Globe Editorial

For library, closing branches is the best of bad options

April 9, 2010

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WHEN THE president of the Boston Public Library system called for closing four of the system’s 26 branches this week, her recommendation landed with a thud among loyal library users. But as unpopular as the recommendation may be, it represents a sound strategy to protect library service decades into the future.

Library chief Amy Ryan has been contemplating three painful options to fix a $3 million budget shortfall. The first would keep all branches open but drastically slash hours systemwide. A second would eliminate seven branches while expanding hours at other branches. Ryan recommends a third option: closing the Faneuil, Lower Mills, Orient Heights, and Washington Village branches while keeping current operating hours intact across the system.

Residents in Brighton, Dorchester, East Boston, and South Boston will find no comfort in Ryan’s formal recommendation, slated for today’s meeting of the library trustees. For many Bostonians, the branch library helps define their neighborhood and their place in it. They will protest. But in the end, outraged patrons can’t change the fact that the city has too many library branches, draining the system’s operating budget. Without cost controls now, the library will have to resign itself to a future of weak acquisitions, curtailed hours, and unfilled vacancies of key positions.

Ryan’s closure list is based on objective measures, including borrowing, foot traffic, number of programs, building conditions, and proximity to other city resources, including libraries and community centers. She listened to the concerns of residents across the city. They may not like her message. But it wasn’t crafted in haste.

The Faneuil branch in Brighton is old and needs extensive repairs. The nearby Brighton library is undergoing a $5 million renovation sufficient to accommodate Faneuil’s patrons. Use of the Lower Mills branch library in Dorchester has dropped since the opening or expansion of libraries in Mattapan and the nearby town of Milton.

The closure of the Orient Heights branch in East Boston and the small Washington Village branch at the Old Colony housing project in South Boston are harder decisions. Shutting those branches will be justified only if the Menino administration makes good on its promise to absorb popular library programs, such as story hours, into nearby community centers. Even then, the loss of the Washington Village branch will be painful for some of the city’s poorest residents. But Ryan has no painless option.

Some city councilors are demanding that all of the branches remain open. But Mayor Menino is appropriately focused more on the long-term fiscal health of the library system. And he can’t assume that sharp cuts in state aid to libraries will be reversed any time soon. “We’re trying to set the city up for the next 15 years,’’ said Menino.

These closures will hurt. But what remains — a strong main library and 22 branches — should still be enough to support quality library service citywide.

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