Bostonians Deplore “Downloadables” as Branch Substitutes

March 16, 2010

[UPDATED March 17]

“Not the computers, not the high-tech, not the downloadables,” said Boston resident Maria Rodriguez at a March 9 Boston Public Library board meeting. “Libraries are about books and librarians. I didn’t hear anything about that in your vision.” Rodriguez was one of nearly 400 people who came for details about the planned closure of as many as 10 of the city’s 26 library branches and the layoff of up to 25% of the staff in order to address a $3.6-million budget shortfall for FY2011, the Boston Globe reported March 10.

At the meeting, Ryan characterized librarians as “information navigators” and said, “We can’t take a car designed in the 1970s onto today’s information superhighway.” Library administrators and Mayor Thomas M. Menino have spoken of transforming the library for the digital age and moving services out of buildings by increasing internet offerings and sending librarians to day care centers and nursing homes. “The days of the old encyclopedias are long gone,” Menino told some 500 business and civic leaders March 4, adding, “It’s clear the system as currently constructed is stretched too thin.”

The decision as to which branches to close would be based on a broad range of criteria, including foot traffic, program attendance, computer usage, handicapped accessibility, energy efficiency, and proximity to other branches, Ryan told attendees of the March 9 board meeting. She said the library system currently lacks a sufficient number of computers and cannot adequately staff such basic services 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,” said Ryan.

A suggestion from resident Judi Andelman that the library sell some of its valuable holdings, including its leaf from the Gutenberg Bible, prompted board Chair Jeffrey B. Rudman to scoff at the idea of “hawking the Gutenberg in New York.” He pointed out the difficulty of selling rare antiquities, noting that in the time it took BPL to recently sell a rare piano, he “could have learned how to play the piano.”

However, a steady stream of speakers denounced the closure plan, speaking of their branches as community gathering places and focal points. Some accused Mayor Menino of trying to divide the city and pit neighborhood against neighborhood, and asked the library’s board of trustees to increase fundraising and cut other expenses to save the branches.

Friends President David J. Vieira told American Libraries, “I’ve given the library and the city until April 30 to come up with a reasonable compromise.” If that fails, the City-Wide Friends will begin steps to place an initiative to override the Proposition 2 1/2 tax cap on the November 2011 municipal ballot; however, he admitted, that would come far too late to block the closings.

“The mayor is due to present the city budget to the city council within the next two weeks,” Vieira said, adding that there’s “a chance the city or state will come up with the funds to offset the shortfall.” He went on to observe that all the discussion from the mayor and the library administration has been on closing branches; he said the opponents of the closures would like to move the discussion to keeping all the branches open, but with reduced hours.

Vieira also told AL that the City-Wide Friends is organizing a March 21 meeting of the 15 branch-level Friends groups, and that plans are underway for a rally outside the main library Copley Square the following weekend.

In the meantime, other library boosters have already followed up: A March 13  read-in staged by the Friends of the Boston Public Library drew a crowd of about 50 at the one-room Egleston Square branch, where politicians and volunteers denounced the threatened cuts and a parade of two-dozen children and adults waved open books and shouted “Don’t close the doors,” according to the March 14 Globe. Another meeting was held at the Faneuil branch March 16 and further plans are being posted at a Facebook page, Say NO to Branch Closings of the Boston Public Library, started by the community group People of Boston Branches March 14. Since that time, the page has gained more than 750 members. A petition drive has also been launched.

Additionally, BPL continues to accept suggestions from the public at its budget-update web page, Communications Manager Gina Perille told AL, as well as through feedback[at]

Ironically, when the board of trustees, under direction from Menino, declined in 2007 to renew the contract of then–BPL President Bernard Margolis, the Menino administration accused him of neglecting the branches in favor of the historic Copley Square main library—an assessment refuted by his supporters and by Margolis himself. “While he did a great job restoring the main branch in Copley, I believe the board is looking to expand their search for a new director, someone who would be interested in looking more at the branches,” Menino spokeswoman Dot Joyce told the Globe.


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