Downtown library branch opens in Camden

students at the opening. TOM GRALISH / Staff
students at the opening. TOM GRALISH / Staff (R.C. Molina Elementary)
Posted: April 05, 2012

Minutes after the Camden County Library System's new downtown Camden branch opened to the public Wednesday afternoon on the Rutgers-Camden campus, city resident Curtis Williams walked in and pronounced himself satisfied.

"Everything looks brand-new," Williams, 36, said as he logged onto one of the 16 computers.

"I do miss the library," he quickly added.

The "library," the one Williams still pines for, is the old Federal Street facility, one of two branches the city closed for good between September 2010 and February 2011 due to severe budget cuts.

The county Library Commission voted to absorb the city's system, making Camden its 27th municipal participant. But only the Ferry Avenue location was kept open.

Through a partnership with Rutgers-Camden, a downtown branch has been created in the basement of the university's Paul Robeson Library. That means that Williams and others who live downtown no longer will have to make the trip to Ferry Avenue, a 45- to 60-minute walk.

When that branch - renamed in honor of Riletta Cream, the longtime Camden educator and former county freeholder - opened under the county's auspices, it was a slow go at first, said county library director Linda Devlin.

"When we started, we had 600 items checked out in a month. Now we have almost 6,000 items checked out each month," Devlin said Wednesday.

She expects the same gradual increase in usage at the Rutgers-Camden location, to be named after former Assemblywoman Nilsa Cruz-Perez.

Some of the first visitors Wednesday said they walked in after inquiring about the balloons outside.

Anthony Phoenix, 46, of North Camden, signed up for a new library card. He was a regular at the Federal Street branch.

As secretary for the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers, Phoenix said he was likely to use the library to type board-meeting minutes.

"We anticipate heavy computer usage," Devlin said, noting that the Ferry Avenue location has about 5,000 computer sign-ins monthly.

The new branch has three computers and an activity room for children. On Wednesday, Haddonfield children's book author Dan Gutman was there to sign and hand out copies of his popular Weird School books to students from the city's R.C. Molina Elementary School, Coopers Poynt School, and LEAP Academy.

Youngsters will have access to hundreds of children's books. The branch also has volumes in Spanish and on African American culture to cater to Camden's diverse residents, Devlin said. The branch has a total of 9,000 to 10,000 books and DVDs for checkout, she said.

Surveillance cameras inside the branch, which has its own entrance, will be monitored by Rutgers police, said university spokesman Mike Sepanic. The block surrounding the library is part of the campus security patrol, which operates from about 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., he said.

A dedication ceremony will be held in a few weeks to name the branch, county officials said.

Cruz-Perez, now an outreach coordinator for the Camden County Improvement Authority, was a state Democratic assemblywoman for the Fifth Legislative District from 1995 to 2010. She is an Army veteran.

Freeholder Ian K. Leonard, a liaison to the county library system, said he proposed naming the branch after Cruz-Perez because of her community involvement.

"Nilsa's commitment to Camden and its residents is unwavering," Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said in an e-mail. "Even though she secured a place in history as our state's first Latina lawmaker, she remains one of the most modest people I know. . . . There's no one more deserving of this honor."

Some city residents do not agree.

"I don't understand the connection," said Frank Fulbrook, a former city library board member. "I don't remember her being involved with the library."

One memorable piece of legislation Cruz-Perez cosponsored was the extension of the state takeover of Camden, said city activists Jose Delgado and Kelly Francis. "It was something that disenfranchised an entire community," Francis said.

The state's eight-year rule over Camden funneled $175 million into the city, most of which was spent on institutions and redeveloping the waterfront. City residents didn't see much change in their neighborhoods, Francis said.

Cruz-Perez could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.

The downtown branch will be open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday.


Contact Claudia Vargas

at 856-779-3917 or cvargas@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @InqCVargas. Read her blog, "Camden Flow," on www.philly.com/philly/blogs

/camden_flow/.

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