The Jamaica Plain Branch Library could be marked for closure as the Boston Public Library (BPL) struggles under severe state budget cuts.
Staff cutbacks and joint operations of local libraries are also on the table—and has happened before at Jamaica Plain’s Connolly and JP branches.
The BPL on Wednesday announced it is considering “two plausible public service options” for its 26 branch libraries: shuttering eight to 10 of them, or severely cutting hours and staff at 18 branches and “pairing” them together for consolidated services.
The BPL is not identifying any particular branches as targets for closure or cutbacks. But the JP Branch at 12 Sedgwick St. is in a century-old building with a long-stalled expansion and handicapped-accessibility plan that has been a political hot potato for years, from the Mayor’s Office on down.
“The die has been fairly well cast. I think it’s all about justifying it now,” said Don Haber, president of the Friends of the Jamaica Plain Branch Library, predicting that the BPL will choose to close some branches.
“I think that the fact that the city has failed to renovate the [JP Branch] building and bring it up to [Americans With Disabilities Act] standards is going to count against us a bit,” Haber said. But, he added, the JP Branch’s standing at or near the top of BPL circulation figures “will make it a difficult branch to close politically.”
The JP Branch regularly competes with Allston’s Honan Branch for the number-one circulation spot—despite the JP Branch being less than half the Honan’s size.
City Councilor John Tobin, a key supporter of the JP Branch expansion plan, said that a lack of funds may trump everything. He noted that JP is served by three branch libraries, including the Connolly in Hyde Square and the Egleston Square Branch.
“I certainly don’t think it’s the preference to close libraries,” Tobin said. But, he added, “If the money’s not there, what are you going to do?”
“I don’t want to [say], ‘I told you so,’ and you can’t go back in time,” Tobin said, “but some time ago there should have been more serious talk about [local branch] consolidation.”
Several years ago, Tobin floated the idea of consolidating the JP and Connolly branches and moving them into the then fire-ravaged First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain building. The idea was not well-received.
That was around the same time that Mayor Thomas Menino abruptly pulled the plug on a nearly complete JP Branch expansion plan as part of a feud with then BPL President Bernard Margolis. Margolis, who also floated a JP library consolidation idea, allegedly allowed for a JP Branch plan that was too “grandiose,” a Mayor’s Office spokesperson told the Gazette at the time.
About 20 years ago, the Connolly and JP branches were “paired” for some time. The same staff worked at both libraries on alternating schedules, with one library closed down while the other was open.
BPL spokesperson Gina Perille told the Gazette that BPL President Amy Ryan will consider further options and present a detailed, specific plan at the March 9 BPL trustees meeting, which will be open to the public.
The various branches have different sizes and staffing levels, and therefore have different operating budgets. Because of that, it appears that the BPL must have looked at specific branches to close or cut back if it knows specific numbers of such branches that would balance the budget.
But, Perille said, only abstract budget information, not specific branches, was considered for those proposals.
“The [numbers of branches suggested for cutbacks] have to do with working through the budget numbers,” she said. “It’s a way to look generally at public service options.”
Haber said he believes that the BPL will propose branch shutdowns.
“Just from the titles, it’s obvious which option the [BPL] administration wants to implement,” Haber said, referring to a BPL budget option document now available on the BPL web site at www.bpl.org.
That document refers to the cutback on hours and staffing as “Hours reduction…Reduce hours,” and to branch closures as “Transform Branch Services…Strengthen services at 16-18 [surviving] branches.”
Staffing levels at the Connolly and JP branches are already below standard, according to the branches’ friends groups.
The document refers to cutbacks as the only options for responding to the state budget cuts. Asked by the Gazette whether BPL is also considering possible new sources of revenue, Perille said the answer is a “firm yes.”
At the same time the BPL is considering dramatic budget-driven changes, it is also working on a master plan known as BPL Compass. The Compass process has been controversial for limited public awareness and input, which largely consisted of three public meetings in early January and an ongoing blog on the BPL site. The process is supposed to wrap up with trustees’ approval in May.
Perille said the Compass guidelines will be finished on schedule. “One might wish Compass was completed” before the budget decision-making, she said, but added that Compass will still help with it.
“It’s all backward,” Haber said of the intertwining of the budget proposals and the Compass process. He said he has told BPL officials, “You’re going to be making decisions that affect any compass you set.”