Libraries spared from closure

April 16, 2010
By

John Ruch and David Taber


Gazette photo by Lori DeSantis
A huge rowd turned out for a meeting with Boston Public Library oficials at the Curley School to voice their support for branch librarians on April 6.

Supporters fear future cuts here

All three Jamaica Plain-area branch libraries will remain open after the Boston Public Library (BPL) board of trustees decided to close four other branches in other neighborhoods instead in a hotly controversial April 9 vote. Massive public outcry at a JP community meeting beforehand appears to have been influential in saving the local branches.

But two local libraries—the Jamaica Plain and Egleston Square branches—were on an alternative official closure list that the trustees voted down. Asked by the Gazette if the BPL is considering closing those branches in the farther future, spokesperson Gina Perille simply answered, “No.” In fact, Perille said, the BPL still intends to expand the Jamaica Plain Branch and make all local branches handicapped-accessible.

But local library advocates are not so sure, especially after a closure process that, they said, has eroded trust in the BPL.

Putting the Jamaica Plain Branch on a closure list “signals an intention that they’re going to try again,” said JP resident Brandon Abbs, who founded the new citywide group People of Boston Branches to fight the closures and support branch libraries in the long term. “We’re really concerned this is not the last we’ll hear about branch closures.”

“It’s pretty apparent where the next targets [are],” said Don Haber, co-chair of Friends of the Jamaica Plain Branch Library.

The third local branch, the Connolly, was not included in any official closure proposal and also will remain open. The four branches slated for closure as of Sept. 1 are Faneuil, Lower Mills, Orient Heights and Washington Village.

The BPL trustees also voted down a proposal that would have kept all 26 branches open, but “paired” many of them into jointly operated facilities with severely limited hours.

In her official description of the various proposals, BPL President Amy Ryan made it clear that the most extensive closures—including the Jamaica Plain and Egleston Square branches—would result in the most “transformation” with “enhanced” services in surviving branches. But she ended up officially recommending the smaller, four-branch closure plan that the trustees later approved, calling it “prudent.” Perille told the Gazette that “there are no plans” for further branch closures to meet that larger “transformation” vision.

The BPL has said that branch closures are necessary due to projected budget cuts, while also saying that even with full funding, there would be branch closures to “transform” the BPL into a modern system. The exact motivation for the closure plan remains unclear and controversial and was described differently in different BPL trustee meetings.

Local library supporters, including City Councilor John Tobin, credited JP activism with saving the local branches. Especially key, they said, was an April 6 community meeting at the Curley School—by far the biggest and loudest of four such meetings held by the BPL in various neighborhoods.

At least 250 people from various neighborhoods attended that meeting, which began with a parade of dozens of library supporters banging buckets, walking on stilts and chanting, “Save our libraries.”

BPL President Amy Ryan attended that meeting. Abbs said it was the only time in the two-month closure debate that he saw Ryan “defensive and scared.”

“With JP in particular, I don’t think President Ryan knew what she was getting into,” Abbs said.

“It’s astonishing to me that they think they could roll something out like this [closure plan], and [have] the nerve to put JP libraries in there,” Tobin said. “They picked the wrong hornet’s nest.”

Tobin and at-large City Councilor Felix Arroyo, a JP resident, are among the councilors who have vowed to vote against the city budget if it includes any branch closures.

Tobin said he was especially surprised because of the well-known activism about a long-stalled expansion and renovation plan for the Jamaica Plain Branch at 12 Sedgwick St. Mayor Thomas Menino killed that plan in 2006 in a political dispute with Ryan’s predecessor. But the project remains in the city’s capital budget, in part because Tobin fought to keep it there.

Asked via e-mail if the BPL intends to keep that project in the capital budget, Perille this week simply answered, “Yes.” Ryan also noted in an April 1 interview with the Gazette and other community newspapers that the Jamaica Plain Branch already has a completed expansion study. The Mayor’s Press Office did not respond to a Gazette question about whether Menino also intends to keep it in the budget.

Perille also said that the BPL intends to fix various physical problems with the Jamaica Plain and Egleston Square branch buildings that Ryan cited when placing them on the hit list. “[B]ringing buildings up to ADA [Americans With Disabilities Act] standards, in particular, is of tremendous importance,” Perille wrote in an e-mail to the Gazette.

