Communities Fight For Libraries On The Chopping Block

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On Friday, the trustees of the Boston Public Library vote on three options to close the system's approximately $3.5 million budget gap.

Board members appear to favor a plan that closes four branch libraries — much scaled back from the 10 branch closures that were first suggested.

But for many Bostonians, every branch is worth protecting. The emotional fight over the future of the BPL is creating activists out of two-year-olds and senior citizens. Library patrons who know to speak softly in the stacks are raising their voices outside at rallies and community meetings.

Protesters gathered on the steps of the State House in early March. (Sarah Birnbaum/State House News Service)
Protesters gathered on the steps of the State House in early March. (Sarah Birnbaum/State House News Service)

Susan Ruiz came to a rally in front of the State House with her daughter, 16-month-old Ariana, who held a sign reading, "Please don’t close my library!"

Ruiz said her daughter goes to story group at the Jamaica Plain branch every week. "There are always a ton of kids there and I can’t imagine her growing up without a library," Ruiz said.

At a community meeting at the Codman Square branch, Margaret Lamb said that for 25 years her sons grew up with the Codman Square library.  And every time she walks in, she "sees computers and tables full of young people."

Vick Campbell says he values the Lower Mill branch "ferociously."

"When I first heard about this idea of closing libraries, I said, 'Vick the Barbarians are at the gates,' " Campbell said. "This is not the thing to be doing."

One of the people Campbell calls barbarians is Amy Ryan, the president of the Boston Public Library. She is recommending the trustees vote to close four branches, including Campbells' beloved Lower Mills in Dorchester. Other branches on that list are the Faneuil in Brighton, Orient Heights in East Boston, and Washington Village in South Boston.

Ryan said closing some libraries is the most "prudent" solution to the library's financial shortfalls.

"It’s fiscally responsible, it means the staff doesn’t have to travel among branches, I think for the public it provides continuity of hours," Ryan said.

The other options before the seven-member Board of Trustees on Friday are reducing hours at 18 branches by 50 percent to 85 percent, or closing seven branch libraries. If they agree to the latter option, the library would have more money to expand services in early literacy, computer access and outreach to schools, among other things.

The irony of this story is that Boston’s libraries are currently being used in record-breaking numbers. People are borrowing 31 percent more books, CDs and DVD’s than three years ago and the library's Web site sees millions of visits.

But funding has decreased by $9 million in less than two years, primarily because state funding of the cities libraries dropped 73 percent.

"We would rather see the branches on life support rather than just to be declared dead on arrival."-- David Vieira, president of Friends of the Boston Public Library

Ryan says it pains her to suggest closing branches. "I myself am one of the biggest library users," she said.

But she is legally required to balance the budget which, as of July, will be $39 million.

"This is the second year in a row that we’ve had layoffs and we owe it to our employees to really stabilize the workplace," Ryan said. "And we owe it to the citizens of Boston to provide a sustainable institution that can grow with the city’s expectation."

Boston has 26 neighborhood branches and, like the city's Dunkin' Donuts, many are near each other. The libraries on the proposed closure list share common characteristics – they are small, in old buildings and aren’t used as much as other locations.

The Orient Heights branch in East Boston is right near Constitution Beach and Deer Island in a far corner of East Boston.

Josephine Bruzzese says she has gone there her whole life and wants to keep it open. "Right now, it’s filled with children from various diverse backgrounds," Bruzzese said.

Giving children and teenagers easy access to libraries is the most commonly cited reason supporters say branches shouldn’t close. Adults may be able to drive or take the bus to other libraries, but kids cannot. They come to branches for homework help or the computers.

On a recent afternoon, more than a dozen teenagers are at the Egleston Sqaure branch in Roxbury. That's one branch that would close if trustees vote the option of shutting seven branches. Mara Trochez, who is in the 12th grade, tutors younger kids.

"It’s like a safe haven for them to get away from the streets get away from crime," Trochez said.  "They come here to do their homework."

Both the BPL's lifelong advocates and those who have just joined the fight have stories about what libraries mean to them, whether it's to escape the heat on a hot day or to escape into a good novel.

"My mother often tells me that she remembers the first time she brought me to the library and she told me that I would find many friends here," said David Vieira, president of the city-wide Friends of the Boston Public Library. He is leading the fight against closures.

"We would rather see the branches on life support rather than just to be declared dead on arrival," Vieira added.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino has been relatively silent on the issue of branch closures. He has sent representatives to the many community meetings and has said that closing branches should be the last resort, but left the decision making to the Board of Trustees.

Ultimately, though, Menino will decide the end of this story because he has to approve the library’s budget. He could ride in on a white horse and make up the shortfall, perhaps with the city's rainy day fund.

Or, he could go down in the history books as the mayor who closed branch libraries.

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This program aired on April 8, 2010.


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