Boston is fortunate to have two contenders in the mayoral race who denounced the branch library closings proposed by Mayor Menino in 2010.
John Connolly spoke out against the proposal to shutter up to a third of the BPL’s branches when he was at-large city councillor. And Marty Walsh, as state representative of the 13th District, was part of the Boston delegation that threatened to cut millions in state funding to the BPL should any branch libraries be closed. And none were closed. However, the BPL is still a weak system, battered by decades of neglect, opaque decision-making, under-funding, and a leadership structure that is largely dependent on the good graces of the mayor of Boston. So here are seven questions for John Connolly and Marty Walsh, the answers to which may help you decide who could be the BPL’s knight in shining armor and give Bostonians the stellar library system they deserve.
LIBRARY HOURS: the 25 branch libraries, which service the vast majority of 625,000 Bostonians, are closed most evenings, Sundays and, in summer, Saturdays as well. The Copley Library, however, within walking distance of the 20,000 residents of the Back Bay, is open four nights a week, Saturdays and, except in the summer, Sundays. In other words, most of Boston's residents and their families whose taxes pay for the BPL, can't use their local library when they are off work. As mayor, will you make sure all libraries in the system are open nights and weekends to reflect the specific need for local access?
LIBRARY GOVERNANCE: BPL trustees can approve budgets, hire or fire BPL presidents, close libraries or keep them open. Yet, there are no required standards of professional library expertise or library advocacy to be appointed to the nine-member BPL board of trustees. There are no term limits. There is no requirement to show up at public meetings (and some trustees seldom do). There is no public vetting process for library trustees, nor a public confirmation process to make sure the library gets the best advocates possible to meet the public's needs. Board seats do not reflect specific library interests, either, as is the case elsewhere: for example, the interests of branch libraries differ from those of the Copley Library; young adults have different needs than seniors; book acquisition specialists have different concerns than book or art conservators. As mayor, would you set standards for library trustees and their performance, and consider appointing those who would be qualified advocates for specific library and neighborhood concerns?
LIBRARY CAPITAL IMPROVEMENTS: Which local libraries get renovated, or where new ones are built, is governed by mysterious forces. There is no transparent long-term capital plan, nor is a specific public process in place, by which libraries are upgraded equitably, or new ones built where needed, or handicapped-accessibility ensured. As mayor, will you institute a transparent and fair capital plan to upgrade all BPL libraries equitably where needed, or build new ones, as part of a public process?
BUILDING NEW LIBRARIES: Downtown Crossing is increasing its residential footprint. It is also a transportation hub where many young adults from all over the city hang out with little to do. As such, they can become easy targets for unfair and unneccesary criminalization by law enforcement. Nearby Chinatown, moreover, lost its library decades ago. As mayor, would you consider building an architecturally exciting downtown library with an outstanding young-adult department and a strong Asian profile that also replaces the long-lost Chinatown branch?
THE BPL FOUNDATION
: the BPL fundraising arm was created to repair the McKim building almost two decades ago, and will target its future campaign on the long-overdue Johnson Building renovation. It does not focus on branch libraries, however, or their local Friends groups' capital-improvement issues. But branches could use the Foundation's help. The East Boston Meridian library branch, for example, has
paintings that will cost $150,000 to restore before they can be installed in the new East Boston library. Their tiny Friends group is left on its own to raise the funds for it.
As mayor, would you direct the BPL Foundation to expand its mission and assist local Friends groups who want to preserve cultural and historic landmarks of importance to their neighborhood libraries?
LIBRARY TRUST FUNDS: these are meant to enrich the public library beyond capital and operational allocations from the city's General Fund, not to substitute for it. But in the case of the disputed Kirstein Business branch closing in 2009, two Kirstein trust funds that paid for the maintenance of that building and its collection, are now used to offset operational expenses at the Copley Library. How? Trustees approved moving the business collection out of the Kirstein's own beautiful building and into the dank basement of the Copley Library. The emptied Kirstein library building, located on prime real estate downtown, moreover, is used by the city for office space, at no obvious benefit to the BPL. As mayor, how will you ensure that library trust funds are used for library enrichment only, not to offset operational or General Fund expenses?
STABILIZING LIBRARY FUNDING:Between 2008 and 2010 no one from the BPL or the city advocated for Boston's library funding at the Legislature, so state funding declined. Trustees, moreover, who are appointed exclusively by the mayor, tend to not oppose mayoral proposals to cut the library budget, or fight for library budget increases, which further destabilizes the financial picture at the BPL. Would you support a dedicated tax for public libraries as part of the property tax, or come up with another fiscal instrument, to ensure a long-term strategy to stabilize and expand the BPL budget to meet the exponential growth in demand for library services and community space?