Originally appeared in GET NJ
By T. Pike
Established in the late 19th century, the Jersey City Free Public Library, like the rest of the city, seemed to have nothing but the brightest of futures ahead of it. The landmark building on Jersey Avenue, designed by the architects Brite and Bacon (Henry Bacon conceived the plan for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.), opened for the citizens in January 1901.
During the regime of Mayor Frank Hague (1917-1947), who is thought of today as one of the crafters of machine politics, the Jersey City Library system flourished. Additions to the Main Library were built along the entire east side of the structure, requiring acquisitions of adjoining properties on two streets. New buildings of architectural significance were added for various satellite branches. Indeed, at the 1917 opening of one, the Hudson City Branch, Mayor Hague himself saw fit to count the new library along with a recently finished firehouse as very visible symbols of his success.
Obviously Jersey City residents did not think of a library as a luxury or a meeting place for some elite, but rather as a basic urban necessity. During the depression, all branches remained open with no reduction in hours. In 1942 a local newspaper boasted that the Jersey City Library system was one of the nation’s finest. The same article remarked on the vast numbers of books in the collection.
Throughout Jersey City, Hague’s taking care of himself was tolerated, if not applauded, to the same degree that he took care of the people of Jersey City. The sophisticated citizens would have seen a well-developed library as a requirement for the brave new industrial world. For the poor immigrants, learning would have literally been sacred for quite likely the only educated person they ever would have known would have been their clergyman.
John V. Kenny destroyed the Hague political machine with one of his own devising.
The era of J.V. Kenny (1949-1971) was for most of Jersey City one of unparalleled corruption and rapacity. Oddly enough, the Library was to a large degree an exception to this feeding-frenzy. The corner stone of the newest branch (Five Corners) is dated 1962 - the height of Kenny’s power. Through the sixties, this branch was a state-of-the-art audio-visual facility. For the entire system, both the book collection and the physical plant were well maintained.
Perhaps, cynically, since the Library was a patronage pasture, this was just another way for the political organization to profit at the public’s expense. But maybe even these politicians hesitated to appear to be directly robbing children and senior citizens.
In 1971, J.V. Kenny’s reign came to an abrupt end through a staggering series of federal convictions. This was not the end of Jersey City’s problems. Structural woes, common to all of America’s cities, continued to set in. Industry died. The financially secure moved to the suburbs. The disadvantaged were left with rotting ghettos and subsistence welfare. Property prices plummeted.
Luckily, the Library was to a large extent immune from this. Though the buildings were beginning to show signs of wear from age, the facilities still were managed properly and well staffed.
Paradoxically, it was during the eighties that the Library was sabotaged and sent into a downward spiral. Then Mayor Anthony Cucci’s idea of helping the poor was to suffocate anything that touched on education or progress. This made the Library a prime target. Eighty-four staff positions were cut and funding was slashed. Through a fabricated controversy concerning books discarded during routine maintenance, the Library’s management was forced out. Plans for automation and modernization were trashed. Just as in the rest of city-government, Cucci padded the Library management with incompetent cronies.
And this turned out to be only the first act of the play. Even after the citizens, in disgust, voted out Anthony Cucci, the Library’s weak Director remained. The next mayor, Gerald McCann attempted to fire the Director, but the court’s understanding of civil service rules put him back in the Director’s office.
McCann wound up with other, more personal, legal woes. Convicted in federal court of charges connected with taking money from a Florida savings and loan, McCann was removed from Office and sent to jail.
As part of a sweeping revitalization of city government, the new mayor, Bret Schundler, the first Republican mayor of Jersey City in seventy-five years, encouraged the Library Board to more directly oversee the Director’s actions -- or, more precisely, inactions.
This did not help. The director refused to obey the board. Though well funded, services were not being delivered. Through lack of maintenance, facilities crumbled; instead of being repaired, they were deteriorating.
The basic measure of library efficiency is to divide the budget by the books lent. The state average is $5 -- Jersey City was spending $24! In addition, it actually was costing the taxpayers an additional $9 just to prepare each book for the shelves. And this great expense did not mean any great speed. Months and sometimes over a year elapsed between the purchase of a book and its debut on the shelves.
And, towards the end of this drama, due to a dispute between the Director and staff, books were not being purchased at all
Even though providing young people with books is the institution’s most important function, here the Library again failed. Other New Jersey libraries were lending books to children at a rate two to five time greater than Jersey City. Most of the branches did not have a children’s librarian.
And, above and beyond everything else, the lack of a computerization of the card catalogue put the Library about twenty years behind current technology.
The situation was made glaringly public through an investigation conducted by Mayor Schundler’s Management Review group. The study found that a cumbersome management system was the key defect in the operation. Inadequacies at the management level worsened a second tier of deficiencies in the maintenance, automation and technical services operations as well as in the management of the Library’s collection. A local newspaper published the demand that the Director resign, which he ignored. The Assistant Director did step down.
