Renée Loth

Trouble balancing the books

A cultural jewel: The Bates Hall Reading Room at the Boston Public Library. A cultural jewel: The Bates Hall Reading Room at the Boston Public Library. (Tom Herde/Globe Staff)
By Renée Loth
March 12, 2010

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THE BOSTON Public Library’s proposal to close as many as 10 neighborhood branches, causing much anguish among residents, is not really new. Back in 2006, well before the present economic meltdown or state budget cuts, Mayor Tom Menino told the Globe editorial board: “We have too many branches.’’ The library’s projected $3.6 million shortfall is only giving fresh urgency to an ongoing reorganization and review.

Still, anytime government closes a community resource — be it local libraries, schools, churches, or MBTA bus routes — citizens need to believe the shutdown is a last resort and that the process is on the level. But this is Boston.

At an emotional open meeting of the BPL board of trustees on Tuesday, library president Amy Ryan explained that closings would be based on careful, transparent criteria — including foot traffic, numbers of books and audiovisual material borrowed, age and accessibility of the buildings, parking, and whether another branch is nearby — and not simply yield to the neighborhood with the most political yank.

But the patina of politics dusted everything. It was evident in trustee Paul La Camera’s observation that lobbying the Legislature to restore state budget cuts is harder this year because former Senate President William Bulger is no longer on the library board. “So we don’t have the degree of access and influence that we may have once had,’’ he said.

The genteel refuge of the Boston Public Library is threatening to become the site of a classic Boston brawl, with neighborhoods pit against one another clamoring over a shrinking pie. Sarah-Ann Shaw, president of the Friends of the Dudley branch library in Roxbury, reminded the board of the bad old days of school busing, which tore the city apart. “Boston is still a city of turfs,’’ she warned.

As if inter-branch competition isn’t difficult enough, Boston’s library system also has a certain upstairs-downstairs quality. The exquisite Copley research library, with its treasured artifacts and frescos, can easily overshadow branches known mostly for story hours and homework help. Getting the balance right between these dual functions is what tripped up Ryan’s predecessor, Bernard Margolis, as well as bad chemistry with the mayor.

America’s first free public library is a cultural jewel on the order of the Boston Symphony Orchestra or the Museum of Fine Arts. Some have argued that it needs a big-money foundation board that can pull in million-dollar donations as the others have. But the BPL is not a private nonprofit institution. It is a department of the city of Boston, just like the schools or police or parks, supported by the taxpayers. Running it is a public trust. To cite one obvious difference with the MFA or the BSO, the library is always free.

This makes calculating the worth of the branches even harder. The very communities with the lowest circulation numbers — Egleston Square, Upham’s Corner, Parker Hill — likely need library services the most. They are the communities least likely to have home computers, easy mobility, or quality schools — or bookstores, for that matter.

Libraries are far from the obsolete buggy whip factories some people like to mock. Teaching citizens how to do primary research is more important than ever in today’s derivative “wiki’’ culture. And that is something librarians are uniquely trained to do.

Oliver Wendell Holmes said taxes are what we pay for civilized society. If ever there were an example of this truth, it is the public library. And Holmes should know; he wrote the poem read at the laying of the BPL’s Copley Square cornerstone in 1888. “This palace is the people’s own!’’ he enthused.

At Tuesday’s meeting, a woman supporting Brighton’s Faneuil branch offered up a 10-dollar bill as a suggested membership fee to help keep them all open. Good start, but taxes are about everyone contributing their share to a common pool so that all sorts of services are funded, whether we personally use them or not.

Ultimately, charging user fees for library cards, privatizing the staff, or holding charity telethons won’t save the branches — only the broad public support from taxes will. A society gets what it pays for. And civilization doesn’t come cheap.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

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