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Adrian Walker

Wrong track at Copley

What's in a name?

Quite a bit, if you believe Bernard Margolis, the president of the Boston Public Library. As reported in the Globe yesterday, the library wants the Copley MBTA station renamed "Copley/Boston Public Library" or something to that effect.

Given its location, there are other possibilities, of course. It could be Hancock, or Trinity, or even Old South. As long as a 95-year-old station is being renamed for no real reason.

I'm not an expert on the BPL, but there must be more pressing issues on Boylston Street than what to call the T stop outside.

At least the arguments of the proponents of the name change are straightforward. For one, the station is in front of the library. Some people might not be aware of that. So this would help them. These are tourists, obviously.

Also, the stop in front of the Museum of Fine Arts is the MFA stop, and the stop near the New England Aquarium is the Aquarium stop. So really, this is an equity issue.

And there is but one solid, nonsentimental argument against the change: The station is called Copley because of its proximity to Copley Square, which boasts a couple of significant landmarks other than the BPL. I happen to find this one persuasive, though Margolis assured me yesterday that I was mistaken.

"This is close to a century overdue," he said. "Why this wasn't done in 1912" -- when the current station was built -- "I don't know. I guess they just never thought of it."

I told Margolis I really think most people in this town can find the library without too much trouble, even without a library-named station on the T. It's not like some of the other stops named after institutions in less recognizable locations.

Margolis told me he took an informal survey three years ago asking people on the street to identify Kendall, Kenmore, and Copley squares. He was surprised by how many people could not identify these well-known areas. I'd love to know whom he surveyed, but he isn't sure.

Margolis's idea has had a remarkably long gestation period , apparently at least five years . He got the chance to make his case a few years ago, when it was clear the station would need a major renovation to deal with a longstanding lack of handicapped access.

"It seemed from our perspective that because all the signage would be changed anyway, this could be done without any added cost," Margolis said.

So far, MBTA officials are unmoved. They have said the change would be a waste of money. More important, they are wary of a deluge of requests for name changes. Lots of T stations are next to something.

If Margolis isn't getting much love from the MBTA, the Legislature appears more enthusiastic. While the lawmakers I spoke to didn't seem to care much either way, the votes might be there for pending legislation that would force the change. Bills no one really cares about are sometimes the easiest to pass.

That's certainly what Margolis seems to be banking on. "I am amazed that this seems to have generated any controversy at all," he said. Tongue firmly in cheek, he added, "I know change is hard."

Margolis has a point; this is truly incremental. Still, what an odd five-year crusade.

Some of the branch libraries function beautifully. Others don't. Residents have been told for years about the role the library system can play in improving the shaky performance of the city's public school students, through after-school programs and tutoring. All these things seem a lot more important than renaming a station.

But maybe I'm missing the big picture. Libraries these days are nearly as much about marketing and public relations as they are about late fees. Margolis speaks about visibility, but really this is an exercise in branding.

Just running a great library used to be enough. But now, that's so last century.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.

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