But it is unclear what the timeline for such projects would be, especially in tight budget times. At the April 9 meeting, the BPL trustees also voted to make a new East Boston library building the BPL’s top capital budget priority, in part to make up for killing the existing Orient Heights Branch there. Several audience members called out that such priority-setting was undemocratic and had more to do with making the trustees feel better than with good system planning.

Tobin told the Gazette that the Jamaica Plain Branch expansion and renovation project should come before any new East Boston project.

“In no way, shape or form will I be supportive of any capital project anywhere else until the JP situation is rectified,” Tobin said. “That’s not going to happen. As far as I’m concerned, we’re next in line.”

“A deal’s a deal,” he said of the existing Jamaica Plain Branch capital budget item. “They made a commitment to fund that, and I expect them to come through.”

In the four neighborhoods facing branch closures, the BPL is proposing to create “working groups” of residents who will figure out ways to continue some form of library-type services in partnership with local organizations and other city agencies. In the April 9 meeting, the trustees described that as a way to mitigate the loss of libraries, but it also appears to meet part of Ryan’s vision of “transformation,” which includes librarians working outside library buildings with other organizations.

Egleston Square Branch supporter Ron Hafer said at that meeting that such outreach should be done for all libraries. “I hope it goes for all neighborhoods,” he said.

Perille later told the Gazette that working groups will be a “pilot program” in the closure-affected neighborhoods for now. “It is possible that this working group model will be extended into other neighborhoods as part of ongoing community involvement,” she said.

Meanwhile, advocates continue to fight the closure of any branch library. The closure plan was approved by the BPL itself, but still needs city budget approval.

“Today is not the end,” Arroyo told the trustees and the public in testimony at the April 9 trustees meeting. He called any closures a “nightmare” that he and at least nine other councilors are vowing to oppose.

People of Boston Branches is organizing for the longer term as well. Abbs said the group likely will seek non-profit status so it can become a conduit for fund-raising—one that would be more transparent than the existing BPL Foundation and friends groups that many supporters have “lost faith” in. He said the group also will advocate for the Jamaica Plain Branch expansion project and for a full long-range plan for the entire BPL.

Confusion and vision

The BPL’s entire branch review process has been widely criticized as confusing, abrupt and secretive. It was first announced in February as a closure-only process driven by a budget crisis about a gap now listed as $3.3 million, especially a projected cut in state aid. Then BPL officials said it was due to ongoing budget problems. Then BPL officials said that even without budget cuts, they would be cutting libraries as part of a “transformation” with “enhanced services.”

The number of branches up for closure changed regularly with little explanation. And it remains unclear what the costs will be to close library buildings and create new programming to replace them.

In the end, half of the six voting trustees were uncertain about the necessity of the four-closure proposal. They voted in favor of a last-minute three-closure option, proposed by trustee Paul La Camera, that would have saved the Orient Heights Branch. With a tie vote, that proposal failed. La Camera then abstained from the final vote that approved the four-closure option.

The trustees had been lobbied with some non-public information. “In our packet, we have information you don’t have,” trustee Donna DePrisco told the crowd of hundreds at the April 9 vote meeting. Ryan quickly said that the information was about other cities’ plans to close branch libraries and that it would be posted later on the BPL web site—after the closure vote already happened. DePrisco, who previously vowed she would never approve any closures, voted in favor of the four-closure plan.

Meanwhile, city councilors and state legislators said that the BPL never notified them about budget concerns before announcing the crisis. And many residents complained that the trustees continued to reveal and discuss key information at meetings held in the main Copley Square library during the day on weekdays.

“It’s all a bit of a mystery,” Haber said of the closure plans. “I think they want it to continue to be that way.”

But Ryan defended the process as “very open” at the JP community meeting. In the April 1 interview, she also described it as thorough.

“We didn’t just jump out of bed and say, ‘We want to close branches,’’ Ryan said, explaining that staffing costs in particular are too high to fully operate the entire system. She also cited the cost of “maintaining aging structures…at the expense of strengthening” the entire BPL. The local branches are in old buildings, in some cases with longstanding maintenance issues.

Ryan brushed aside suggestions that the BPL is moving too quickly and that the 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 BPL’s future—for a year to gain more input.

“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 library is staying in the neighborhoods”—it’s just a question of in what way, Ryan said, describing her “vision” for the branch system. That vision includes books and physical facilities as a “secure environment.”

