Editorial: A victory for libraries

Inside the new Adams Street branch library. Bill Forry photo

What a difference a decade makes.

That will likely be an oft-heard comment on Saturday morning when city officials and residents gather at the newly built, $18.3 million Adams Street branch library. The 13,450-square-foot building stands as a monument to learning, literacy, and civic life, a real treasure in the heart of our community, replacing an aging, but well-used and fondly recalled facility that opened in the 1950s and served its mission marvelously.

But this beautiful new library also stands as testament to the power of resistance. You can, it turns out, beat City Hall.

Back in 2010-11, this newspaper spilled much of our ink covering the city budget, then in the hands of the late Mayor Tom Menino and his administration. Burdened by a crippling recession and cuts from the state and federal levels, Menino’s budget team faced tough choices on spending. Unfortunately, they looked to the Boston Public Library system as “low-hanging fruit” from which to prune millions in operating expenses.

With little notice or discussion, the BPL’s board voted to permanently close branch libraries in four neighborhoods, including the one in Lower Mills. The fury and fallout that resulted— including an aggressive lawn sign and letter-writing campaign and hardball push-back from state lawmakers, including my wife, Linda Dorcena Forry— ultimately led to a full-on reversal of that decision.

The library fight of 2010-2011 was not just about four brick-and-mortar libraries. It was a gut-check moment for the whole city about what we valued collectively and about where public libraries fit into our priorities at that time and moving forward. A decade ago, this neighborhood and key elected officials made it clear: We didn’t just want to “save” libraries; we wanted to modernize, re-invent, and invest in them, all over Boston.

In 2013, we elected a candidate who saw the fight and its outcome in real time. In all candor, Marty Walsh wasn’t the standard bearer of the branch library resistance. But as a savvy politician running citywide, he pledged to reverse the thinking that prevailed in the waning years of the Menino era. He promised that he would protect and invest in the library system, and as mayor, he lived up to his pledge and then some.

The Walsh administration pumped new life into the library system. He hired a leader— BPL president David Leonard— who counts neighborhood branches as real assets, not liabilities. The spectacular new Adams Street branch is just the latest in a string of big-dollar investments targeting communities that were overdue for improvements, including a magnificent library in Roxbury’s Nubian Square, which is where Walsh delivered his final “State of the City” address in January.

The central branch in Copley Square got a massive make-over on Walsh’s watch and significant improvements have been made to branches in Brighton’s Oak Square, on Parker Hill in Roxbury, and in Hyde Park and Roslindale. And there’s more in the pipeline: Walsh budgeted $130.5 million for renovations and new construction of library buildings in his most recent capital plan, which extends out to 2025.

All of which is cause for celebration this Saturday under the giant oak tree that stands at the corner of Oakton and Adams. Neighbors planning the new library demanded that this huge, beautiful tree be left untouched during construction. The BPL did just that— and also delivered on Mayor Walsh’s promise to preserve and improve our library system in all corners of the city. Bravo to that. And to the men and women who built this amazing facility, thank you.

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