Branch libraries’ fate will be decided April 9

John Ruch

Some closures or cutbacks on the way

The Boston Public Library (BPL) board of trustees will vote April 9 on the fate of the branch libraries. That will mean closing up to eight of them; severely cutting back on hours and “pairing” many branches; or a combination of the two tactics, BPL board chair Jeffrey Rudman made clear at a March 24 trustees meeting.

All of the Jamaica Plain-area branches—the Connolly in Hyde Square, the Jamaica Plain Branch in central JP and the Egleston Square Branch on the JP/Roxbury border—remain potential targets for closure or cutbacks, which would take place this fall. The BPL has announced eight branches are “lead libraries” that are immune to any cuts, but none of the JP branches are on that list.

The BPL administration has blamed the branch cutback plan on state budget cuts and other funding gaps, and appears to be lobbying the state legislature for better funding. But BPL officials also have acknowledged that they would be look to drastically alter the branches in any case, with BPL President Amy Ryan referring to branch closures in particular as a positive “transformation” that will result in “enhanced” services in surviving branches.

Several of the library advocates speaking against closures at the March 24 trustees meeting referred to growing and potentially long-term mistrust between the BPL and its supporters. Don Haber of Friends of the Jamaica Plain Branch Library noted there is already a history of “broken promises” made by BPL to its branches. Those include a long-stalled expansion and renovation of the Jamaica Plain Branch.

Another critic of the BPL leadership is Kevin Moloney, a former president of the board of the trustees and a JP resident.

“This isn’t because of the cut [in] state aid,” Moloney said of the branch closure or cutback plan in a Gazette interview. “I think this has been in the works for a long time.”

Speaking about Ryan’s idea that fewer branch libraries would make for an “improved” or “transformed” library system, Moloney laughed and said, “George Orwell, where have you gone?”

The BPL will hold a meeting in JP, possibly with some trustees in attendance, on April 6 to gather more input. [See JP Agenda.] Meanwhile, grassroots efforts to save all branch libraries have continued, including a series of quiet “read-in” protests at local branches. The Jamaica Plain Branch friends group collected more than 2,100 signatures on a branch-saving petition.

One theme of Ryan’s “transformed” library is more use of online works in a “Digital Branch” and more library services offered in locations other than a library building. Sage Stossel, a cartoonist for “The Atlantic” magazine online, mocked that vision in a March 23 Boston Globe cartoon that included one of the JP branches. The cartoon depicts youths using a “Connolly Branch Chatroom” on the Web rather than attending one of the story hours librarians host today.

The state constitution may have something to say about the funding part of the branch libraries’ peril. Chapter V, Section II of the constitution is titled, “The Encouragement of Literature, etc.” It reads in part:

“Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of all legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them….”

“That’s old language, but a current thought,” Moloney, who is also an attorney, said of the constitutional passage.
Branch options

Ryan at the March 24 meeting identified eight “lead libraries”—branches that will be immune from closure or cutbacks. None of them are JP-area branches. They include: Brighton, Codman Square, Dudley, Grove Hall, Honan-Allston, Hyde Park, Mattapan and West Roxbury.

It is unclear exactly what “lead library” means, why they are immune from cuts and how or when that decision was made. It appears that they meet some of the basic criteria that Ryan has proposed for judging whether other branches should be closed or cut back. But those criteria were not set to be finalized until this week, a week after the “lead libraries” were named.

Asked by the Gazette via e-mail for details about the “lead library” decision-making, BPL spokesperson Gina Perille simply described such libraries as having “the physical capacity for adding books, programs and technology, and would also have larger staffs.”

“There shouldn’t be eight branches that are exempted from any pain,” Haber told the trustees in a public comment period of the meeting.

As for non-lead branches, the possibilities are grim and all involve cutting nearly three-dozen staff positions.

The hours cutback option could affect all of the non-lead branches, cutting their hours by 50 to 85 percent and leaving each one open only one to three days a week, Ryan said. The branches would be “paired by geographic location” with the same staff switching between the two buildings at alternating periods.

The closure option originally put up to 10 branches at risk. But Rudman unilaterally took that extreme off the table at the March 23 meeting.

“That’s not going to happen,” Rudman said, adding that eight would be the maximum number of branches the BPL would consider closing.

“I would have a hard time casting a vote to close 10 branches at the bottom of a recession,” Rudman said. “That’s a shock to the system.”

Branch closures are clearly Ryan’s preferred option. She described the hours reduction option in cold, dull terms. But she described the branch closure option as a “transformation” with “enhanced” services. Several trustees quickly adopted Ryan’s “transformation” term and used it to refer to closures.