The constantly recurring problem was the Director’s refusal to hold employees accountable. With no dire consequences to be avoided, many stopped working hard. The conscientious would somehow try to keep anarchy at bay, but, either from exhaustion or frustration, would be doomed to failure.
The solution was right before everyone’s eyes. It could be seen anywhere one looked -- at a corner candy store, a stock market, a gas station, or a great factory -- the accountability of the market place. Mayor Schundler decided to outsource the Library’s management to a private vendor.
A private vendor would have a clear and compelling reason to properly manage the City’s library resources and to supervise the employees; if they didn’t, their contract would not be renewed.
A company was located,
Library Systems and Services, Inc. (LSSI) that had a good record in managing the Library of Riverside, California.
A hue and cry went up from a rag-tag coalition of ranters and ravers. A common chord was that the private management of the Library would somehow “erode the tradition of the hometown public library directing its own affairs for the intellectual benefit of its community.” It was never discussed exactly what community traditions were reflected by dirty restrooms, collapsing buildings, leaking roofs, and broken windows.
Some were confused into thinking that the City was selling the Library, not just putting the management in the hands of a private contractor.
The Library Director even managed to get quoted in the “New York Times” explaining that all the Library’s troubles were due to interference from “meddlers.”
The AFSCME union contended that the outsourcing of management amounted to a “costly, union-busting privatization scheme” and that many union members would lose jobs. This same union orchestrated a “lunch time” protest that actually lasted a good chunk of the workday. One regular patron of the Main Library asked if the demonstrators were out-of-town union organizers. He was surprised to hear that they were Library employees, for he had never observed any of them working!
AFSCME fought the outsourcing in court. A judge associated with the current county Democratic machine boss revoked the Library Board’s contract with LSSI with a vague reference to the state’s open meetings law. Even when directly requested by the Library Board’s lawyer, the judge refused to provide a single example of improper behavior.
In response, the Library Board published a request for bid on the management of the Library. This time, the RFB was posted on the City’s Web Site. Now no judge could claim that the proceedings were conducted in secret.
In addition the Library Board began to aggressively address the Director’s inertia. He was stripped of all duties. These responsibilities were assumed by the Library’s Business Director.
Library Systems and Services quickly demonstrated that Mayor Schundler had charted the correct course.
Custodial and maintenance services for the whole system improved immediately, visibly, and dramatically. The entire interior and exterior of the Main Library got a good scrubbing and the lobby received a long overdue coat of paint. Lights were installed. Long empty display cases now publicize Library activities and community events.
A host of improved managerial tools and techniques have acted as yeast in transforming the institution. LSSI introduced strategies and procedures for immediate problem resolution. Staff at all levels began to meet on a regular schedule. Numbered memoranda and internal e-mail are now speedy messengers enabling efficient coordination. Additionally, because of its expertise and sophistication, Library Systems and Services is in a better position to negotiate with suppliers. In one instance alone, the taxpayers saved $18,000 dollars.
Conditions have improved for Library employees as well. The Library workers gained access to a wide spectrum of training resources. The new management encouraged Library employees to join professional associations and to attend conferences.
There were no massive layoffs, rightsizing, or downsizing. The AFSCME Union’s predictions of a slaughter of the innocents were based on nothing but misunderstandings -- if not outright lies. Employee morale and productivity have never been higher.
The Library’s dark age of isolation from the community came to an end. A telephone survey determined the resident’s needs. Neighborhood and block associations, the City Council, schools, and civic organizations now always know what’s happening at the Library. The media is kept abreast of Library events through a program of press releases. Staff go to the schools to explain programs directly to the kids. They have spoken with over 12,000 of Jersey City’s young people in 23 schools! An outreach program serves students unable to come to a library. Nor have the disabled have not been forgotten; the Library is coming into compliance with the ADA.
You can see the changes the moment you enter a library. In the Main Branch, an information desk was moved to the first floor. Questions are answered literally as soon as people walk through the door.
Security officers ensure that each and every branch is a source of neighborhood pride. Parents no longer have to worry about allowing their children to go to the library!
The twenty-first century is changing the Jersey City Library. A wide area computer network and a system of local area networks have been installed. Nearly the entire collection is barcoded -- some 80,000 volumes to date. Book checkout soon will be completely automated. Through the Jersey City Library Web Site, patrons can browse the collection online.
The Library is also being physically repaired. Two branches were quickly and completely refurbished. These libraries reopened with new children’s book collections that replaced the dirty and tattered volumes.
As fate would have it, because of structural decay caused by years of neglect, one branch needed to be gutted and rebuilt. Mayor Schundler made over a $1 million dollars available for this investment. The restoration and modernization will include new floors, walls, ceilings and bathrooms; rugs and lighting; furniture; exterior signs and lighting; new meeting rooms and reading areas; and elevator service with complete handicap accessibility
This is the Hudson City Branch that was opened by Frank Hague in 1917. The building that marked the start of the Library’s -- and Jersey City’s -- first great era of growth.