Thousands say ‘no’ to library closures

March 11, 2010
By

John Ruch

Tobin: JP branches likely targets

Web Exclusive

Hundreds of people—including many Jamaica Plain residents, and others ranging from a 4-year-old boy to a former bank robber—protested possible branch library closures at a dramatic March 9 Boston Public Library (BPL) trustees meeting.

BPL President Amy Ryan presented more criteria for judging the proposed closure of eight to 10 of the 26 branches, still without specifying any particular branches. She proposed a wide variety of criteria, and pledged that the “story behind the branches” will be key as well. But the general theme of the criteria favors bigger, newer branches over smaller, older ones.

The local Connolly and Jamaica Plain Branches are older and smaller. So is the nearby Egleston Square Branch in Roxbury.

The proposed criteria met with a virtually united front from library supporters at the meeting, opposing any closures at all. Many people voiced skepticism about the openness and honesty of BPL’s decision-making process.

“They’ve said they don’t have a list [of branches to close]. Of course they have a list,” local City Councilor John Tobin later told the Gazette. “I’d have to be really naïve to think one of those [JP-area] libraries wouldn’t be on that list.”

Don Haber, co-chair of the Friends of the Jamaica Plain Branch Library, noted that the JP Branch would not meet many of Ryan’s key criteria—though it would have if the city had not killed a renovation and expansion plan three years ago.

“So we are very likely on the chopping block because the city has failed…I put that at the doorstep of the city and the BPL,” Haber said.

Haber also cast doubt on the BPL’s claim that state budget cuts leading to a $3.6 million budget gap are forcing it to consider closures or severe service cutbacks.

“Is the underlying issue really about money?” Haber asked. “It’s my understanding and feeling that even if a miracle happened…and you got your $3.6 million, you would still pursue closing branches.”

No BPL administration official responded. But Jeffrey Rudman, chair of the board of trustees, replied that his personal opinion is that it might indeed still make sense to close “one or two branches.”

“The country’s broke. The Commonwealth’s broke,” Rudman said. “So we are stuck. We’re going to have to make hard choices.”

But, after hearing from scores of branch library supporters, some of whom turned in petitions with thousands of signatures, another trustee had a very different opinion.

“There’s nothing to think about. There was an overwhelming outcry,” said trustee Donna DePrisco. “I will resign before I vote to close any branches.”

After the meeting, the other trustees and Ryan gathered around DePrisco, intensely discussing her statement.

Virtually everything about the BPL’s decision-making remains unclear—including when and how a decision will be made. It is unclear where Ryan’s criteria came from or how they will be weighed.

“We’re really just thinking about this and absorbing this,” Ryan said after the meeting, when asked by the Gazette about her key criterion of a branch’s proximity to a “lead library,” meaning a large and modern facility. Ryan then excused herself and exited out a side door.

BPL spokesperson Gina Perille later said in an e-mail to the Gazette that many of Ryan’s criteria are “generally accepted metrics in library science.” Perille emphasized that public feedback will be influential.

Gov. Deval Patrick spoke with the Gazette about the branch library situation at a March 6 campaign stop in Mission Hill. Patrick declined to talk on the record about library-related budget details, but added, “I understand the importance of libraries for reasons of education, for reasons of community development.”

Patrick said his office will “work as closely and as well as we can” with all cities and towns on their public library systems.

Tobin said he sent a letter to Patrick and the Boston delegation in the state legislature calling for the restoration of the library-related budget cuts. But, Tobin added, even if the money isn’t restored, “I don’t want to see [branches] closed.”

Tobin questioned the urgency of the decision and the quality of the planning.

“The problem with this library situation is, did they just find out about this projected [budget] cut two weeks ago, three weeks ago?” Tobin asked rhetorically, pointing out that BPL must have known for months, yet only recently began publicizing it. He said BPL also did not reach out to the Boston City Council about it.

“It may make some sense to close some branches around the city,” in terms of good library operations, Tobin said. But, he added, such a decision has to come from a full and deliberate planning process. The BPL supposedly has a still-pending master planning process called BPL Compass under way, but it has been criticized for lack of publicity, and appears to be overridden by the reported budget crisis.

“I don’t think you can just put [closure proposals] out there or do it right away,” Tobin said. “People need time to prepare for that. These libraries are part of people’s lives. I think it’s tantamount to a death in someone’s family.”

And if this is the BPL’s idea of master planning, Tobin said, “It hasn’t gotten off to a good start.”

City Councilor Chuck Turner, who represents Egleston Square, wrote in a statement to the trustees that he opposes closures or cutbacks, and that the city’s reserve funds should be used to fill any budget gap.

“Closing libraries should be the last resort,” City Council President Mike Ross, who represents part of Hyde Square, wrote on his web site (MikeRossBoston.com). “First we should examine any and all cost savings. This process must include the public, and I fear that two or three months [is] not enough time to have this conversation.”

Meanwhile, grassroots activism to save the local branch libraries is continuing. Library rescue petitions are available at all area branches: the Connolly, 433 Centre St. in Hyde Square; the Egleston Square Branch, 2044 Columbus Ave.; and the JP Branch, 12 Sedgwick St. in central JP. The JP Branch petition already has 1,400 signatures.

A “Great Egleston Read-In” protest is scheduled for Sat., March 13 from noon to 1 p.m. at the Egleston Square Branch. Organizers are asking residents to simply come to the library and read a book.

“The public will send their message without saying a word,” the friends group wrote in a press release.

The BPL continues to accept public comments via e-mail at feedback@bpl.org.

JP’s testimony

About a dozen JP library advocates spoke at the trustees meeting.

Sister Virgina Mulhern, a well-known Egleston Square activist, acknowledged that her local branch does not have some of the amenities Ryan put in her criteria, including a parking lot and modern technology.

“But we have a need,” Mulhern added, noting the Egleston Square Branch is a vital resource for young people and those with low incomes.

The Egleston Square Branch was shut down about 20 years ago, then revived in the 1980s after community activism.

Brandon Abbs of Friends of the Egleston Square Branch blasted the BPL for lack of publicity about its process, including a lack of Spanish-language materials. He also noted that federal stimulus money is flowing to other state programs.

“The problem is not about money. It’s all about priorities,” said Abbs.

“When all is said and done, are we going to say, ‘The operation was a success, but the patient died’?” asked JP resident Sam Sherwood, a longtime JP Branch supporter. “Find a way.”

Several speakers noted that many Boston Public Schools use a nearby branch library as the school’s library.

“It would be devastating to our children” to close such libraries, said Karen Payne, president of the Boston NAACP and a candidate for JP’s 6th Suffolk District State House seat. Payne, who served on a state commission on preventing high-school drop-outs, noted that key recommendation was creating “a safe place for children to learn.”

“I haven’t heard the word ‘temporary’ about closures,” said JP resident Sarah Freeman, questioning why the BPL would permanently close facilities in a presumably temporary budget crisis.

Freeman also noted that JP has lost other city resources in recent years, including the Pinebank Mansion in Jamaica Pond Park and the Boston Police Mounted Unit, after long and contentious public debates.

“We have to give up our lives and our private time to save things we care about,” Freeman said. Breaking into tears, she added, “The library was a lifeline for me. There’s got to be a better way.”