But the trustees also asked for far more details so that, as Rudman put it, “If we vote on ‘transformation,’ it’s more than a longish word.”

That includes specific details about the impact on the BPL system and on neighborhoods if various numbers of branches are closed: eight, five, three or none. Ryan is slated to report those scenarios at the next BPL trustees meeting, scheduled for April 7.

The trustees also briefly discussed the future of any closed branch library buildings. Rudman said that it is likely the buildings would be sold, with the funds going into the city’s general capital budget.

Trustee Donna DePrisco asked about mothballing any closed branches so they could reopen in better financial times. Rudman said it is unlikely that “small buildings” would reopen. “We will build great new libraries” that will boost civic pride in better times, he said.

Haber handed out photos of the jam-packed March 23 “read-in” at the Jamaica Plain Branch to the trustees. “Don’t cut off effective, healthy branches,” he said.

Other speakers at the meeting repeated ongoing complaints about a lack of information posted in the branches about the reported budget crisis and possible closures, and about the time of trustees meetings. The decisive April 9 meeting will be held at 8:30 a.m. on a Friday. Asked by the Gazette about the lack of information posted in branches, Perille referred to the Gazette to a copy of a BPL staffer’s presentation at the March 24 meeting that summarized public feedback efforts, which did not include posting information in branches. It focused heavily on Internet outreach methods.

A concern mentioned by many library advocates is that branch libraries are used by Boston Public Schools (BPS) that do not have their own libraries. That includes JP’s Greater Egleston Community High School, which uses the Egleston Square Branch and other public libraries. BPS spokesperson Matt Wilder told the Gazette that about 19 of the city 120 school buildings lack a library. The other nine BPS school buildings in JP all have their own libraries. However, schools with internal libraries often use branch libraries for other activities.
Former trustee’s view

Moloney was president (now known as the chair) of the BPL board of trustees from 1984 to 1990. That was another period with a bad economy, but the BPL was able to expand branch services and reopen the then-shuttered Egleston Square Branch, thanks to a “groundswell of public support,” Moloney said.

Moloney blasted the current BPL leadership and said that Mayor Thomas Menino appears to be meddling in the library’s operations.

“I think the board of trustees has been anywhere from quiescent to supine and inactive, and has failed to articulate to City Hall on behalf of the community the grave nature of the [financial] situation and the significance to our society of the library system,” Moloney said.

“Where have the trustees been?” he added. “They have the legal duty to protect and defend the institution…And, sad to say, they haven’t been doing that over the years.”

Moloney said that in his day, the board often held evening meetings so that BPL staff could attend. Asked about the current trustees continuing to meet during the day on weekdays, despite public complaints, he said, “They don’t get it.”

“You have to engage the community,” Moloney said. “If you turn your back on the public…and you create a [board of trustees] that is strictly interested in what the mayor wants and rich folks want, you weaken the institution.”

Moloney added that the most recent BPL presidents “have not been up to the caliber that the situation and the city deserve,” coming from largely suburban library backgrounds.

Asked if money could be found somewhere in the city’s roughly $2 billion budget to close the BPL’s $3.6 million gap, Moloney said, “Is the pope Catholic?…During the Great Depression, none of the libraries were closed.”

He said he suspects the city has long wanted to trim branch libraries. He pointed to the Jamaica Plain Branch, which he used growing up, as a prime example. The nearly century-old building has long needed repairs, and the BPL and city know it, he said. But, “They purposefully didn’t do anything,” he said.

A renovation and expansion plan was drawn up for that branch in 2006. But then-BPL President Bernard Margolis abruptly and dramatically pulled the plug at a meeting intended to unveil the design. Margolis later told the Gazette that Menino aide Michael Kineavy ordered him to halt the process.

Menino’s role in the current branch cutback proposals is unclear. But he has made definitive statements in favor of branch closures, despite the BPL decision-making process supposedly being still under way.

In a March 4 speech, Menino declared, “We need to close some [library] buildings that are not offering the highest quality service to residents of Boston.” The Mayor’s Press Office has not responded for more than three weeks to a Gazette request for information on how Menino came to that conclusion and what buildings he is talking about.

Asked for the BPL’s response to Menino’s comments, Perille at first said she did not remember that part of the mayor’s speech. She later said in an e-mail that Menino’s “comments are seen by the BPL as both a challenge and an inspiration to re-invent the libraries.”

Perille did not respond to questions about any discussions BPL officials may have had with Menino about his speech. She referred all further questions about the BPL’s response to Menino’s speech to the Mayor’s Office itself.

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