Though attendees at weekend meetings to discuss possible Boston Public Library branch closings voiced many opinions on what was happening to the city’s library system, their main point was clear: Do not close any of them.
Dozens of residents met with city officials and BPL President Amy Ryan last weekend in a pair of meetings to voice their concern about the future of neighborhood branches. Many of the more outspoken critics of the possible closings blamed city and state officials for the library’s dire financial circumstances.
“The mayor is not here, he should be,” said Richard Heath, who attended the meeting at Codman Square Library. He later added that Mayor Thomas Menino showed “a lack of leadership on the fifth floor” of City Hall.
Menino aides say the mayor remains a “staunch supporter” of the libraries, but also believes the library system needs to be upgraded to meet the demands of having a 21st-century system.
On Saturday, the Codman Square branch played host to a gathering of more than 50 library patrons, library staff, educators, reading advocates, and public officials in one of a series of community meetings held by BPL officials to solicit comment on plans to revamp the city’s system.
Grace Hubbard of Adams St. said that the library needed a greater portion of city funds to avoid further cuts. She said that the vision, articulated by one library trustee, that every branch should be similar to the brand new Mattapan location is not what Boston needs. City funds are already facing strains as state lawmakers weigh cuts to aid to cities and towns across Massachusetts.
“Every branch isn’t going to look like Mattapan and we don’t want it. I want it like it is. Don’t close,” Hubbard said of the branch on Adams Street up from Adams Corner.
“We value the Lower Mills branch library ferociously,” said Victor Campbell of the Lower Mills Civic Association, who added that the branch services two schools, a senior housing community and other constituencies as well as serving as the location for numerous neighborhood meetings, historical lectures, and other community programs.
“It is the only place in Lower Mills where you can come in freely, at any age,” Campbell said.
The BPL system is facing an operating deficit in the range of $3 million. But even if the budget hole were to be filled in, library officials say, they still want to transform the system by expanding staff and reallocating resources. That means closures, they say.
“Use is going up at many sites and our resources are going down,” Ryan said.
Michael Colford, BPL director of research and information technology, said that the library had received over 800 messages since the news of possible closings was announced, with more than 35 comments coming from attendees of public meetings.
BPL trustee Evelyn Arana-Ortiz said that she was happy to listen to the public’s comments, but that the library has done as much as it can to close the current budget gap. “We have to work with what we have and it’s not a lot,” she said.
Arana-Ortiz encouraged those opposed to library cuts to “go to the legislators; they are the ones cutting the money.”
State Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry responded to Arana-Ortiz, saying that Boston’s State House delegation is working to procure more funds through the state’s budget process. Dorcena Forry (D-Lower Mills) recommended writing letters to House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Murphy to help sway the Legislature toward increasing the library’s share of the state budget.
A representative from the mayor’s office attended the meeting and assured the crowd that Menino does not want to see any of the neighborhood branches close.
Keith, who said he has donated research, maps, hundreds of volunteer hours and thousands of dollars in books, asked what the library will do with his gifts if the Egleston branch in Roxbury is closed. A library official responded that materials from closed branches, including donations, would be used by the remaining libraries.
The system’s locations, the main library in Copley Square as well as the 26 branches, Ryan said, provide “essential electronic access” for those without home internet connections. Providing access to online learning, bill paying, college applications, and other resources has become a high priority for the library’s branches.
“Now we know that that’s not a luxury anymore,” Ryan said.
The BPL’s website and “Overdrive” catalog system are some of the most popular tools the system provides, Ryan said, adding that the BPL’s web operations would rank as the sixth busiest “branch” when compared to the other parts of the system.
“I’m personally looking for that bright idea that maybe we’re missing,” Arana-Ortiz said.
At a separate meeting organized by City Councillor Maureen Feeney’s office at the Leahy-Holloran Community Center on Saturday, several residents said they were worried that library closings will also lead to the loss of valuable community centers in Boston’s most needy neighborhoods, depriving the city’s children of an important safe haven where they can go to do their homework and to develop a lifelong love of learning.
“What’s so bad about having a lot of libraries?” asked Dorchester resident Christopher Stockbridge. The city should do everything it can to maintain its present branches if it hopes to preserve its status as a “world-class city,” he added.
Dorchester resident Katherine Jenkins-Jones spoke at length about how important the Uphams Corner branch has been to her family and to other members of the community.
“Every time I’m there it’s filled with people,” she said. “There are adults looking for work on the Internet. It would change my life, my kids’ lives,” she said of potential closures.
Jenkins-Jones also said that she had seen “low circulation” listed as one of the reasons for the need to close some of Dorchester’s neighborhood libraries, and that she found this sort of reasoning to be absurd.
“It’s like giving out free condoms, then taking them away because no one was using them, instead of educating [people] on the importance of using them,” she said.
“I did hear you and I will bring your message to the trustees,” said Ryan. “The Boston Public Library is here to stay in neighborhoods.”
Boston City Councilors At-Large Felix Arroyo and Ayanna Pressley attended Saturday’s meeting and spoke on the value of keeping the BPL system intact.
“Libraries keep communities healthy,” said Pressley. “They must be preserved and protected.”
Arroyo lamented the fact that there has not been “enough time for an engagement process” with the community, because it was only in February that the city announced it would put the issue of closing individual library branches to vote in April.