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Reading Them the Riot Act

The children's section of Broward County's main library occupies a corner of the second floor, and it's here that Dr. Edward J. Reininger fought what's being called the Borders War.

Until that battle he could have been considered something of a literary flake, South Florida style. He is colorful, a bit strange, and difficult to be around, kind of like the icky stuff he says he finds growing in various places in the library.

Reininger, age 67, a retired physiology professor, sees himself as the James Bond of the bookshelves. He prowls carpet and corners -- Polaroid in hand -- searching for what he labels potentially harmful "exotic molds" caused by leaking water. He meets secretly with library spies, employees who provide intelligence about what he considers wasteful spending and misguided policies.

He's also a spoilsport.
When the Broward system won a "Library of the Year" award in 1996 -- and began calling itself "No. 1" -- Reininger investigated. He learned that Broward had been selected not from all the country's libraries but from only 42, and each had nominated itself. He also learned the award was based on outstanding "community outreach," not the quality of its book collections, so he promptly denounced library officials for spending money for new letterhead, signs, and computer logos touting the "No. 1" label.

"Hollow," Reininger cried of the award, "Self-glorification."
Kathleen Imhoff, the library system's assistant director, maintains her sense of humor about all this.

Of the icky stuff Reininger claims to find, Imhoff cracked with a chuckle, "You noticed he's now moved to calling it 'exotic molds.' We said, hey, we're the 'Library of the Year' -- we wouldn't have just ordinary mold."

Her sense of humor helps her cope, as Imhoff is the unofficial "Librarian in Charge of Dr. Reininger." When he prepares 41 questions for a meeting of the Library Advisory Board, she finds the answers, although not to his satisfaction. When a TV news crew videotapes his library "mold," she goes before the camera to call it a carpet "stain." Once she even invited him to lunch to discuss his concerns; he taped the lunch.

"Libraries have changed," Imhoff says philosophically. "That's one thing he and I agree on.... There is a basic difference between academic libraries and public libraries, whom they serve and how they serve them."

These days Imhoff is busy responding to the latest Reininger onslaught; he's trying to create a formal opposition organization, which he calls the Coalition for Better Leadership for Broward County Libraries (CBL 4 BCL). He also is chairman of Classic/Foreign Film Discussion Group Inc., which was spawned from his membership in another group, Intellectual Snobs.

"Save the library before there are only meeting rooms and administrators," Reininger thundered in a media release on the priority-setting session for CBL 4 BCL, which was held, ironically, in a meeting room of the main library.

Reininger's primary target these days is a cause library administrators hold dear: Reorganization (or as it is known by staffers, "Reorg"). Imhoff has less of a sense of humor about that subject, perhaps because Reininger appears to have won a tactical victory in what library historians may record as "The Borders War of the Second Floor," subtitled, "Where do we stick the children?"

The Borders War illustrates the debate between modern librarians and traditionalists like Reininger for, as the library newsletter, Main Reorg, declared in 1996, "Reorganization is going to change EVERYTHING."

What was going to change most was the library's second floor, where administrators planned to place audio- and videotapes, the fiction collection, the Popular Library of bestsellers, and a gift shop -- all creating, according to Main Reorg, a "Borders/Barnes & Noble atmosphere, with small programs offered and a lot more activity."

As main library assistant director Susan Stokes explained, "The services to be provided on the second floor will be those that have proven the most popular with the lunchtime crowd of people who want to find something in a hurry and get back to work or school. Patrons can dash in to find a video for after-work viewing, a bestseller 'to go,' or a last-minute birthday present."

One minor Reorg hurdle was that the prime second-floor space where the library planned to serve video-seeking adults is currently occupied by little children reading books. No problem, reasoned administrators, they decided to move the kids to the seventh floor.

To Reininger, however, floor seven is the library's Chernobyl. By press release he sounded the alarm: "Unsafe Children's Department Planned."

At issue is whether the main library, and specifically the seventh floor, are afflicted by "sick building syndrome." For at least a decade, library employees have complained that water seeping into the building creates mold and mildew, which in turn causes breathing difficulties, throat and eye irritations, and other health problems.

There is some substance to at least the mold allegation. In 1996, for example, a county occupational-health specialist, responding to a library worker's compensation claim, inspected the seventh floor and found wet carpeting and "evidence of water leaking in the ceiling area," then noted, "Water intrusion can promote mold growth."

The library administration insists that county maintenance workers stopped all leaks last spring when the entire building was recaulked; library workers insist the leaks persist. Current conditions on the seventh floor are unknown, because the floor is sealed off from the public. Undeterred, Reininger provides photos he says were taken recently by his spies; they appear to show "ceiling fungus drips and oozing ceiling spores."

"The seventh floor has the greatest infestation of mold," Reininger charges. "This is where they're proposing to put the children. Even if there weren't any mold, that's a bad place to put children. If there's a fire or a bomb threat and the building has to be cleared, children would have to go down seven floors."

Using this issue Reininger recently launched a serious attack against the sensitive underbelly of the "Library of the Year": its national image among other librarians. From the January issue of American Libraries springs the headline: "Broward Mulls Kids' Room Move to 'Sick' Floor," followed by an article quoting Reininger on "sick building syndrome" and the seventh floor being "the worst place to put children." Imhoff sprang once more into action, assuring American Libraries, "We don't have mold problems at the library."

Whatever the reason, Imhoff last week acknowledged the move of the children's department has been postponed indefinitely. "We're still investigating it. We have not made a final decision. There are no definite plans and no timetable."

Somewhat reluctantly, she also acknowledged Reininger's impact.
"He brought a lot of things to our attention," Imhoff said. "We're taking a little more time to stop and look."

Beneath the disagreement over the location of the children's section is a deeper divide over what a library should be.

"The main library should not be turned into a museum, not a Barnes & Noble-type coffee shop, not a community center," Reininger insists, but it instead should "serve the needs of serious individuals, businesspeople, and professionals who would use its special resources for learning, scholarship, and research."

Instead the main library is now a place of open spaces and easy chairs, art displays and computer terminals. The Broward library system doesn't even know how many books it has. Its computers tabulate only "titles." The system added about 60,000 titles last year, and titles now number more than two million, but how many are books and how many are videotapes or other media no one knows.

"We do look different than we did ten years ago," Imhoff says, "but I think it is because we are more responsive to information needs. More and more people want to receive information through a computer, and we are able to provide an expanded world of information,... to provide access to incredible databases of information that we would never have been able to buy in hard copy."

Still, Reininger fights on, gaining strength from his apparent success in the children's section. "They're feeling the pressure," he gloated last week, then marched once more toward the library elevators, inquiring in conspiratorial tones, "Want to see the mold on the third floor? It's really pretty.


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