But it also involves more Web resources and the “leap into the community”—librarians working outside the building in such places as day care centers. “That would be the real transformation of the Boston Public Library,” she said.

Asked about models for her vision, Ryan cited 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 for its widely varied programming and “interactive” learning.

That part of the vision is clearly based on bigger, modern buildings—unlike any of the JP-area branches.

Haber is among the library advocates who say they are concerned that Ryan’s “vision” still lacks details and specifics on how it will help all Bostonians and not just those near large library buildings.

“It appears that the model that is being forwarded is a suburban model, not an urban model,” Haber said.
Official doubt

Menino appears to be the only public official to support the closure plan, calling it “difficult but necessary” in a brief press release.

In a March 4 speech, well before the BPL supposedly made any decisions, Menino declared that some unspecified branch libraries had to close. The Mayor’s Press Office never responded to Gazette questions about how Menino came to that conclusion and what buildings he was referring to. The Press Office also did not respond to Gazette questions about whether the four branches now slated for closure were the buildings he referred to, and if not, what he intends to do about the buildings he had in mind.

Ryan told the Gazette in the April 1 interview that she spoke with Menino about his speech and that he backs “transformation,” which, she confirmed, she equates with some branch closures.

In a Gazette interview, Tobin blasted the process as dishonest and orchestrated behind the scenes by Menino.

The closure plan “is a directive from the other side of the fifth floor [of City Hall],” Tobin said, referring to the Mayor’s Office, which shares that floor with the City Council. He said BPL officials must have known from the start which branches they were targeting for closure, even though they said they did not.

“They can’t look me in the eye and say they didn’t have a list,” Tobin said.

Tobin blasted the BPL and Menino for approving the shuttering of libraries in politically weaker areas such as East Boston and the Old Colony housing development. It is obvious, he said, that the BPL avoided closures “where the outcry was the loudest.”

Tobin noted the conspicuous absence of Menino at any of the branch closure meetings, as well as the lack of comment from administration officials who did attend them.

“It’s meeting after meeting after meeting, and nobody from the [Menino] administration stands up and says something,” Tobin said.

Local state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez at the April 6 community meeting voiced his confusion to Ryan about whether the closures were about funds or transformation.

“Is it a hole in the budget this year, or is it systematic change?” Sánchez asked. “We are trying to find out what we can do to help you.”

“It’s both,” Ryan replied. “We do have a budget shortfall.”

Sánchez later told the Gazette he is still unclear about the answer. “I think that they’re figuring it out as they go along,” he said. He emphasized that the state budget is not even finished yet, so residents should keep up the political advocacy and “make sure we’re building a vision for the library with the library.”

Ryan and some of the trustees met last month with some other members of Boston’s State House delegation. That included local state Rep. Liz Malia, who told the Gazette that she came away unimpressed.

“This seems to have been a project that was put together out of our earshot and [with] no public participation,” Malia said, saying she sees no evidence of the need for any closures. “What kind of planning is this? That’s my question.”

Malia said that when the state legislators pressed Ryan and the trustees for budget details, they acted as if it is simply “their power” to reorganize the branches and responded with an attitude of, “‘Well, who are you?’”

“They were kind of taken aback,” Malia said. “I don’t think they got where we were coming from.”

Local state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz issued a skeptical press statement that noted the cuts in state aid are about statewide services the BPL specially provides and do not directly related to branch funding. “I am not convinced that the large-scale closure of branches or reduction in hours is a necessary response,” she wrote.

Thousands of Boston residents also expressed their skepticism at public meetings and through anti-closure petitions. The heavily attended April 6 community meeting in JP seemed to take the BPL by surprise. Used to smaller groups at previous meetings, BPL officials did not provide a public address system. Trustee La Camera was left speaking through a bullhorn until a resident who runs a sound company was able to retrieve a public address system.

The dozens of anti-closure speakers included a Hyde Square Task Force youth organizer; Egleston Square Main Street Executive Director Betsy Cowan; and a Curley School staffer member speaking on behalf of the school librarian.

Laura Foner, a JP resident and the children’s librarian at the Connolly Branch, said that library planning should be done by members of the public.

“I say, ‘Who does this library belong to?’” she said.

“Us!” shouted the crowd.

See “Library data shows JP branches’ strengths” at JamaicaPlainGazette.com.

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