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Imagine finding a lost trove of 25,000 negatives documenting life in Brooklyn a quarter century ago. They were produced for a newspaper, beloved in the community for its honest and detailed reporting - and reviled by some for the same reasons - that published for five years, and exists only in the memories of long-time Brooklynites.
It was called the Prospect Press, and it lived a short but illustrious life from 1982 to 1987. Although it was only distributed in the communities of Park Slope, Windsor Terrace, Kensington and Sunset Park, its impact reached beyond, as it reported on events and trends that affected Brooklyn as a whole. Mike Stein was the staff photographer for the five years that the newspaper was published, and the editor for much of that time as well.
To be on the front lines of that scene was to witness the transformation of some of Brooklyn’s most venerable communities. It was a time of upheaval, as a wave of gentrification swept over whole neighborhoods, altering them forever. As the staff photographer of the Prospect Press, Mike Stein was able to connect with many of the ethnic and social groups that had staked a claim to this part of the city and were being pushed out by changes that are still occurring today.
A selection of Mike Stein's photographs will be on display in the Brooklyn Collection from Wednesday June 17th to September 9th. There will be an opening reception in the Brooklyn Collection at 6 p.m. on the 17th, followed by a talk and slide presentation by the photographer.
Herb and Dorothy Trailer from Herb and Dorothy on Vimeo.
I stand a little bit prouder as a librarian of Brooklyn Public Library today, after seeing Megumi Sasaki's film about art collectors Dorothy and Herbert Vogel. Herb and Dorothy, a documentary about the lives of librarian Dorothy and postal clerk Herb and their shared passion for art, opened on Friday at Cinema Village on East 12th Street. For those who do not know their story, the Vogels, living in a one-bedroom rent-controlled apartment on the East side, used her salary to cover their expenses and his to buy art. They pursued minimalist and conceptual art with a single-mindedness that verged on obsession, creating ongoing relationships with artists at the beginning of their careers and collecting not one but many works by each. They had to be able to afford it, and it had to fit into their apartment--those were their only rules. As the years passed, the livable space in their apartment diminished. The film shows the couple mainly living around their kitchen table, with art encroaching on all sides. When in 1992 they donated their entire collection to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., it took five moving trucks to empty their apartment.
The Vogels never sold and rarely swapped a piece of art. They could have become millionaires, moved to the South of France, bought a yacht--but chose not to acquire any of the trappings of material success. Instead they worked on, Herb retiring first, and Dorothy putting in 30 years of public service with this library system. Above is, I think--and someone will surely correct me if I am wrong--a picture of Dorothy Vogel (right) in our Business Library.
Dorothy's reasoning behind the decision to give their collection to the nation expressed the purest of public service attitudes. They had earned the money to buy the art in public service, she said, and so it was only right that the art should go back into public ownership. The merit for the work is all theirs, but still, we can certainly claim that Dorothy's daily labor at Brooklyn Public Library provided the Vogels with what they needed to live, making the Library a kind of sleeping partner in the creation of the collection.
The art of the collector is to see value and beauty where others do not, and to amass in one place works that, in proximity to others of their kind, take on a contexts and meanings that make them greater en masse than alone--and so in that sense, the Vogels are themselves artists. Extraordinary as Dorothy Vogel is, I have worked here long enough to know that behind many a librarian's breast beats a heart just as committed as hers to the pursuit of a private passion.
Whilst doing research, I discovered an article from March 7, 1938 titled “Everybody Wants Library to Name Baby.” It seems that the Brooklyn Public Library received a “flood of requests for baby names” when the public discovered that the library had a whopping 560,000 names at its disposal. Soon the librarians spent oodles of time looking for names for a “whimsical baby boy with long ears and a penchant for the esthetic” or a “girl, coquettish, second choice of father who wanted boy named Jack.” To manage the demand, the chief librarian insisted that name-finding was only for Brooklynites.
Luckily for parents-to-be, things have changed since 1938. Especially since the 1980s, an abundance of baby name books populate library shelves. Name books are organized by ethnicity, meanings, popularity, celebrity names, and giant dictionaries of virtually every name in existence. A quick catalog search brings up a substantial list of books, providing an overwhelming number of possible names.
To simplify the search, online sites maintain lists of thousands of names (and can be a great way to waste time). The Social Security Administration is an easy way to find out that Jacob and Emma were the number one names for 2008, while John and Mary were number one in 1880. Another site, Baby Name Wizard, uses interactive graphics and maps to show changes in popularity over time and by geographic area. Searching for the name “Brooklyn” reveals that as a girl’s name, it has been steadily increasing in popularity; not so much in New York, but it's a giant hit in Utah. Go Brooklyn!
