BPL president takes questions from community reporters

Days before the Boston Public Library’s board of trustees is expected to vote on whether to close branches or pare back hours, the head of the library system spoke today with a group of community reporters at the main branch in Copley Square.

The library system is facing a $3.6 million budget gap, according to BPL President Amy Ryan. It has a $38 million budget. “It’s a matter of how you spend that money, how do you realign your resources,” Ryan said. “The first thing we did, which I think has been buried when I talk about it, is we didn’t jump out of bed and say we want to close branches. We really looked at how do we really streamline the Boston Public Library’s operations.”

But protected from closure and cutbacks, according to the Boston Public Library, are the following branches, dubbed “lead” libraries: Codman Square, Mattapan, Grove Hall, Brighton, Dudley, Honan-Allston, Hyde Park, and West Roxbury. Library officials have also released data on foot traffic, computer sessions and other measurements of usage of the library system.

A series of public meetings – including a noontime one at the Leahy-Holloran Community Center and another at 2 p.m. at the Codman Square Library – are planned ahead of trustees’ meetings on April 7 and April 9.

Below is part of the 74-minute interview between Ryan and reporters from the Dorchester Reporter, the South End News, the Jamaica Plain Gazette, the Bulletin newspapers, the West Roxbury Transcript and others. She answered questions on whether the budget gap can be temporarily patched this year and whether Mayor Thomas Menino consulted her before his recent speech that touched on potential branch closures.

Q: Why wasn’t there any talk about closing libraries last year?

A: Well, I think because we could patch it together. And also I think because we didn’t realize that budget cuts were going to keep coming, too. And I think that closing libraries wasn’t on the table at that point.

Q: It just seemed like it went from zero to eight to ten. I mean, the mayor, he said it quite a lot on the campaign trail, closing no libraries…[the campaign and administration] went out of their way to point out that no libraries were closing. And then all of a sudden, so many months later, we’re going to eight, ten? I mean, for residents I’ve talked to, they’re wondering what happened, besides the obvious fact that it was an election year.

A: Well I also think the economic downturn was cataclysmic worldwide. I mean, I think not many people predicted that.

Q: But that’s been going since 2007. I mean --

A: Well, it really hit in October of ’08. ‘Cause that’s when I got here. And that’s when that started. So then we started planning for that budget process…patching it together, and now the status quo isn’t working. And now thinking about building up a sustainable library for the future.

Q: Around 2006 I believe there was an internal and apparently only partly-finished BPL study that suggested cutting branches, and that was leaked to the Globe and it was the subject of a Globe editorial that sort of supported it. And I don’t know if you’re aware of that or if you discussed that with anybody here –

A: Are you talking about Neighborhood Services Initiative? Maybe that came after that?

Q: Uh, it was never clear what that was... this was about closing [branches].

A: I’m sorry I don’t know about that.

Q: If the funds could be found, and it seems that it’s a small amount, and if the mayor and the city council decide that’s their priority, would you be in favor of patching it over for one more year, giving yourself more time to make longer-term decisions?

A: First, it’s up to the trustees. And if the bottom line changes I think we would have to review what we’re looking at. But I think this is about the long-term. This is about the status quo not working. And so it’s not really just about the [$3.6 million]. It’s really about saving money, getting up to a baseline of filling critical positions and then moving forward.

Q: Something that City Councillor City Felix Arroyo said, and I think one or two other councillors too – we’re going through a two month process here. Or a couple-months process. And he’s saying people should be able to debate this over a longer term. And from his perspective the city can dip into its reserves, patch it up for a year and not so much put off the long term planning, but just kind of have more time for people to process the potential closure of branches and everything you guys have been suggesting. Is that something you guys –

A: Well this started with the Neighborhood Services Initiative back in ’07, when that was chaired by trustee James Carroll and it had a significant amount of public participation. Maybe some of you were in on that. This is a continuous process of turning to the community. We looked at that more recently before we had the budget setback. We started a strategic planning [process] with the Compass Committee, also chaired by James Carroll. We also looked internally with the staff. The fact of the matter is we’ve had thousands of interactions over the past few months. We’ve posted the factual data, you probably saw that, about the library measures, number of books borrowed, foot traffic, computer sessions, we looked at wireless, adjacency to lead libraries, adjacency to other libraries, we’ve looked at national standard measures compared to other cities, how many branches do we have per capita and the saturation of branches.

