If we get the funding, we’ll keep branches open, says BPL chief Ryan

In a marked change in tone, the head of Boston’s public library system said this week that she would “strongly support” keeping all of Boston’s library branches open if funding is made available.

Amy Ryan, who oversees the 26 branches of the Boston Public Library system, said she would also be prepared to make that recommendation to the library system’s nine-member board of trustees, which voted earlier this year to close four of the branches, including the one in Lower Mills.

After months of talk of closing the branches, her comments came at a Monday night “working session” on the future of the Richmond Street library that attracted about 100 who support keeping it open.

Local lawmakers from Beacon Hill and on the City Council said Ryan’s words were a noticeable shift. Remarking that he was seeing ‘an attitude change,” Sen. Jack Hart (D-South Boston) added, “I think we’re heading in the right direction.”

Said City Councillor At-Large Felix Arroyo, “I am appreciative of what seems to be a change in theme and a change in how we approach this problem.”

The Lower Mills library was one of the four branches that trustees voted to shutter earlier this year. After lobbying from city councillors and lawmakers, the Menino administration granted the branches a stay of execution until next spring.

“This additional time was great and really allows us to continue our work with residents and others on how to keep the libraries open,” Ryan said Monday night. But a $375,000 gap still exists until the end of the fiscal year in June. It will cost some $108,000 to keep the Lower Mills branch open.

State Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry (D-Dorchester) credited neighborhood residents campaigning to keep the library open for the change in direction. “It was all of you who changed the tide,” she said. Forry is married to Reporter managing editor Bill Forry.

Menino administration officials and library officials have cited the weak economy and blamed state lawmakers’ repeated cuts to the BPL budget for the axing of the branches. But they also repeatedly said they wanted to modernize the system.

The other libraries on the closing list include the Faneuil branch in Brighton, the Orient Heights branch in East Boston, and the Washington Village branch in South Boston.

The decision angered community members, who organized a campaign to keep the libraries open, complaining that they were left out of the process. “We were blindsided,” said Mike Skillin, the president of the Lower Mills Civic Association.

In response to the proposal to close the libraries, state lawmakers added an amendment to the fiscal 2011 budget preventing $2 million in state from going to the Boston Public Library system if any of the four branches were to close their doors, a move that prompted library officials to warn of further “draconian” cuts to the system if the money isn’t freed up.

On Monday night, lawmakers and library officials softened their rhetoric. Ryan said she would push the BPL’ foundation to make the leap into “major fundraising,” adding that the foundation could be a “much greater part” of the library system’s success.

State lawmakers are attempting to funnel money to the library system through a mini-budget, which could occur later this year or in early 2011.