during 2014, 2015 and 2016, the word “weed” became misused and abused at our library. It became shorthand for the unthinkable—
replacing the lawn with concrete.
When the library was “weeding” back in 2014, the community was kept in the dark. By happenstance, I learned of it: An organization that intended to donate our discarded library books overseas changed its mind when faced with prohibitive shipping costs. I was asked to find a suitable home for 16 cartons of books. Having learned that books were being “weeded,” I ferried further discards to a nursery school, a church, a synagogue. I was the proverbial blind man with the elephant, feeling the trunk but unable to see the rest of the beast. Then, the library closed.
This past fall, I received a phone call from a fellow resident telling me it was imperative that I attend a library Relocation Committee meeting on Monday, Oct. 18. I went. At the meeting, a piece of paper with a library calendar was handed out. When I saw the word “weeding,” I protested any further loss of books, but the board wanted the building to be pristine for the gala and the cartons of books were in the way.
Faced with the demise of my bibliosanctum, I said, “I’ll take the books.” A few trustees were amused and one asked, “Will you put the books on your front porch, Rebecca?” Another offered a grandmother’s homily about making promises one cannot keep. The following morning the new, young assistant director phoned me and said, “Mrs. Gilliar, we have 25 cartons ready for you to pick up.”
That day, the day after the relocation meeting, I had several options in mind. My preference would have been to store the books until they could be returned to the library under new management, but that seemed unworkable in a hurry.
I did not know I had assumed ownership of 10,000 to 12,000 books.
On Wednesday morning, Oct. 20, I pursued my first-choice option. I went to see Jason Marra, our superintendent of the Great Neck Park District. I asked his permission to give the books back to the community from Great Neck House, which served as our library until 1970.
Jason did not form a committee. He just said, “yes.” He said it would be a service to the community, and he comprehended the urgency. When the library director refused to help moving a ton of cartons from the center of the library to the front door or down to the rear door, saying she had a gala to prepare for, Jason provided a van, then a truck and a van, and a crew of three. The library director, for her part, treated us as if we were carters late to remove the garbage.
I assume the director would not empty the library on her own say-so but, at the same time, it is astonishing that a library director would violate the primary precept of her job: to protect the collection.
The destinations for the castoffs from storage were a matter of convenience to the director. Whoever would take a truckload first could have the books. The board was clearing out the clutter of books at Main in preparation for celebrating a building rather than what it holds. I saw mountains of cartons and the director’s unambiguous attitude. I witnessed frenzied “weeding.” The director had a rental truck full, intending to haul the stuff out of town. The head maintenance worker from the Park District negotiated with his opposite number on the library staff to let their truck go to the Great Neck House parking lot. It was unbelievably tense.
The Park District crew set up tables at Great Neck House and brought in the first 117 cartons. Over a period of days, we picked up nearly 400 cartons. They stacked cartons three and four high, 60 in two rows behind the tables. By day two, people who had come for books on day one returned to volunteer and offer ideas: separate fiction and nonfiction; set up a special area for authors of many different titles; have someone fetch bags from the supermarket daily; and set apart paperback fiction, computer books, college advisories, short stories, large type and foreign language books. All day, every day, as books departed, we put a fresh supply on the tables from the boxes underneath.
Jason came to Great Neck House the first day and stood with me eyeing the inundation of books. He is, after all, a person whose specialties are parks and recreation, so the quantity of books came as a visual shock. He said, “What if no one comes for the books.” I answered, “The thought never crossed my mind. I’m more concerned that some people will bring shopping bags and leave too little for others.”
In first three weeks, residents took home about 7,000 books. One woman said she had been on a waiting list for a book for months at the library and she finally has it—she found it on one of the tables at Great Neck House. Residents came and browsed. They looked for favorite authors and exclaimed when they found a book to their liking. Some people researched authors and book titles on their phones.
With the support of the Great Neck Park District, I was able to give the books to the community that paid for them. It was an imperfect solution, and one that is bittersweet, but the alternative, the silencing of the books, had been averted.
I submitted a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request to the library on Friday, Oct. 14, 2016, asking for 12 numbers that will define how many we lost, but not how much. A response under New York State law is overdue, even though the numbers are in the library computer, a part of regular record-keeping. I wrote to the board about this. No response.
Thousands of books have found new homes, including books in Russian, Chinese, Korean, Yiddish, Hebrew and Spanish. But many books are irreplaceable. Residents have asked me if the library board can be impeached. They have asked if the library board and the library director are financially liable for throwing away what our library owned. I think those are the wrong questions.
The absence of the collection bears witness to the purge of much we held dear at our library. A dumpster in 2011 took our periodical reservoir. In 2014, four dumpsters were filled and taken away. Trucks came and went and we never knew. Behind our back and without soliciting our opinion or our consent, the board designed a library emptied of significance and meaning.
—Rebecca Rosenblatt Gilliar