When the Fields Corner Branch library closed at 6 p.m. last Thursday night, Celeste Figueroa came out with four DVDs, a book, and her two daughters. “A library’s like a museum,” she said. “It’s a way to get out of the house, because being in the house is like being in jail.”
Figueroa described the library as a “fun place,” but her nine-year-old daughter Selena made it clear that she had chosen Sara Pennypacker’s Clementine for her fourth-grade English assignment on summary and prediction.
While her four-year-old sister Celine had been standing on a chair and tapping on a computer keyboard, a racially mixed group of boys and teenagers was less than fifteen feet away, sharing a table and playing a Japanese card game called Yu-Gi-Oh. Closer to the front of the library, where books in English gave way to titles in Spanish and Vietnamese, a man was at a table reading the latest issue of Vanity Fair. Above a copy machine, flyers offered information about everything from infant nutrition to English language learning, even a reminder in Vietnamese about the Earned Income Tax Credit.
Like many other branches around Boston, the one in Fields Corner also has a growing number of signatures on a petition against a possible closing, and teens from Dorchester House and the Dorchester Youth Collaborative are starting their own campaign.
But, with Governor Deval Patrick proposing to cut state funding for the Boston Public Library system by $3.6 million, local officials, including Mayor Thomas Menino, are combining their call for new services and new efficiencies with talk about branch closings.
“The Boston Public Libraries are going to stay in the neighborhoods,” Menino said in his address earlier this month at the annual meeting of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau.
“However, it’s clear the system as currently constructed is stretched too thin. For example, the BPL has had to turn down partnerships because staffing is so light. It has closed some buildings that are not offering the highest quality services to the residents of Boston. I know this is going to be heart-breaking to neighbors who identify with these places, but buildings don’t define us—our connections to each other do.”
At a trustees meeting this month, BPL President Amy Ryan likened the system to “a seventies car on the information highway.” She also spoke about the need to have more hours during evenings and weekends, along with more staffing after school. In her vision, a better library system would have more up-to-date equipment, such as newer computers, and specialists who could work at multiple locations as needed.
“We need to redefine the boundaries of library services, redraw them outside the walls of our buildings through community outreach,” said Ryan. “Our current staffing model does not allow us the flexibility to visit childcare or senior centers.”
Boundaries did change last year in Grove Hall, with the opening of a new branch library, which shares space with a community center in the renovated Jeremiah Burke High School. More changes are expected as the digital transmission of texts and visual material becomes more the rule, thanks to portable hand-held devices such as Kindle and the iPad. As Menino said in his address, libraries are becoming less defined by books on shelves.
But one trustee, the author James Carroll, says another result of new technology is that fewer people will have books of their own. Citing cuts already made in the budget for acquiring materials, Carroll says the BPL is turning away from its primary mission of being a repository for books.
And, though she has a computer at home, Erin Puleio, a member of the Friends group for the Fields Corner branch, says she still needs books for home-schooling her children.
“Because these days children are in front of screens [whether it is TV or computer] on average of several hours a day,” she wrote, “they need the physical manifestation in the form of books that they can feel and touch and experience. Technology is great but should not be used to, nor can it, replace books.”
A former children’s librarian, Puleio says it’s important for children to see books in the hands of other people. “Being around other readers is also a great incentive for children who are either struggling or are just learning to read themselves,” she wrote. “It's a great motivator.”
The Fields Corner branch is located on the same block as the Dorchester Youth Collaborative. The director of the Collaborative, Emmett Folgert, says young people from DYC go to the branch “every day” because other places with after-school programs are either crowded or unaffordable.
“A lot of the kids who go there are very low income,” he said. “And their parents aren’t going to be able to put them into an after-school program.”
The six Dorchester branches are all within a few blocks of neighborhood commercial centers, and community groups have organized over the years for new construction or improvements.
Dorchester’s second newest library building, in Lower Mills, dates from 1981. During his run for re-election in 1979, Mayor Kevin White drew a crowd of neighborhood residents when he announced he was setting aside money for the current building on Richmond Street. The Lower Mills Friends group would later spend years trying to get the branch furnished.
The president of the Lower Mills Civic Association, Michael Skillin, says the branch attracts elderly residents and students from nearby schools. It is also used as a polling place for elections.
“It’s a good community, and it’s things like the library, Carney Hospital, and St. Gregory’s that keep it strong,” said Skillin.” But he allows that cutbacks might be needed for a while.
“If it means we have to lose Saturdays or something like that to keep the branch or cut down the hours,” he said, “then that’s acceptable.”
Another campaign failed to result in a new library for Uphams Corner, whose current branch at Columbia Road and Bird Street was renovated in 1989. The branch occupies two floors of the municipal building that also contains the Bird Street Community Center and part of the Uphams Corner Health Center.
Both levels are accessible only by stairs, with the upper level for adults. Like in a store, the adult level has shelves with book easels propping up new titles and works of black authors. Large enough to stand on their own – above copies of maps showing Dorchester and Milton in 1831 – are the photo books published on the election of President Obama by Time, Life Magazine, and the New York Times.
While one woman at a table checks messages on a cell phone, three young men wearing hats fill in forms at computer monitors. Behind the Black Authors section, a man sleeps in a leather chair with a white paper bag at his side.
Downstairs are the children’s and young adults sections, in what used to be a swimming pool. At one table, a tutor helps a girl with math (“How many sixes in 300?” she asks), while another tells to a second girl the difference between a noun and a verb (“It’s something you do,” she explains).
At the next table, women help girls cut and glue together pieces of felt to make animal wrist bands. Three students are at computer monitors, and right behind them is a boy reading a book. On a rug near the folk tales and “Easy Readers” shelves, two boys play with plastic building blocks and a toy excavator. After the blocks are built up, they’re knocked down and built up again.
“I’m the manager here, and I’m going to be really upset,” one boy said to the other. “When I come home from work, I need to earn a lot of money.”
Just a few blocks away, on Dudley Street, real construction crews are building a new community center to be run by the Salvation Army. But the president of the board for Uphams Corner Main Street, Matthew Bruce, says it’s still necessary to have the library in the municipal building. He cites the convenience for the Bird Street Community Center upstairs and the advantage of drawing young people to the same setting as adults.
“If Uphams Corner feels like a safe place for families – and a library has a tendency to do that” says Bruce, “that’s a good thing for the district.”
The budget pressure on libraries comes after an experiment with a temporary storefront library in Chinatown. Leslie Davol and her husband opened “Boston Street Lab” after drawing intergenerational audiences in Chinatown for free movies. The experiment also built on a campaign to give Chinatown the first library since the closing of its branch in 1956.
Though Davol said the “outside library” was not meant to replace a regular branch, she found there was still a need to offer more than access to reading material. The services included helping visitors learn to use computers, even for swapping photos with relatives. Davol said the storefront also provided “a little bit of structure,” and a transaction with “someone behind a desk.”
Added Davol, “I think it’s just a desire for community in some ways. And everybody behaves differently when they’re out in public, and it dignifies things in a different way – kind of makes you take them more seriously.”
Some of the branches in Dorchester and Roxbury also began as storefront operations. At the Boston Street Lab, Davol said some visitors who came for newspapers even began reading articles to each other – much like the news readers described by Charles Lamb in banks, pubs and barber shops of early 19th- century London.
“I feel it’s really great to be with people at a basic level, and people really crave that,” said Davol. “It benefits everyone if you have places where you can go that’s not your place of work and not your home – and it’s not a commercial space,” she said. “It’s a place where you can learn, and ponder, and not just a space to shop.”