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Boston library branches could close amid cuts

By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / February 17, 2010

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Steep cuts in state funding for the Boston Public Library are forcing officials to contemplate the most drastic cost-saving measures in decades, including the possible closing of neighborhood branches.

The library board of trustees has called a special meeting at 8:30 a.m. today to discuss what city officials say is a potential $3.6 million budget shortfall, which stems in large part from a proposed 73 percent cut in state funding. State assistance for Boston’s libraries has dropped from $8.9 million in 2009 to a proposed $2.4 million in 2011.

Amy E. Ryan, library president, is expected to outline potential cuts today, but said no financial decisions will be made.

“It’s very serious,’’ Ryan said of the budget crunch, stressing that the figures are preliminary. “But I owe it to the citizens of Boston to think about how we deliver their library services in a new, reduced funding environment. We have to find a balance.’’

As the library faces a budget gap, officials are rethinking how they deliver services and are exploring the surging popularity of their electronic offerings, from the website to downloadable audio books.

Other potential cost savings include dramatically reducing hours at all 27 locations and streamlining behind-the-scenes administrative operations. At Copley Square, officials may reduce the 20 walk-in service points where users meet face-to-face with staff or close the main branch on Sunday on five holiday weekends, a move that would save about $45,000. Library officials explored the Sunday closings last year, but doors remained open when two trustees paid out of their own pockets.

“We are going to make this work for the people of Boston,’’ Ryan said. “But, yes, it’s going to be difficult, and it’s going to take a human toll.’’

Boston has already made some significant library cuts that have included the elimination of 37 positions, resulting in the layoff of 13 staff members. Officials slashed the book budget from $6 million in 2009 to $4.5 million this year, and the Kirstein Business Library moved from a stand-alone site near Old City Hall it had occupied since 1930 to a new space within the main library at Copley Square.

The Boston Public Library’s main branch, in Copley Square, is Massachusetts’ largest public library and a state repository of rare manuscripts and hard-to-find information.

Last year about 300,000 Bostonians used library cards, including 40,000 residents who signed up for new cards, a 20 percent surge from the pervious year. Circulation has spiked 31 percent over the last three years, following a well-established trend that library use increases as the economy heads south.

The library has also seen an increase in electronic traffic and digital circulation. Unique visitors to the Boston Public Library’s website, for example, hit 5.2 million in the last fiscal year, up 33 percent since 2006. Over that same four years, downloads of audio books and other digital products has more than quadrupled.

“Boston uniquely serves as the ‘library of last recourse,’ ’’ said Robert Maier, director of the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners. “Having received significantly more funding in good times, the reduction is really substantial in these really difficult times.’’

The library system has a budget this year of $41.1 million, the bulk of which comes from the city. The city’s contribution to the library next year is expected to be cut by 1 percent, or $300,000.

But the library’s major problem is state funding. Governor Deval Patrick’s proposed budget calls for slashing $1.6 million next year from Boston’s libraries, which receive special appropriations from the state each year as a regional hub library and a library of recourse.

The governor’s proposed budget does not cut funding for many other libraries, leaving state aid to libraries at the same level it was last year after a 4 percent cut in October. But over the last decade, despite circulation highs across Massachusetts that set new records each of the past 10 years, state funding for libraries dropped 39 percent, from $34.6 million in 2001 to the proposed $21.1 million in 2011.

In a statement, the Patrick administration said its proposed budget reflects a priority of keeping the same amount of funding for schools and for unrestricted local aid for cities and towns.

“Inevitably, in a budget year such as this when faced with the need to bridge a $3 billion gap between revenues and expenditures, there are reductions to other accounts once those priorities are set out,’’ the statement said.

Andrew Ryan can be reached at aryan@globe.com.