‘Tired of being taken for granted,’ Mather School librarian signs off

Maura O’Toole, photographed with her fifth-grade class at the Mather in 1985. Courtesy Maura O’Toole

The end of the school year is a natural moment for farewells. But for Maura O’Toole, a library paraprofessional leaving the Boston Public Schools after 14 years, the departure feels premature.

“This past January, my position was reduced in hours,” O’Toole said. It was the second such reduction she has experienced at the Mather Elementary School in Dorchester, where she has run the library for the past eight years.

O’Toole started out full time, but was cut to four days a week a few years ago. The cutback in January would have brought her down to a 50 percent schedule.  “I’m 45 years old. I should not be working two and a half days a week,” O’Toole said. She chose to take a layoff instead.

For O’Toole, library work is never truly a part-time job. She organizes the space and applies for grants. She coordinates author visits and two book fairs a year — all while playing a social and instructional role in the life of the Mather.

“There’d constantly be kids trying to sneak a bathroom pass and come to see me in the library,” she said with a laugh. “I had to tell them they couldn’t do that anymore.”

Over eight years, O’Toole tried to tailor her library to serve the students at the Mather — only 5.5 percent of whom are white. “When I first started working there, it upset me,” she said of the book selection. “It was “Pinkalicious,” with a little white girl. Or “Fancy Nancy” — those were the books that were available.”

After she received a grant from the Laura Bush Foundation to find more books to serve the school’s large Cape Verdean and Vietnamese populations, O’Toole found that children’s books in Creole or about Cape Verde were very hard to come by. Still, she found ways to build her foreign-language collection, including asking the school’s Vietnamese newcomers to bring back books in the language from frequent trips to Southeast Asia.

Students responded.  “Every year, my checkout numbers were going up,” O’Toole said. Even as district schools closed in March in response to the coronavirus outbreak, she had almost 11,000 books circulate this year.

Now, colleagues, families, and students are using video to thank O’Toole — and to say farewell.

“Ms. O’Toole, you try to get to students to love reading books — like now I do,” said one third-grader. “If I were principal, I’d pay you double the amount of money that the real principal pays you.”

Said O’Toole: “Schools don’t really think of their book inventory as an asset, when it really is. My collection at the Mather is probably worth $200,000, if you had to replace it all. And 90 percent of that is through donations or fundraising.”

The Mather is the third BPS school O’Toole has worked at during her 14 years in the district. “Every library I’ve worked at has closed,” she said. It’s a function of principals on tight budgets and, O’Toole believes, the underrating of libraries as a space for discovery or a source of research skills.

BPS officials did not respond to requests for comment on library strategy or cuts. But Mayor Marty Walsh’s budget, which was approved by the City Council last week, includes $80 million in spending cuts.

For O’Toole, it is painful to know that she can’t continue working her four-day schedule at the Mather for want of $15,000. “I’m tired of being taken for granted,” she said. “I bring in a ton of resources. It just felt a little bit degrading.”

In the mid-1980s, O’Toole was a BPS student, including three years at the Mather. Back then, the library occupied the same space it does now — but it was a different atmosphere.

“We had sort of the stereotypical librarian that you’d think of ... ‘If you lose a book, you have to pay for it,’” O’Toole said, remembering she was “terrified” of violating the policy. Now, she said, “one of my policies is, I just want my books back eventually.”

For O’Toole, overseeing a library is a consuming passion. She spent last week clearing out the Mather’s space of her Legos and her books — the better to prepare whoever uses the space next “so that they’re not completely overwhelmed.”

She’s not sure what she’ll do next year. “I haven’t been able to secure another library job” so far, O’Toole said. But she will continue to seek her master’s degree this summer in hopes of returning to the little world of the school library as soon as possible — but probably not in Boston.