We’ve had a number of community meetings. We’ve had small brown bag sessions. Then you’ll see too, if you’ll attend the board meeting on Wednesday, there’s been a tremendous effort going into the analysis and review of it. So I hear that some people think it’s quick. I also look at the mountain of data that has been gathered since the Neighborhood Services Initiative in ’07. And at the end of the day, this is about a legal requirement for the Boston Public Library to have a balanced budget.

Q: It seems like the main focus is on closing libraries. I’m trying to get percentages: 60, 40 you’re weighing closing libraries?

A: We’re looking carefully at the reducing of the hours. That is one of the options that the board asked us to fill out. So we are looking at if we keep the seven largest libraries open, where it’s busy, where they have the computers and the programs, what it would mean to the remaining libraries. And that would mean and we’re laying out the numbers now, a reduction of 50 to 85 percent in open hours. That could mean that libraries are open from one, two or three days. That is also dependent on union bargaining too, because of the location of the workplace. That means the staff might have to work up to three places per week. So that option is still before the trustees. And we’re working on what would that schedule would look like if you pared libraries: You know, one would be open Monday, Wednesday or something like that, Tuesday, Thursday.

Q: In terms of those options, I know -- As we’re all aware, the mayor made a speech on March 4, in which he talked about the future of libraries, the future of community centers, amongst other things, the Boston Municipal Research Bureau speech. And in that speech he said we need to close some buildings, some library buildings, that aren’t offering the highest quality service to residents of Boston. He didn’t say we need to either pair up and consolidate, or close. He said we need to close. Did he consult you before that speech about those remarks –

A: I think that’s his vision for the libraries and community centers and the schools. I mean he did talk about the transformation. He has challenged his department heads to really think about advancing the way we deliver services. He’s also been very, very clear, especially with [Boston Centers for Youth and Families], the schools and the libraries, how we have to work together, too, in partnerships, share resources and what can we do for the kids and the teens. ‘Cause they don’t care where the tax budget breaks down. They want their services.

Q: But did he consult you about his remarks?

A: We talked about it. The mayor has been very imaginative and supportive of envisioning a world-class library for Boston. Very much in terms of partnerships and innovative services, and the world of information is changing and how do we change with it.

Q: And are you concerned that he did not speak about both options, that he only spoke of closure?

A: Well, I think his speech was about transformation.

Q: Which you have equated with closure in your vision statement.

A: Right.

Q: I assume, and maybe I’m wrong in this, that all libraries have federal funding. Is that correct? Because in Bridgewater over the last year they were thinking about closing that library but there were federal grants…and it would have cost them more money to close the library than keep it open. Is that the case here?

A: The only federal money we have… we got a half million federal stimulus grant for laptop computers. Usually libraries are funded on the local level. And then this one is the state because it’s the library of last recourse.

Q: Can you expand a little on what that means? It sounds kind of apocalyptic. What is the last recourse?

A: Yeah that’s true, I never thought of it that way. In a commonwealth statute, it calls for the Boston Public Library to provide reference and research services to the citizens of the commonwealth. And several years ago, the funding was in the $7, $8 million range for that service. And that took the shape of over the years of building up the library subscription databases that everyone could use, including Bostonians. It enriched the book collection and some of the special collections. It also was used to pay for parts of librarians’ salaries, too, in fact because they were helping people throughout. It also supported this facility to a certain degree. So it was really embedded into the services that Bostonians benefited from as well as citizens of the commonwealth. So when the state reduced the funding for the Boston Public Library, the easy question is, well stop serving the state. But it’s not as if we had a bookmobile going out to Springfield or something. That would be so easy to figure out. It’s then how do we shape our services so we can still serve Bostonians. You still want the books and databases. So that’s what that is about. And that’s gone down for two years in a row.