Thousands say ‘no’ to branch library closures

March 19, 2010
By

John Ruch

Tobin: JP branches likely targets

The Boston Public Library (BPL) will propose closures or severe service cutbacks at several of its 26 branch libraries, Mayor Thomas Menino and the BPL administration made clear in recent weeks, confirming the fears of advocates who say JP’s Connolly and Jamaica Plain branches are likely targets.

Thousands of residents have voiced opposition to the closure of any branch through petitions and a show of force at a March 9 BPL trustees meeting. The wave of activism through the past week included a “read-in” protest at the nearby Egleston Square Branch on the JP/Roxbury border and the formation of a new JP-based group called People of Boston Branches.

The BPL says that budget cuts are forcing it to choose one of two options: closing eight to 10 branches, or severely cutting staff and hours at roughly 19 branches and “pairing” them into facilities that both operate at limited levels, probably open on alternate days of the week, and share the same staff members. BPL officials say they have no particular branches in mind, and it remains unclear when and how the decision will be made.

The sudden announcement and lack of details have sparked widespread skepticism about the openness and honesty of the branch-targeting proposals.

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

At a March 9 BPL trustees meetings, BPL President Amy Ryan proposed a wide variety of criteria for judging which branches to close or cut back on. She pledged that public input and the “story behind the branches” will be keys as well.

But the general theme of the criteria favors bigger, newer branches over smaller, older ones. The Connolly, Egleston Square and Jamaica Plain branches are all smaller and older.

BPL officials also emphasize that no decision has been made. But it is clear from their oral and written statements that it is a question of whether branches will be shut or paired, not whether they will be touched at all.

“We need to close some [library] buildings that are not offering the highest quality service to the residents of Boston,” Menino declared in a March 4 speech at a Boston Municipal Research Bureau lunch, according to the city’s web site. “I know this can feel heartbreaking to neighborhoods who identify with these places. But buildings don’t define us—our connections to each other do.”

And Molly Dunsford, Menino’s liaison to the Boston City Council, said in an e-mail sent the same day to councilors that, “Our current [library] system is over-bricked and over-mortared…”

The Mayor’s Press Office could not explain to the Gazette how Menino came to that conclusion, even though the BPL’s own decision-making is supposedly still under way, and could not identify which buildings he believes are not offering highest quality service. Besides the budget-related branch library discussion, the BPL also has a still-pending process called BPL Compass that is developing a “series of principles” about the system’s future.

Perille told the Gazette this week that she could not recall that part of Menino’s speech.

“For us, both of those public service options are still on the table,” Perille said, referring to closures or pairings. She said that Ryan’s criteria will be used “regardless of which public service option happens.”

“It’s hard for us to say which it will be…It’s too soon to say,” she said.

Don Haber, co-chair of the Friends of the Jamaica Plain Branch Library, noted at the BPL trustees meeting 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 projected 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 at the meeting. Perille later told the Gazette that the $3.6 million hole “creates an urgency,” but that long-term cuts have caused the BPL to be “stretched too thin across the system.”

“If your question is, ‘Is it about $3.6 million?’, the answer is no,” Perille said. “It’s about declining revenue over the last several years.” She said BPL would be looking at trimming the branches even without this year’s crisis.

At the March 9 meeting, 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.

If branch libraries are closed, it is unclear what would happen to the buildings. “There hasn’t been any discussion” about that, Perille told the Gazette.

There have been signs for at least four years that Menino and the BPL were seeking to kill some branches, probably including the JP branch. In 2006, someone at City Hall leaked to the Boston Globe an internal BPL study that reportedly proposed branch closings.

Ryan’s predecessor, Bernard Margolis, later told the Gazette that the study was flawed and that Menino is an “anti-intellectual” bent on killing branch libraries. Margolis was forced out of his job amid his political clash with Menino. Margolis did not return a Gazette phone call for this article.

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.

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.

Budget cuts

Local state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez told the Gazette that the state budget problems are very real, adding that he has not heard talk of any other motive behind the BPL’s moves.

“You can interpret it any way you want,” Sánchez said. “At the end of the day, there’s no money.”

Sánchez said that declining revenues and resistance to new taxes have combined for the most severe state budget-slashing in a century. And, he added, legislators from districts outside the city are not so interested in its troubles.

“All they know is, they hate taxes and they think Boston’s getting everything,” Sánchez said, urging Boston residents to continue their advocacy for
library funding.

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 Compass project is supposed to wrap up in May. But that process 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.”

At-large City Councilor Felix Arroyo, a JP resident, made similar points in remarks at a March 11 City Council hearing on the BPL budget, according to a transcript provided to the Gazette by his office. He said BPL needs to make every other cost-cutting measure—“symbolic, trivial or large”—before closing any branches.

Many local elected officials have relied on the branch libraries in their own lives. Arroyo told the Gazette that he would not have finished his master’s degree without the help and refuge of the Connolly Branch.

“The library was the other community center, because not everybody plays basketball,” said Sánchez, who grew up in Mission Hill. He recalled the branch librarian there convincing him to do homework in exchange for being allowed to practice breakdancing there.

“The libraries provide vital services,” he said. “They’re not just a place you take out a couple books to read.”

In fact, the libraries may be one reason JP is part of Boston today. The “advantages of the renowned public library” were among the things a City of Boston speaker promises to residents of JP—then part of the town of West Roxbury—in 1873 in exchange for agreeing to be annexed by the city, according to a Boston Globe article on the “Remember Jamaica Plain?” local history web site.

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

JP’s testimony

The March 9 BPL trustees meeting featured dramatic testimony from dozens of speakers, ranging from a 4-year-old boy to a reformed bank robber. Speakers noted the library as a significant resource for everyone from toddlers to seniors, from readers to owners of small businesses. About a dozen JP library advocates spoke, all in opposition to any cuts.

Sister Virginia 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 and People of Boston Branches 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.

Dismissing closure plans as the work of “bean-counters and futurists,” JP resident David Mittell Jr. said that “keeping children safe and focused is a retail operation for which the rule of spreadsheets alone does not apply.”

Mittell also suggested that the process is moving quickly to get around political opposition, and noted that the BPL has spent “large sums on exhibits, executive salaries and even physical improvements to branches now threatened with closure.”

“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.”

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