Globe Editorial

Elimination of Sunday hours shows deeper woes at library

March 31, 2011

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SUNDAY HOURS at the main library in Copley Square are part of intellectual life in Boston, and Boston Public Library trustees’ recent vote to eliminate those hours is a blow to Boston bibliophiles, researchers, students, and city residents whose work and family schedules limit access during the rest of the week. The trustees should reverse the decision. That could mean trimming hours during less busy periods in the short term — either at Copley or at branches — and will certainly mean more far-reaching changes, such as modernizing the terms of labor contracts, in the future.

The main library accounts for more than half the foot traffic in the system, library officials say, and Sunday is the second-busiest day of the week at the main library. But like every city agency, the library system is struggling to maintain reliable levels of service during an economic downturn, and cutting Sunday hours come fall will save about $250,000 that might otherwise be carved out of, for instance, the book acquisition budget. Last year, the trustees voted to close four branch libraries to address a budget shortfall of more than $3 million.

“This isn’t where we want to be,’’ said library president Amy Ryan. But the library needs major changes in labor and library service policies to avoid stagnation and get itself on better footing.

Even though the Copley library is busiest on weekends, labor contracts call for librarians and library aides who work on Sunday to receive overtime pay. Clearly, some library staffers should be working on straight-time Sunday-to-Thursday schedules. More weekend hours would be helpful at neighborhood branches, too, but this can happen only if city negotiators persuade librarian unions to tailor branch hours to the needs of users.

As it stands, the library system has a dearth of hours and a surfeit of buildings. The system doesn’t need 26 branches to function well, especially in the digital age. But last year’s vote of the trustees to close four branches was met not only with protests from patrons but an end run by state legislators who threatened to cut off all state aid to Boston’s library system unless the Menino administration backed off the closure plan. It only delayed the inevitable; eventually, some branches will need to close.

Despite voting for the Sunday closure at the iconic main library in Copley Square, trustee chairman Jeffrey Rudman called it a “civic tragedy.’’ More such tragedies will be circulating throughout the library system until library administrators succeed at paring branches and rewriting labor contracts.