Library Budget Cuts -- A Recurring Theme
In the summer of 1995 New York City’s public libraries were hiring en masse. I’d just moved back to the city after having spent a few years in Texas earning my MLS. Mayor Giuliani, fixated on the quality-of-life issues that—until September 11, 2001—had defined his administration, held firm on the plan for six-day service across the city’s 200 branches. Finding work was easy. Everyone was happy. Just a few years earlier, in 1991, the city, in the depths of recession and long-mired in a crack-fueled crime epidemic, was a miserable place. I’d just finished college and couldn’t find any meaningful work. Without any money, my friends and I were still somehow getting mugged regularly. Libraries were suffering in ways not seen since the city’s near-bankruptcy days of 1970s. In February 1991, Brooklyn Public Library laid off 77 staff members in response to a 10% city budget cut. Most of its branches were open only two days per week. The Central Library, for the first time in its 50-year history, was forced to close on Mondays. In a symbolic protest, schoolchildren locked the library’s door with a chain of paper. A sympathetic op-ed piece in the New York Times articulated the problem nicely.
In the competition for clemency in budget cuts, the three library systems that serve New Yorkers with food for thought cannot quantify their contribution to improving urban life as other departments claim by fighting crime, extinguishing fire, coping with disease and appeasing hunger. The library is about quality of life, that tenuous attribute that makes the difference between the city as a random congregation of masses and the city as a civilized expression of society.
Although library service was decimated in the 1970s, two factors that contributed to some semblance of budget restoration included strong community advocacy and the Federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), part of President Carter’s economic stimulus program. According to the Times, Mayor Abraham Beame felt “intense pressure” to restore library funding: “One city official said that there has been no subject of greater concern to letter writers to the Mayor’s office than the library cutbacks. Mr. Beame is expected to seek re-election this year.” Ultimately, the Mayor committed 500 CETA positions to the city’s public libraries. However, no level of service cut compares to what Brooklyn Public Library endured during the depression of the 1930s. Hits to service hours and the collections were ongoing concerns for the Library’s chief librarian Milton J. Ferguson. “The day is not distant when the Brooklyn Public Library will be a library almost without books,” complained Ferguson in 1935.
The Library’s primary strategy to mitigate collections cuts was to limit borrowing privileges. For a short time in 1933 the number of books a patron could borrow was reduced from six to two. And what were people reading at the time? According to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “none of your light, frothy, sex-imbued fiction.” Instead, “practical books with which readers try to prepare themselves for their jobs—when they do get them.” Sound familiar? Less familiar sounding is the apparent popularity of books on Soviet theory: “Books on the Russian experiment are always called for.” The 1931 BPL budget called for 13% to be spent on collections, and a surprisingly high 8% on binding, which underscored the Library’s emphasis on preservation. Ferguson worried about the physical toll that double-digit increases in circulation were having on the collections. “The cross-word puzzle ‘lottery’ has been particularly hard on dictionaries and encyclopedias. Volumes made of iron could not pass the ordeal unbent." Further complicating matters for the Library at the time was the ongoing struggle to complete the new Central Library, which by 1936 had been sitting on Grand Army Plaza, only partially built, for a quarter century.
For his part, Mayor La Guardia was unsympathetic. He indicated his support for the new Central Library, but was clear that his priorities were elsewhere. “I hope the time will come, in my time—limited as it is—when we can complete the library.” But, referring to the competing need for new schools and hospitals, the Mayor told a delegation of library supporters, “the need is more critical.” Brooklynites would need to wait five more years for the eventual completion of their Central Library. In 2009 hard times for the Library once again appear imminent. Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed 22% cut would result in a staggering loss of service including the elimination of one in four full-time Library jobs. Emails in support of the work of the libraries have been flooding the Mayor and City Council. Help us make Mr. Bloomberg, also up for re-election, feel the pressure that Mayor Beame did in 1977. Contact your elected officials and echo the 1932 sentiments of Judge Edwin L. Garvin, President of BPL’s Board of Trustees:
Some persons may hold the view that the public library is a sort of luxury to be indulged in when money is easy, but to be put aside when the economic shoe pinches. The period of depression has proven quite the contrary. People have flocked to the libraries in greatly increased numbers, finding there recreation of the highest type at a minimum of cost, and also means of study in preparation for the old job which will surely some day again need its faithful servant, or for the new job which will give the individual a better opportunity to earn a living and to enjoy life.