BPL head: Branch closures good in long term

April 2, 2010
By

John Ruch

New buildings could come in future

Web Exclusive

While no official decision has been made, Boston Public Library (BPL) President Amy Ryan made clear in an April 1 interview that closing some branch libraries is key to financial stability and a “transformation” into a modern system.

Ryan did not specifically say that branch closures are the only option. But she confirmed that “transformation” involves closures.

“The status quo is not working,” Ryan said repeatedly in the 90-minute roundtable interview with the Gazette and other community newspapers, held at the Central Library in Copley Square.

“We didn’t jump out of bed and say, ‘We want to close branches,’” Ryan said. She explained that BPL has been “streamlining” the entire budget, from Central Library layoffs to cutting back on window-washing.

It is possible the BPL will build new branch libraries in better economic times, Ryan added, specifically noting that the Jamaica Plain Branch Library has an expansion study already completed. Jamaica Plain Branch advocates fear that library is in the crosshairs of the BPL’s proposal to close or consolidate many branches.

Ryan brushed aside suggestions that the BPL is moving too quickly on major changes to the branches, and that next fiscal year’s $3.6 million budget gap could be plugged temporarily while a full long-range plan is done.

But Ryan responded more positively when the Gazette asked about extending the current “BPL Compass” process—a controversial “series of principles” for the library’s future—for a year to gain more input, especially from the thousands of newly energized branch library advocates.

“That’s something to think about,” Ryan said. “It would be a change,” she noted, but added that there is a lot of change at the BPL lately.

The BPL board of trustees will vote April 9 on three possible branch fates: closing up to eight of them; severely cutting back on hours and “pairing” many branches into jointly run facilities; or a combination of the two tactics.

But in a March 4 speech, Mayor Thomas Menino declared that closures are the way to go. “We need to close some [library] buildings that are not offering the highest quality service to residents of Boston,” he said in that speech. The Mayor’s Press Office has not responded since then to a Gazette request for information on how Menino came to that conclusion and what buildings he is talking about.

The BPL has avoided commenting directly on whether Ryan advised Menino about that speech. But Ryan indicated in the April 1 interview that she had.

“We talked about it,” Ryan said when the Gazette asked whether she discussed the speech with Menino. “The mayor has been very imaginative and supportive about envisioning a world-class library.”

Asked if she is concerned that Menino spoke only of closures, not “pairings,” while the BPL’s decision-making is still ongoing, Ryan said, “I think he spoke about transformation.” When the Gazette noted that “transformation” is a term Ryan has equated with branch closures, she said, “Right.”

Ryan was accompanied during the interview by BPL spokesperson Gina Perille, but spoke freely and entirely on the record. Besides answering questions, Ryan also asked the reporters for feedback on what they were hearing from library supporters in their communities.

‘Vision’ and future

“The library is staying in the neighborhoods”—it’s just a question of in what way, Ryan said in describing her “vision” for the branch system.

That vision includes “more books, more hours” at certain branches. She emphasized that she understands the importance of physical library buildings as a “neighborhood institution” and places “where the neighborhood can gather in a secure environment.”

But her vision also has modern elements, including a greater focus on Web resources. There is also what Ryan calls the “leap into the community”—librarians traveling to other locations to teach or mentor children, and partnering with other organizations.

“That would be the real transformation of the Boston Public Library,” Ryan said. Many other library systems already offer such services, Ryan said. She has already started bringing to the BPL other modernizations long taken for granted in other library systems, such as self-service check-out of books and other materials.

Asked about models for her vision, Ryan cited suburban and large institutional examples. One was the suburban Minnesota library system she managed before coming to Boston, which in 2008 absorbed the Minneapolis Public Library system.

“I think some of the models are not libraries,” Ryan added, citing the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston as another inspiration for its widely varied programming and “interactive” learning.

That part of the vision is clearly based on bigger, modern buildings—unlike the Jamaica Plain-area branches. And so is the financial part of her vision.

The “status quo” that isn’t working basically means a lack of funding for staffing the entire system, Ryan said. She is proposing cutting nearly three-dozen positions in the branches, some of which are already long unfilled due to lack of funds. “At some point, [it becomes] a randomly managed institution,” she said.

But Ryan also spoke of other budget challenges, such as “maintaining aging structures,” that come “at the expense of strengthening” the entire BPL. The local Connolly and Jamaica Plain branches are historic buildings with longtime maintenance issues, some recently solved, some not.

“There are only so many places you can run [during bad budget times] when you run a public library,” Ryan said. “It’s not like we’re in the lap of luxury and can cut out limousine service or whatever.”

Ryan said that the “realignment of resources” in the forthcoming major changes to the branch system should enable it to survive even if there are further budget cuts in the near future.

That “realignment” to a century-old system will have taken about two months to be drawn up and will take effect in the fall. Ryan was asked about temporarily plugging the budget hole—possibly with city reserve funds—and doing a more deliberate planning process.

“I think this is about the status quo not working,” she said, suggesting the problem would just rise again. “It’s really about getting to a baseline of filling critical positions.”

As for the speed of the process, Ryan said it is an outgrowth of the 2007 Neighborhood Service Initiative (NSI)—a BPL review of the branch system—and is working alongside the BPL Compass process.

“This is a continual process of turning to the community,” Ryan said, citing NSI in particular as having produced a “mountain of data.”

But both NSI and Compass have been controversial for limited publicity and public input. And the relevancy of either process is in doubt due to the current budget situation and Ryan’s “vision” document.

The Gazette noted that the number one recommendation of NSI is a refurbishment and renovation of all branches following a study by an independent agency of some sort. That is basically on hold, Ryan said.

“Once we finish this first phase of the discussion [about the future of the branch system]…we can look at that again,” Ryan said, adding that other NSI elements can go forward, such as staff development.

NSI was expected to most directly benefit the Jamaica Plain Branch, which has a renovation and expansion plan in place that was killed in 2006, apparently as part of a political dispute between Menino and former BPL President Bernard Margolis.

Compass is similarly being trumped by Ryan’s “vision.” Compass is intended to develop a “strategic framework” or “series of principles” for the BPL’s future development. But it is not scheduled to be complete until May, long after the trustees vote on sweeping changes to the branches as well as Central Library cuts.

“This vision could breathe life into those principles,” Ryan said when asked by the Gazette about Compass. But she also acknowledged that the budget situation has made the BPL “switch gears” and essentially stop working on Compass for now, though it still intends to seek a trustees’ vote at the May annual meeting.

In any case, when it comes to long-term planning, the BPL “will take the summer to think it through more,” Ryan said.

There have been signs for at least four years that Menino and the BPL were seeking to kill some branch libraries. In 2006, an internal BPL study was leaked to the Boston Globe that reportedly proposed branch closings, leading the Globe to editorialize in favor of the idea. Margolis later told the Gazette that the study was incomplete and invalid, and that someone at City Hall leaked it. Ryan, who was not yet BPL president at the time, said in the April 1 interview that she had never heard of that study.

The possible closing of branch libraries comes as the city’s community centers and schools are also considering facility closures and consolidations. Many advocates have noted the interconnections among the services all three types of institutions offer.

Ryan said that she meets weekly with Boston Public Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson—whom she knows from their mutual time in Minnesota, where Johnson ran a school system—and Boston Centers for Youth & Families head Daphne Griffin. They talk about coordinating services and also about their facilities planning, Ryan said.