Library Closings are Our Domain, Says Councillor Ross

Boston city councillors began to draw a line in the sand yesterday when questioning BPL President Amy Ryan about the proposal to close up to a third of the library's branches in response to a $3.6 million budget shortfall. "I don't want to micro-manage you, or interfere with your skills and talents to run your own organization" said Councillor Michael Ross, whose district includes the Back Bay, Fenway and Mission Hill, "but when you want to close libraries, the issue becomes our domain."

"You can't simply close libraries in 2 to 3 months as currently proposed. It is not enough time. We need lots more time with our communities and go through a process together."

Councilor Chuck Turner, whose represents part of the South End, wanted to know why a 9 percent budget cut made it necessary to close 30 percent of the libraries. And he attacked the use of low circulation numbers as a measure for library closings: "If a library has low circulation," Turner told Ryan, "you partner with that branch to develop a strategy to increase circulation before you move to close it."

One of the newly elected at-large councillors, Felix Arroyo, said his constituents simply couldn't understand why their libraries were at stake. "We have not had enough time or gone through a transparent process," he said, adding he would not support closings "until we get to that point." Arroyo referred to the enormous popularity of the new Mattapan Library. Instead of getting into trouble, "kids choose to go there," he said.

Councillor Charles Yancey, a long-time library advocate from a family of library advocates, said, "I can't support library closings without understanding the reasons." Councillor Yancey chaired the hearing on the FY10 BPL budget, called to go over every line item in the current library budget to see if any expenditures could be cut.

Even though half a dozen BPL executives were testifying they often professed not to know answers to questions raised by the councillors. When Councillor Ross asked how many years the BPL had used their current on-line services for $45,000 a year, the executives could not answer. "Did you know that Verizon and Comcast offer free services to libraries?" Ross wanted to know. BPL executives said they were required to use filtering software to comply with child protection legislation. "Comcast offers filtering software," Ross pointed out. "I just want to know how many years times $45,000 we could have saved in the budget."

Councillors also noted to an increase in worker's compensation claims. Was there a pattern in the increased accident rate? they wanted to know. The BPL could not answer but promised to find out.

Among the library advocates testifying, one of them apologized for having been so complacent about libraries. "I thought they'd always be there," said the Jamaica Plain resident. She echoed Councillor Ross in his opening statement when he said, "Perhaps we didn't pay enough attention to libraries," he said. "But we want to do it now."