Rankings to decide fate of libraries

President will outline criteria today; as many as 10 may be closed

Amy E. Ryan, Boston Public Library president, will brief the board of trustees. Amy E. Ryan, Boston Public Library president, will brief the board of trustees.
By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / March 9, 2010

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The decision about which of Boston’s libraries to potentially close will be based on far more than just how many books and DVDs patrons borrow.

Library administrators will rank the 26 neighborhood branches by foot traffic, computer use, and how many Web surfers use laptops to log on to Wi-Fi networks. They will count how many programs are offered at each location and tally the number of people who attend storytime and English classes.

Amy E. Ryan, Boston Public Library president, will outline today the intricate measures the city intends to use to close as many as 10 neighborhood branches as part of a sweeping consolidation plan. Ryan will brief the library’s board of trustees at 3 p.m. at what is expected to be a crowded and contentious public meeting at library headquarters in Copley Square.

“We will still have the libraries that we know and love from childhood, only they are going to be better,’’ Ryan said in an interview yesterday. “What we need to do is think about how we provide services that don’t have to be building-bound in all 26 branches.’’

The library will quantify details about each of its buildings, noting energy efficiency, handicapped accessibility, and whether the wiring could support more computers. Administrators will examine how close each location is to another neighborhood branch and the distance to one of the system’s nine lead libraries, such as the 20,000-plus square-foot facilities in Dudley Square and on Centre Street in West Roxbury. They will scrutinize proximity to buses and subways and take into account other resources in the neighborhood, such as community centers, schools, or Boys and Girls Clubs.

The budget crisis at the Boston Public Library is due in part to a steep drop in state funding. Library supporters have planned an 11 a.m. rally on Beacon Hill today to protest the cuts.

Boston library officials say they will not identify today particular branches that might be shuttered and vow to keep the process open to the public. In the coming weeks, they plan to release a grid comparing each location.

The data will inevitably pit branch against branch, and neighbors across the city have already come together on playgrounds and in coffee shops to try to prevent the closing of their local libraries.

“We’re not going to let it happen,’’ said Paula Luccio, 50, a mother and local businesswoman in the North End who volunteers at the branch on Parmenter Street, watering plants twice a week. “I’m telling you, you have no idea how the North End can rally.’’

Before word spread of the library’s $3.6 million budget shortfall, Luccio helped organize a modest fund-raiser for the North End branch, expecting 50 people for cocktails and a silent auction. The potential cuts unleashed a surge of support, and nearly 200 people came out, 40 of whom had to be turned away because the hotel facility reached capacity. The fund-raiser netted $4,200, Luccio said.

In Jamaica Plain, 25 to 30 supporters of the Connolly branch gathered recently at a local restaurant to discuss its fate. The Connolly library was renovated in 2005 and can accommodate the handicapped, two factors that could prove important. Less than a mile down Centre Street, the Jamaica Plain branch is a year shy of its centennial, a milestone supporters fear it might miss, in part because the city never made it accessible to the disabled.

“Making these decisions in this kind of environment is really pitting neighborhood against neighborhood,’’ said Donald Haber, 49, of the Friends of the Jamaica Plain Branch Library. “I’m not saying there aren’t needs to update and restructure the library system, but to make decisions about closing branches, as much as a third of all the branches - those decisions will affect the neighborhood and the residents for generations.’’

In the Oak Square section of Brighton, a neighborhood nonprofit issued a blast e-mail advocating for the Faneuil branch, a smaller library built in 1931 a short distance from the large Brighton facility on Academy Hill Road. The Faneuil branch “is a community meeting place, and the services it provides help stabilize Brighton as a neighborhood, retaining and attracting families to our community,’’ said the e-mail, sent by the Presentation School Foundation.

In Roslindale, Kelly Young knows her library card number by heart and wrote a letter defending her local branch, which she described as the anchor of Roslindale Square.

“Occasionally, we visit the West Roxbury branch, but every time we do, I feel like we’re cheating on Roslindale,’’ Young wrote in the letter, which she posted on her blog. “I know it’s not the flashiest branch, but I, personally, will be heart-broken if Roslindale loses its neighborhood library.’’

Residents have been particularly vocal in recent weeks about the importance of their local libraries, said Councilor Robert Consalvo, whose district includes Roslindale.

“They want their voice to be heard,’’ Consalvo said. “It’s natural for people to defend resources in their neighborhood.’’