The difference between a Boston mayoral administration that loves libraries and one that doesn’t so much is this: As little as six years ago library budgets had been cut every year by millions of dollars, branch renovations were few and far between, and new hires for a library system that could barely handle growing demand for Internet and other services were almost unheard of. By contrast, today, the Walsh administration’s FY2020 budget proposes to spend more than $127 million over the next five years to rebuild Boston’s branch libraries and critical departments at the Central Library (on top of $30 million already spent this year). “A good news budget,” is how a city financial manager described it.
The proposed FY2020 operating budget is almost $50 million (from $32 million six years ago) and a handful of new positions are included for project management, and teen and children’s librarians. Equally important, the administration and the BPL have a revamped Fund for the Boston Public Library to tap Boston’s private wealth and help sustain the growing demand for expanded public-library services. (Its predecessor, the anemic Boston Public Library Foundation, in its final years raised just enough to pay its employees’ salaries.) Even State funding for the BPL has increased, though minimally for now. That will likely be the next task the Boston Delegation to the Massachusetts Legislature is asked to consider when they get a visit from BPL’s executives and/or trustees, one of whom, Rep. Chynah Tyler, is expected to begin a term serving on that very board.
The enthusiasm and upbeat tone by president David Leonard, and the grateful response to his presentation by city councilors at the May 13 budget hearings (where they heard about their constituents’ new or to-be-renovated libraries) is a marked change from earlier days. Boston’s long-neglected library infrastructure is now on the upswing and his is what that looks like: The Adams Street branch renovation has an appropriation of $19.2 million; Uphams Corner, $17.9 million; the Dudley branch, $17.2 million; Faneuil, $12.6 million; Fields Corner, $12.1 million; Roslindale, $10.2 million; lesser amounts are set aside for smaller improvement projects at other branches, including the South End library. At the Central Library, moreover, the site of previously lost, misplaced, fungus-challenged and water-damaged prints and manuscripts, some $15.7 million is being spent to safeguard the Rare Books and Manuscripts Department.
Alongside the rebuilding program, the BPL is looking into mixed-use possibilities for their renovation projects, including the combination of low-income and affordable housing with libraries (Fields Corner, Eggleston and West End). Another possibility is making libraries part of an arts and culture district (Uphams Corner, where the Strand Theatre is located), or even building libraries in consort with separate commercial developments, including perhaps a permanent location for a Chinatown library (now in temporary quarters in the China Trade Center) that could be part of one or another BPDA-sponsored development project over the Mass Turnpike.
Collaborations between the BPL and other major Boston cultural institutions is another exciting change, exemplified by the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit now on display at the Museum of Fine Arts. More than 100 prints owned by the BPL are on loan to the MFA, which assisted in restoration and preservation work of the BPL’s Toulouse-Lautrec prints collection, and agreed to offer free admission to the museum for the month of June to anyone who owns a BPL library card.
Services for homeless patrons of the BPL are still in their infancy, compared to, for example the San Francisco Public Library, but important progress is being made. A pilot project with the Pine Street Inn has brought a full-time social work navigator to the Main Library to work with homeless patrons, and assisted with obtaining housing. The BPL hopes to “add capacity” to this effort, said president Leonard. In addition, a program between the BPL and Simmons University is in process of being established for their social-work faculty and students to work with “vulnerable patrons.” Another one-year pilot program launched last fall is for library users to borrow a “hot-spot” kit for free Internet service elsewhere. Each kit contains a hotspot device, Micro USB cable, adapter, and instructions in English, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Haitian Creole.
Sustaining and expanding these initiatives and services will be expensive which is why the April launch of a new and improved BPL foundation, called the Fund for the Boston Public Library, is so important. Their opening event will be a June 7 Gala at the BPL, which expects to raise $8 million. A new executive director was hired recently, Mary Myers. The last director brought on by the Walsh administration four years ago for what was then called the Boston Public Library Foundation concluded within a very short time that the foundation was beyond salvation after years of well-meaning but incompetent leadership and an overload of patronage appointments dating from previous administrations. No-nonsense BPL trustees, after doing an in-depth study of the teetering organization, closed the BPL foundation down three years ago and began to envision a new, effective and more muscular one, from scratch.
Let’s hope they succeed. So far it all looks good. The Gala will also be be the night when Mayor Marty Walsh will receive the Bates Medal for making significant contributions to the advancement of learning. From my perch of a long-suffering Boston public-library advocate, he has earned it.