Library groups rush to save the JP branches

March 5, 2010
By

John Ruch

JPNC opposes closures

Fearing that Jamaica Plain’s branch libraries are on the chopping block, local friends groups are mobilizing a rescue plan—including a petition—in advance of a March 9 meeting that should clarify the fate of the city’s 26 branch libraries.

As the Gazette previously reported, the Boston Public Library (BPL) is considering elimination or severe staff and hour cutbacks for the branches.

“What people have to envision is this building not existing,” said Don Haber, co-chair of Friends of the Jamaica Plain Branch Library, which is circulating a closure-opposing petition.

Supporters of Hyde Square’s Connolly Branch Library are advocating as well, mailing out a flyer that points to the $2 million recently spent on renovations there and the impact of cutbacks on a key community resource.

“It’s one of those things where you feel like someone’s already made a decision and they’re just playing with you,” said Fran Streeter, co-chair of Friends of the Connolly Branch Library.

The Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC) is also opposing any local branch library closures, and calling for community input on any plans to cut back library hours.

Boston City Council President Mike Ross, who represents part of Hyde Square, announced last week that he wants a total review of BPL finances before discussing any closures. He called for City Council hearings on the issue.

Ross’s comments aside, elected officials appear to be in a wait-and-see mode. None of JP’s local Boston city councilors, including Ross, responded to Gazette interview requests for this article.

The BPL last week announced that it is considering two options for its 26 neighborhood branch libraries in response to state budget cutbacks: eliminating eight to 10 branches, or severely cutting staff and hours at 18 branches and “pairing” them together for consolidated services.

Any such moves would affect thousands of library users, including children in extensive programming and Spanish-speakers who rely on the special collections and bilingual staff at the Connolly.

The BPL proposal did not identify any specific branches as closure or cutback targets. But the JP Branch at 12 Sedgwick St. has a long-stalled expansion and handicapped-accessibility project, and there are fears it could be targeted for closure. Also, JP is served by three branches: JP, Egleston Square and Hyde Square’s Connolly Branch. The JP Branch often has the highest circulation of the branches, despite being one of the smallest.

The Connolly Branch has been renovated in recent years and just had an upgraded audio-visual system installed for $5,000, according to the branch’s Friends group.

“There’s no question in my mind [that] they shouldn’t close either one,” Streeter said of the JP and Connolly branches. She said that at a recent meeting of the Connolly Friends group, “The point was made a number of times that if you close a library, that’s it. You’ll never see it again.”

The branch-saving petition will be available at the JP Branch through today, March 5. It describes the JP Branch as a “critical part of our community” and notes its high circulation numbers. It urges officials to increase library funding to prevent any branch closures.

At its Feb. 23 meeting, the JPNC voted to send a letter to the BPL’s board of trustees opposing any closures and demanding a public process about any cutbacks on branch hours. That was after the council heard from local library advocates.

“I believe with my heart and soul that our schools and our libraries are a reflection of who we are,” said longtime JP Branch patron and advocate Sam Sherwood at the JPNC meeting.

In a Feb. 18 post on his web site at MikeRossBoston.com, Council President Ross said he met with BPL President Amy Ryan and told her that he “would only consider brown-outs or library closings once the council has seen that every other cost-cutting measure has been taken.”

Local state Reps. Liz Malia and Jeffrey Sánchez could not immediately clarify BPL’s state budget situation to the Gazette. But, Malia said, she is already hearing fears about possible branch closures, including of the Egleston Square and Dudley branches.

Local advocates are also concerned about the perception that JP has three branch libraries and could be considered as over-served. The Egleston branch is right across the neighborhood border in Roxbury.

Adding to perception problems, the BPL recently distributed a map of the neighborhood branches that uses an incorrect Boston Redevelopment Authority map. The BRA map, which has infected the data analysis of many city agencies, erases several neighborhoods and gives badly incorrect boundaries for others. In this case, it shows the Egleston branch as being in Roxbury, but adds Mission Hill’s Parker Hill Branch to JP. Mission Hill does not exist on the BRA map.

Haber said that advocates pointed out the incorrect boundaries to BPL officials.

The BPL budget problems have been discussed at BPL trustees meetings held during the day on weekdays. The trustees will follow that pattern with a March 9, 3 p.m. meeting where Ryan is expected to deliver specific proposals for the future of branch libraries.

David Taber contributed to this article.