EDITORIAL: Why lease a library?

WHAT DOES MICROSOFT’S decision to invest $1.7 billion in the Barnes & Noble Nook electronic book reader have to do with the Hudson Area Library’s new home? I admit it’s a stretch, but the deal does make me wonder just what kind of library the people of the city and the surrounding communities will need when, possibly very soon, digital screens outnumber printed pages.

Library service is a timely topic because the Hudson Area Library Board of Trustees has decided the library should get out of its historic but dilapidated former alms house at 400 State Street and move a whole block east to another historic, somewhat less dilapidated building called The Armory. After railing for years that the job of public libraries is to provide library service, not preserve old buildings, this move looked to me like the library board was trading one financial black hole for another.

But the plans for the move that have emerged so far put the board’s decision in a new light. They also adds another dimension to the role T. Eric Galloway is playing in reshaping the City of Hudson.

Mr. Galloway, a lawyer and developer who owns or controls roughly 2% of the taxable properties in the city, has purchased the stone building where the library is currently housed. He plans to renovate the building and use it for the offices of his non-profit Galvan Initiatives Foundation. Last year, when the sale of the library was announced, the library board had lined up a space it could use temporarily until the board could raise the money to build a new library. It was a change long overdue.

Then the deal for the new space fell through and it looked like the library might have to set up its shelves under a tent until Mr. Galloway offered another option. It just so happened that the only castle within city limits–turret and all–the comic opera, gilded-age, penitentiary-style brick fortress at the corner of 5th and State streets, was available. Mr. Galloway owns that building too, through Galvan Partners, LLC.

The library board isn’t going to purchase this white elephant. Instead Mr. Galloway or his partnership or his foundation will own the building and lease part of it to the library at a nominal fee for 30 years. He also plans to use some parts of the building for as yet unspecified other purposes.
As a practical matter, this county has so few options for public transportation, the Hudson Area Library needs to remain centrally located in the city or it will become irrelevant. The quirky architecture that makes the Armory a local landmark could help boost library traffic, but that’s not nearly as important as the central location of this building and the expectation that it will be properly maintained as a safe, comfortable and efficient space… by a private individual and not all city taxpayers. Meeting those standards requires that Mr. Galloway holds up his end of the bargain to renovate the place and keep it well maintained. And while the library will never be the greenest building around, kids can easily imagine the heat of a dragon’s breath on its battlements.

As for the Microsoft/Nook angle, I see that deal as another reminder of how fast the world of information is changing and a strong argument for leasing a public library building rather than owning one. The digital revolution sweeping the publishing industry will change what libraries do too. Libraries are public places where people gather who don’t necessarily have anything in common. Try planning for that. About all you can predict is that a libraries probably won’t need as many shelves for books as they have now.

The deal for the Armory does raise the question of whether Mr. Galloway will seek to have the building removed from the city’s tax rolls, a move that would further erode the tax base. That’s a serious concern for the common Council and mayor. So is the need for a library. If it takes a tax exemption to make this move possible, the city should grant it or find the library a plausible alternative space.
The library’s move breaks with the practices of the past, which have constrained library service to the public. Leasing space for a new library is show of confidence that the library will be able to adapt and thrive instead of remaining a captive of history.

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