A Tale of Two Libraries

The Washington Heights' Library reopened after extensive renovation. Patrons of East Harlem's Aguilar Library say their facility's needs remain unmet.

The Washington Heights’ Library reopened after extensive renovation. Patrons of East Harlem’s Aguilar Library say their facility’s needs remain unmet. Photo: The New York Public Library

This article originally contained a misquote in the final sentence. The quote has been corrected. NY City Lens regrets the error.

Not all libraries are created equal, even libraries in the same borough of the same city. The Aguilar Library in East Harlem and the Washington Heights Library sit a mere four miles apart in northern Manhattan. Both are mainstays of their community and proud neighborhood establishments. But the similarities end there.

Step inside either building, and the differences could not be more obvious. The Aguilar Library’s thin-looking collection of books is spread out on half-filled shelves, and patrons regularly wait for up to 45 minutes to use one of the library’s four PCs. Daylight struggles to enter the main floor through four large windows, giving the room a dank feeling. At the Washington Heights facility, the library’s bookshelves contain a myriad of books fill the shelves in neatly arranged rows. Sunlight spills through the beige window shades and illuminates the bright green couches and suave red chairs. The light fills the room so much that the institution’s ceiling lights are hardly noticeable. What is noticeable, however, is this: 50 computers waiting idly for patrons to use them.

Not surprisingly, some Aguilar Library patrons say the lack of services is an example of their community’s needs being disregarded by the city. To Jeffrey Coller, an Aguilar regular for over ten years, the library situation is yet another sad reminder of what he says happens in East Harlem all the time. “You see all these people?” he asks, gesturing to the sea of patrons occupying every seat available in the room. “They say, “Yeah, it’s coming, it’s coming.” It ain’t ever coming. They just forget about us, man.”

Call it the Tale of Two Libraries. Some residents blame their city council members, and even their longtime congressman, Charlie Rangel. NY City Lens contacted the office of City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose district includes East Harlem, for comment but did not receive a response. But Rangel vehemently disagrees with the residents’ assessment. His office sent a statement from the congressman: “Whether it’s East Harlem or West Harlem, Norwood or Inwood, I care deeply about all my constituents and do not allocate my attention or time in any part of the congressional district.”

Still, the differences between the libraries are stark. What the Aguilar Library lacks in book numbers, it more than makes up for in customer traffic. Patrons fill every corner of the seating areas, enough so that every chair is full at 2 p.m. on a Monday afternoon. Schoolchildren, adults, and senior citizens scour each aisle of the library in search of any place to sit, and while most are successful, the library consistently hovers near its seating capacity.

Stephanie Lopez, a teenager who visits Aguilar Library nearly every day after school, says she doesn’t understand the disconnect between the branch’s popularity and its relatively few services. “It’s always too crowded and you can never find two seats open together,” Lopez says. “If I come here with any of my friends, we have to sit scattered around or wait forever for a pair of seats to open up.” Lopez says poor spatial organization fuels the problem, pointing to sets of bookshelves that sit in the middle of the main floor, seizing room from what Lopez argues could be additional seating.

In addition to seating woes, the large crowds create additional nuisances, such as long lines to use the computers. As a result, patrons are only allowed 25 minutes on the computer. Once a day. And while the library offers 17 laptops as well, plus free Wi-Fi for anyone who brings a computer of their own, Lopez’s assessment of these alternatives is quick and decisive: “The laptops are way too slow. You’re better off waiting for a computer.” And the Wi-Fi? “It barely keeps up with my computer. And so many people are here, it slows it down to almost a stop. It’s frustrating.”

Four miles away at the Washington Heights Library, computer wait times are rarely an issue. As part of the library’s renovation, 25 PCs and 24 Apple Macs line the tables that sit on polished tan hardwood floors. Almost half of the computers are untouched at 2 p.m. in the afternoon.

Xavier Miller, 19, reclines in one of the library’s sleek wood-paneled chairs. He says he’s been anticipating the renovation and is thrilled by the facility’s improvements. “It’s crazier than I ever dreamed,” he said. “We used to have to wait like an hour to get a computer—now I don’t think I’ll ever have to wait.”

Though the differences in facilities are stark, Amy Geduldig, a representative for the New York Public Library, says the situation doesn’t represent one library being favored over another. Geduldig says most of each library’s funds come from individual city council members, who control a portion of each district’s funding. Each year, she says, the New York Public Library submits its requests to council members, who analyze them before determining how much of their portion of their budget is allocated to each library. Libraries do not always get top priority, of course, since each city council member’s budget has to address schools, hospitals, and many other public facilities. Geduldig says that as a result, libraries can have a difficult time securing funding for their needs. “There are obviously many projects to complete with the same budget,” Geduldig said.

Geduldig also points out that the Aguilar Library has recently undergone some improvements, including an upgrade of the existing PCs and an addition of Wi-Fi servers to improve wireless Internet reliability and meet the growing demand. Further upgrades, Geduldig says, are a New York Public Library system priority, but also require the cooperation of East Harlem city council leaders.

“We certainly don’t want anyone waiting for a computer for twice as much time as they can use it,” Geduldig says. “But we need the help of city council members to make it happen.”