Saturday, April 10, 2010

Saving the Libraries Moves to Next Phase

With yesterday’s vote by the Boston Public Library trustees to close four branches, the number of endangered locations becomes even smaller. In the headline on the BPL press release right after the vote, the closings disappear entirely, crowded out by the 22 survivors.

Failing to make the cut were the Faneuil Branch in Brighton, the Orient Heights in East Boston, Washington Village in South Boston, and Lower Mills in Dorchester. On March 25, the maximum of 26 possible closings had already shrunk to 17, when officials designated nine “lead libraries.” By Wednesday evening, when opponents of branch closings rallied at St. Paul’s Cathedral in downtown Boston, the four branches to be closed had already been recommended by BPL President Amy Ryan.

Wednesday’s meeting also followed several other turnouts in Boston neighborhoods, including Jamaica Plain, Allston-Brighton, and Dorchester. Adding to the neighborhood reaction were nine City Councilors who signed a letter saying the closings should be “the last option,” and then only after “lengthy public debate.”

At St. Paul’s Cathedral, there was more testimony about the value of libraries, for their materials, the services by staff, or their role as a defining community space—something both intimate and inclusive. For the project director at ONE Massachusetts, Yawu Miller, a local branch was a fixture of a typical New England community, whether in Roxbury, Mass. or Roxbury, Vermont.

BPL officials and Mayor Menino have talked about reconfiguring the value of libraries in a way that can go beyond the walls of a branch, with new collaborations and technology. But that “21st century” vision met with distrust from a Brighton resident, Maria Rodrigues, who spoke at the meeting about the proposed shut-down of the Faneuil Branch in Oak Square.

“The Boston Public Library system,” Rodrigues declared, “will not become an internet cafe.”

The closing of the Faneuil Branch comes after the closing of a Catholic parish and school at Our Lady of the Presentation. A non-profit foundation started by neighborhood residents plans to convert the school into a community center with preschool and adult education programs. Oak Square still has a YMCA built during the last ten years, and it can be argued that a branch library would help provide a continuum of services by city agencies and non-profits—one of those partnerships so often praised by Mayor Thomas Menino.

It might also be argued that partners could deliver the same services even more effectively without the formal existence of a branch library, possibly with some programs, materials and computers deployed at the Oak Square YMCA or the new community center. But, when the BPL trustees took their vote, a new configuration of services and greater efficiencies had yet to be spelled out for particular locations. The only pointer in that direction was a brief statement issued by the mayor after the vote, saying that plans for the four areas affected by the closings would be announced soon.

So, as of Wednesday night, the patrons, along with current and future library workers, were concentrating on the system they knew. And, if this month’s release of the iPad means the notion of a storehouse for books in every neighborhood has become obsolete, speakers who took their minutes at the pulpit in St. Paul’s talked about other reasons to keep the branches, and even current levels of staffing.

“A reduction in service points is a reduction in services,” said John Devine, a reference librarian at Copley Square. “Don’t fool yourself into thinking otherwise.”

Storyteller and author Norah Dooley said she would never have written a book or gotten published, except for a conversation she had with a librarian.

“It’s very important to have public spaces,” she said, “that are dedicated to reading, learning and conversation—without paying money.”

It can be argued that some patrons who live near Oak Square should be able to drive or even walk to the renovated branch a mile away near Brighton Center. Rodrigues says she much prefers to have her four children, ages 4 through 11, use the Faneuil Branch.

“For us,” she explained, “the key thing is that is the place where my children are known by name. It’s cozy, it’s not threatening. It’s surrounded by books—it’s a place where my kids are known by name.”

With the long down-sizing in community services provided by organized religion—in Boston, mainly by the Catholic Church—there’s more of a void to be filled by other sectors. There’s also the void to be filled when it becomes the norm for parents to be away from the home all day, and time after-school takes on more importance as an opportunity for learning, or even as a safe haven from street violence. But filling voids takes money, as even library supporters admit.

“We need more revenues,” said Miller. “We need new taxes.”

In this year’s elections for governor and the state legislature, that might be a hard sell in much of Massachusetts, especially outside the largest cities. Among Boston City Councilors, there is talk about giving libraries more of the revenue Boston already has, including the recent increase allowed in the meals tax. Yet to be explained is how far that could go to offset the $3.6 million cut in Boston’s library funding proposed by Governor Deval Patrick.

The governor's Democratic primary opponent, Grace Ross, identified $50 million that could be made up by the tax break announced for the Liberty Mutual expansion in the Back Bay. Even if future events prove her right on the policy question, the current politics are more driven by the slump in Boston's commercial real estate market, not to mention a very noticeable hole in the ground near Downtown Crossing.

As patrons try to reverse or change Mayor Menino’s plans by mobilizing support among City Councilors, they’ll be competing for attention. The city faces a possible cut in local aid by the state legislature, by about $40 million. And this at a time when councilors are already hearing about cutbacks in the School Dept., especially among custodians, and community centers.

And library supporters will have to continue their campaign with only the four closings an officially sure thing for the coming year.

Before Wednesday’s meeting came to a close, the moderator and head of the Friends of the Dudley Branch Library, Sarah-Ann Shaw, told the crowd of patrons and BPL workers that they need to do more recruiting.

“We can’t win,” she said, “if we don’t get more people to stand up and say ‘Don’t do it.’”

Also: see Joe Rowland's BNN News report on the trustees vote and a report on the view from Oak Square.