Where is the Public Debate on Library Closings?

When Mayor Menino finally came out  yesterday to publicly endorse the BPL proposal to close up to ten neighborhood libraries, it almost came as a relief. Until that moment, the volcanic heat created by the proposal had been directed at BPL President Amy Ryan, a library-consolidation specialist hired from the (consolidated) Minneapolis/Hennepin County library system, and the BPL board of trustees. They were possibly getting tired of  being on the front lines all by themselves and may have asked the Mayor to face some of those old eggs and soft tomatoes himself .  Here's the link to the speech endorsing closing libraries. The question had arisen: did the Mayor endorse this plan? He never mentioned it in his recent re-election campaign? Instead, he made sure that two of the only three new libraries built in the last two decades, the glorious Mattapan and Grove Hall branches, were opened during his re-election campaign inflatable slide. Should we be so cynical as to speculate that this was by design?  Adding to the confusion, Menino was quoted as saying that "closing libraries should be our last resort." Here's the link.

Well, now we know. But is this the moment of "last resort?" Is a $3.6 million shortfall so hard to cover for a critically important Boston institution, when usage is skyrocketing? And are we, the 600,000 taxpayers and 300,000 end-users of public libraries, going to be asked what we would like to see? Or are we just chopped liver?

It is hard to figure out, as is the answer to the question, why Boston neighborhood libraries need to be closed at all? We may need more libraries, not fewer. We may want to renovate and expand our existing branches. We indeed may want to close some of the local libraries because they would be too hard or too expensive to rebuild. We may need a new downtown library (Downtown Crossing would be a great location). We may need different sort of libraries, like kiosks, or small storefronts. But how do we know unless we have a public debate on it?

This is what Seattle public library leadership provided, when between 1998 and 2008 the city built, rebuilt or renovated 26 libraries, including four new branches and a new downtown library. Those ten years included economic upturns and downturns, the 9/11 attacks and stock market crashes (remember 2001-2002?). In other words, the will was there, even if the money seemed far away. The key difference was their library director, Deborah Jacobs, and her trustees engaged in a vigorous public debate and outreach to each of the Seattle neighborhoods to find out what library users wanted and needed. This prepared the way to pass a $200 million bond issue with 70 percent voter approval. Part of the bond issue's requirement was that the Seattle library's foundation had to raise $40 million. They most they had ever raised was $1 million. They collected more than $83 million. The last library in the initiative opened in the fall of 2008. For more details, click on Libraries for All report

Which leads us to another question: if Mayor Menino wants to build a 21st-Century, world-class library system in Boston, led by BPL president Amy Ryan (who he describes as one of the best library leaders in the nation), where is he going to get the money? He did not mention it in yesterday's speech endorsing the closure of a third of the BPL branches, nor did he in a memo from his office to all the city councilors, that same day.

The memo said  "We have the opportunity to transform Boston's library system into one of the premier systems across the country. It will be a system that is open when residents want to use it, that meets the technological needs of today's population, that has the books, DVDs and CDs that users want, and that is staffed to appropriately serve its constituents. Our current system is over-bricked and over-mortared, but working together, we can create a system that results in all neighborhoods of Boston having access to branches that are of the highest quality."

But the memo did not refer to funding. What we do know is that last week, the city's Budget Office reported there would be another  shortfall next year and more lay-offs.Here's the link. Does this mean that, next year, the to-be-consolidated Boston libraries would be consolidated further? Cut further? Open fewer hours? Is it possible we could end up with two libraries, or none?

There are ominous signs and no words to encourage us. The fundraising track record of the current BPL board of trustees is dismal. In the last two years, there was no BPL presence at the state level lobbying for state funding for Boston libraries. As a result, the portion of non-municipal funding, which was 42 percent in 2008, has declined to less than 20 percent and is plummeting.The BPL Foundation, moreover, raises at most $500,000 a year, a 90 percent decline from previous years. (Their website states that since 1992 they raised $80 million.) Last year, the BPL Foundation gave $20,000 from its meager account to BPL president Ryan for an 'additional, one-time housing allowance,' a highly unusual transaction for a charitable foundation. (Ryan earns $171,000 a year.)

Finally, there has be no outreach to Boston neighborhoods to help fundraise for their local branches. There is love, affection, passion and money for libraries in every neighborhood. But if you don't ask, you don't get. A recent report on Public and Leadership Attitudes about 21st Century libraries takes a fresh look at this. Read all about it by clicking on Long Overdue.

Mayor Menino appears swayed by the idea that electronic and Internet use can substitute for the physical presence of libraries. That is the cheap, parochial view of libraries and how to pay for them. It ignores the fact that many people do not have Internet access, that libraries are safe places to be, important  partners with public and private schools schools, community centers, and simply there for everyone aged o to 100. Internet use can not replace libraries, anymore than photography replaced painting. Internet use brings people to libraries and libraries should be there for them. Please read more about it: Pew/Internet & libraries

Mayor Menino and the BPL leadership may also not be aware of the fact that libraries contribute to the economic well-being of neighborhoods and their small businesses, important factors in an economy where small businesses are seen as the engine for growth and innovation.  Click here to read about it: urban libraries

Lots to read for all of you this weekend. Don't forget to come to the next BPL trustees' meeting at the Copley Library where the BPL will announce more details on closings. That is Tuesday, March 9 at 3 PM at the Copley Library.