Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Boston Public Library Branch Closings Debate is Passionate

The Boston Globe's Andrew Ryan reports on a passionate and raucous meeting at the central Boston Public Library. Nearly 400 people packed a lecture hall in the beautiful Copley branch. When City Council President Michael Ross stepped to the microphone at one point, the crowd roared, and people shouted: "The public goes first!" and "Let the people speak!" And speak they did! The city council, Mayor Menino and the Trustees of the Public Library got quite an earful from the people of Boston.

Sell a page from the 556-year-old Gutenberg Bible, one woman suggested. Charge a modest fee for library cards, said another, waving a $10 bill.

One man said that he was a prison librarian while serving time in Walpole and that closing any library branches would be far worse than any of his crimes.

“I may have robbed a bank, but I have never burned a book,’’ said the man, John McGrath. “And that’s what you do when you close a library branch, because they are never going to reopen.’’ (snip)

“It’s outrageous that it has come to this,’’ said Yann Poisson of Dorchester. “Only a fifth-term mayor could dismiss libraries as a 21st-century anachronism, something that can be replaced by Yahoo or Google.’’

The library’s president, Amy E. Ryan, outlined a broad range of criteria that will be used to target branches for potential closing, including computer usage, handicapped accessibility, proximity to other branches, and the story behind each location. No decisions have been made.

The library lacks a sufficient number of computers, Ryan said, and it cannot adequately staff some of its most basic programs, such as story hours.

“We have to ensure that if it says Boston Public Library over the door that we have to commit resources for families, kids, and adults,’’ Ryan said.

Some at the meeting, though, accused Mayor Thomas M. Menino of trying to divide the city and pit neighborhood against neighborhood. They implored the library’s board of trustees to increase fund-raising, cut other costs, and twist arms on Beacon Hill and at City Hall until someone coughs up the money.

Donald Haber, who is active in the Jamaica Plain Branch Library, put a larger question to library administrators.

“Is the underlying issue really about money’’ asked Haber, who fears that his branch is on the chopping block because it is not handicapped accessible. “Even if a miracle happened and you got your $3.6 million, would you still be looking to close branches?’’ (snip)

Yesterday Ryan referred to librarians as “information navigators’’ and compared the system’s current technology to an abridged encyclopedia, not a multivolume set.

Using another metaphor, Ryan said, “We can’t take a car designed in the 1970s onto today’s information superhighway.’’

But many in the audience bristled at the frequent references to technology. They spoke about their branches as refuges, gathering places, and focal points for their communities.

“Not the computers, not the high-tech, not the downloadables,’’ Maria Rodriguez said. “Libraries are about books and librarians. I didn’t hear anything about that in your vision.’’
And I think that is what the people who are busy thinking about the "information superhighway" and "library as information center" are missing. In so many ways, the library is still vital as a PLACE. Its importance to the community it serves lies largely in its physicality. The human touch of the librarians helping people with reference questions, and offering story hour in public libraries. The pleasant and civilizing experience of reading, studying or attending an event in a beautiful venue. I know at least some schools and law firms still use the library as a show case where they lead prospective students, faculty and hires through that space when they want to impress them with the best the place can offer. It communicates a good deal about the aspirations and values of the community.

And in tough times, more people fall back on these consoling and FREE community resources. It has become more and more important to more and more people. The mayor in Boston picked a very bad time to try to divide and conquer. He packed the library trustees board with his own picks, but I think they have all run into a good deal of surprising trouble right here. We'll see what happens.

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