Shelf service

In an era of waning budgets and closures of public library branches, volunteers are picking up the pieces and doing it themselves

The Everett C. Benton Library, closed by Belmont as a branch library in 2009, was reopened this spring by volunteers. The Everett C. Benton Library, closed by Belmont as a branch library in 2009, was reopened this spring by volunteers. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Kathleen Burge
Globe Staff / July 14, 2011

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Six minutes after the Everett C. Benton Library in Belmont opened one recent morning, the first visitors arrived: Jane Harris, 12, and her brother, Sam, 10, who live a block away.

They spent some time browsing in the section of the library dedicated to children’s literature, and carried six books to the front desk, including “The Second Summer of the Sisterhood” (for Jane) and “Days of the Knights: A Tale of Castles and Battles” (Sam).

This small library in a former chapel is not a town property, and it receives no money from Belmont. Instead, volunteers catalog and check out books, vacuum the floors, clean the toilet, mow the lawn. The library’s annual budget of $9,000 - for basics like heat and electricity - is covered by donations. And yet the Benton Library may be a harbinger of what is to come in communities with ubiquitous budget problems.

The town shuttered it as a branch of the Belmont Public Library in 2009; two months ago, after a concerted campaign by supporters, it was reopened as a nonprofit, volunteer-run library with about 6,500 books. So far, 200 residents have signed up for a library card. For neighbors like the Harrises, the Benton is more convenient than heading to the town library near Belmont Center.

“It was a lot farther, so we had to get somebody to drive us,” Jane said.

Belmont is not the first area community to close public library branches and have them reopened as volunteer-run institutions.

A year after branches of the Newton Free Library in Waban and Auburndale were closed in 2008, residents reopened them as nonprofit libraries funded entirely by donations.

Two branches of the Wellesley Free Library were closed in 2006, and then run with money raised by local supporters for a while, and reopened as town-funded branches two years later. In Grafton, the Nelson Memorial Library was closed by the town two years ago, but is now open two days a week and staffed by volunteers.

The volunteer librarians see themselves as temporary stewards of the buildings and books. They hope that their communities will find enough money to once again run the libraries with paid staff and longer hours.

The libraries usually aren’t open as many hours as they were when taxes paid for library directors and other staff members.

The Benton Library is now open two days a week, five hours a day, with an additional Friday evening and Saturday afternoon once a month. In the fall, organizers plan to open the library for an additional day.

In Newton, the Auburndale Community Library is now open 15 hours each week, and the Waban Library Center is open for 20, with additional operating hours during the school year.

The Auburndale and Waban libraries are among the most active of this new breed.

Waban, which has more than 15,000 books, offers a host of classes, from hip-hop to yoga to creative writing. In Auburndale, volunteers run a weekly toddler story hour, Lego club, knitting club, and card game club. Tonight, author Jane Roper will be reading from her new novel, “Eden Lake.’’

“Everything is done by volunteers,” said Lenna Kutner, a member of the board that governs the Auburndale library. “We man the desk and go through the books and sort through them and catalog them, and clean the bathrooms and vacuum.”

In Belmont, the Benton Library is housed in a building constructed in 1892 as a chapel for the Belmont School for Boys. When the school became part of Milton Academy, the land was bought by developers and nearly became an amusement park, said Richard Cheek, a founding director of the Friends of Benton Library. Eventually, the chapel was bought by Everett C. Benton, who lived on the town’s original Bellmont Estate. When he died, the chapel was given to the town and became a library in 1930.

The volunteers who brought the Benton back to life love books, but they still needed an education in running a library. They sought advice from the two independent Newton libraries, and chose the same software as those branches for cataloging and checking out books. More than 20 volunteers came forward to take shifts at the library, and had to be trained on the system.

A room off the library’s main room is filled with books that people have donated, but that, too, is complicated.

“The challenge, I think, for us is how you make decisions about buying books and what you keep,” said Elizabeth Gibson, president of the Friends of Benton Library.

The group knew they also wanted the library to be a community center, and they are hosting game nights. Two public computers are available for patrons, and the building has free wireless Internet access.

“One day we’d love to see it become a branch of the town library once again,” Cheek said. “Whether that ever happens, who knows. But we’re still maintaining it as a library.”

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