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OPINION: Philanthropists needed amidst library controversy

The Brooklyn Heights branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. Eagle file photo

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Who built New York City’s library branches? One of the first groups of libraries built in New York City, including Brooklyn, was funded by Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie, an industrialist who made most of his money in steel and railroads, funded more than 2,500 libraries throughout the country between 1883 and 1929. In Brooklyn alone, he built 21 libraries, one of which, the Carroll Gardens branch, I used to pass by weekly on my way to band practice.

Today, according to Wealth-X, a wealth-research firm, the New York metro area leads the nation in its population of people who have a net worth of $30 million or more. New York has 7,720 people worth at least $30 million. If you look at people who are “mere” millionaires, there are 667,200 in the New York-New Jersey-Pennsylvania area. It’s a good bet that quite a few of these people live in Brooklyn.

What do these two topics, wealth and libraries, have in common? Well, as the paper has reported many, many times, the Brooklyn Public Library has agreed to a deal to a deal by which the building that houses both the Brooklyn Heights Branch and the Business Branch would be sold to a developer who would put up new condos. Part of the money would go toward establishing a new library for the Heights branch, almost certainly in smaller quarters. The Business Branch would go to the main library building at Grand Army Plaza, far from the business district itself.

When, at a public meeting, someone objected to this state of affairs, again as reported in this paper, a library official mentioned that to fix the dilapidated air conditioning system alone would cost about $3.5 million.

Once upon a time, there were philanthropists who funded physical, brick-and-mortar structures. Carnegie was one; John D. Rockefeller, who gave $80 million to the University of Chicago, was another. These philanthropists weren’t necessarily nice guys – John D. Rockefeller used all sorts of tactics, legal and illegal, to undermine his competitors in the oil business. Yet, they felt a need to leave a legacy.

Of course, there are philanthropists today. But what do they do with their money? Many of them make a big show of funding “high culture” – the ballet, the opera, museums, and so forth. There is nothing wrong with giving money to museums. I myself have gone to museums. There’s nothing wrong with the opera—my grandmother loved the opera, and had a book describing almost every single opera, with photos (that book, published around 1910, would certainly be worth something today). But in the total scheme of things, funding schools, hospitals and libraries helps a lot more people.

With all the wealth there is in New York City, it’s extremely hard for me to believe that somewhere, in this city, there isn’t someone who is willing to kick in $3 million to fix the air conditioning system in the Heights library building and thus avert its shutdown.
And while we’re at it, why should corporations, foundations and wealthy individuals have to donate money ONLY to the overall Brooklyn Public Library system? Why should people not have the opportunity to donate money DIRECTLY to their local branch, or their favorite branch, or the branch they went to in their childhood? Let more decisions be made on the local, grass-roots basis.

April 22, 2013 - 1:15pm


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