Cortelyou Library
Cortelyou Library (photo by Mary Bakija)

The first thing you see when you enter the Cortelyou Library is the information desk. A librarian sits there, and if you make eye contact, she’ll smile and say hello. Many of those who entered on the day I was there, both children and adults, knew her. “I passed!” reported one teen, and the librarian gave the thumbs-up sign, while telling another, “I haven’t seen you in a while!” Other patrons either passed the desk quietly, or stopped with specific questions. It was a cool fall day, around the time the elementary school next door and the middle school down the street had ended classes for the day, and the librarian was constantly fielding questions.

“How does she get a library card?” one guardian asked, nudging the girl at her side, before accepting a form to fill out.

“When is storytime?” another guardian asked, in a thick Russian accent. The bilingual storytime wasn’t for a little while, so the family of five headed out, saying they’d return.

“Where’s the bathroom?” asked another guardian, shepherding her child in the direction the librarian pointed.

Where To Checkout?

Directly to the left upon entering is another highly used area: the self-checkout machines. People who came in knowing which book they wanted walked right up to one to use it to search. Others checked out after browsing a bit, or after picking up their book from the holds shelf nearby. Some popped in, renewed, popped out. A class of about a dozen pre-K aged children stood in line to check out books with their teacher at one of the self-checkout kiosks. The teacher had a bag full of the kids’ library cards and helped each child check out one or two picture books, which went fairly smoothly. (Putting coats back on didn’t go quite as well. The “flipping method” requires some finesse and experience, it seems. And then Max forgot his hat.) The teacher reminded the kids: “Keep the paper slip with the book, because that tells you when you have to bring it back.”

It’s interesting to see the information desk and the self-checkout stations so close to each other. It’s common to every branch of the Brooklyn Public Library that I’ve visited, and I have seen how useful it can be. During this observation, the librarian at the info desk spent several minutes recommending a book comparable to Nathan Hale’s series to a mother and her son, at which point a few people wanted to check out books. Rather than wait, they saw the self-checkout kiosks were available, and they used those. However, people also used them when no patrons were at the info desk. It was a little sad to see people actively avoiding that human interaction; the alternative view, of course, is that they might find self checkout to be more efficient, faster, or even a more private way to access information.

Where To Sit?

A nice piece of design in this branch is that there are two separate areas with computers: one for adults, and one for children in the children’s area. Several kids coming in after school raced to the computers, working together on projects and playing games. Adults were also busy at their computers — the entire time I was at the library, every computer in the adult section was occupied, and patrons were often waiting their turn for a computer to become available. Because both computer sections are surrounded by bookshelves, as patrons young and old waited for a chance to use a computer, they also interacted with the physical collection, browsing titles and picking up books.

The most apparent constraint of this branch is its small size. Though this was a peak time for the branch, it’s representative of the weekday after-school crowd. According to the library system’s BrooklynStat service, in fiscal year 2018, the branch recorded 198,901 visits, making it the fifth most popular branch in the system. Taking into account Sundays and holidays, the library was open about 300 days during the year, so that’s an average of about 663 people that visited this branch each day. And, at least in its busy times, you can really feel that. It’s bustling and vibrant, warm and welcoming, convivial and social, and incredibly kid-friendly. By 3:30pm the day I visited, every chair was occupied, and additional children dashed around tables or sat on the floor. The noise had increased — in addition to the general chatter and energy of the crowd, three infants wailed unconsolably for 20 minutes straight — and the space was more comparable to a school cafeteria than to what most people imagine a library to be.

How To Improve

The wide, single-story building was built in 1983. The library doesn’t have stats available online that date back to that time, but we can see some change in the neighborhood by looking at census data. According to the Department of City Planning, the population of Community District 14, where the Cortleyou Library is located, was 143,859 in 1980. By 2010, the population had grown by nearly 17,000 people. The library may have filled the neighborhood needs effectively in the ’80s, but the neighborhood has grown, and perhaps it’s time for the library to grow, as well.

If I were to improve the library in just one way, to accommodate the demand and the various users, I think separate, walled sections would be helpful. During my observation, several adults entered the library, looked around for a seat, observed the hectic atmosphere, and then turned around and left, perhaps to sit in one of the several coffeeshops on Cortelyou Road instead. If the spaces for children and for adults were separated, it would impact the energy and sociability of the library — I for one wouldn’t have made a new kindergartener friend, who shared facts from the non-fiction book she’d just read about glass. But it would be nice to have a dedicated, quieter space, where adults (and children) could enjoy a bit of peace. I’d add a few comfortable chairs in there, too, as all those currently in the library are firm plastic seats at tables.

Public Service

Though not exactly the “street-level bureaucrats” described by Michael Lipsky in his paper Toward a Theory of Street-Level Bureaucracy (because the Brooklyn Public Library is not run by the government, but is a nonprofit organization that receives funds from a number of sources, which does include local, state, and federal governments), Lipsky’s descriptions felt like they’d come alive here in some ways. Librarians represent a larger organization, and certainly some people who don’t know exactly where the library’s funding comes from may not distinguish the library from a government agency. And as shown above, librarians interact with citizens extensively.

“The potential impact on citizens with whom [a street-level bureaucrat] deals is fairly extensive,” Lipsky wrote. At the library, that couldn’t be more true. I saw it in action, quite positively, throughout the afternoon, as librarians and support staff assisted patrons with all sorts of requests, tirelessly fielding repeated, similar questions without irritation.

The physical and psychological threats Lipsky outlines are also a possibility at the library. There is certainly a psychic toll on everyone working, from the librarian who was trying to settle down a man who was yelling, to the security guard who reminded a girl about some of the responsibilities she has for her younger brother, to the volunteer who shelved books near the hysterical infants. And every single one of them worked with patience. It’s exhausting to be “on” like that all the time. But for the right person, like the librarian I saw at work that day, and with the right training and support, it might be easier to see it not as exhausting, but rather as rewarding.

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