Defending Boston’s public libraries

April 16, 2010

DESPITE CLEAR, active and sustained public opposition, the Boston Public Library (BPL) Board of Trustees voted April 9 in favor of library management's recommendation to close four of the city's 26 branches and eliminate about 94 positions throughout the library system due to a budget shortfall of $3.6 million.

The cuts amount to a 25 percent reduction in staff and a 15 percent cut to branches. To compensate, Board President Amy Ryan said that the library system will "leverage our tax supported services to bring in corporate sponsors and grants." This sets the stage for taking public funds out of one of the last free, public institutions in the city and into private contracts.

More than 100 library workers and patrons attended the trustee meeting to voice their opposition to branch closures in the culmination of a spirited campaign against the cutbacks. In the past two months, hundreds of Bostonians have spoken out against the closure of branches via public meetings, petition drives at branches, articles in the Boston Globe and public actions.

The BPL set up community meetings around the city, ostensibly to hear what the public wanted from libraries. People packed some of these meetings, using them as an opportunity to defend individual branches--especially smaller ones in older buildings--and to talk about the importance of library services to ordinary people in difficult economic times.

The trustee meetings, where the board discussed its options, became another focus for activism. At a trustee meeting in March, at least 400 people packed into the lecture hall in the main branch for a three-hour meeting. About 60 people gathered at a read-in organized by an ad-hoc group called People of Boston Branches. Soon after, that group organized a 100-person rally in front of the main branch in Copley Square, leading a quiet march through the library with signs saying, "Don't close the books on our libraries."

ON APRIL 7, Ryan laid out three options of how to "restructure" the libraries, all of which included the same heavy amount of layoffs along with branch closures. The response from the community came the same evening, at a meeting of 150 organized by library union members, Jobs with Justice, library school graduate students and other community activists.

The purpose of the meeting was to consolidate all the different groups that had been organizing up to that point, reach out to more people, especially library workers, and to emphasize the need for more organizing and rallying after the vote. Speakers at the meeting also made the case against layoffs of library workers, linking the defense of library jobs to providing and improving library services.

At this meeting, as well as other actions, the same concerns and arguments were echoed throughout. Library workers are frustrated with the library board's simplification of what they do in order to justify cutbacks. Both Ryan and Mayor Thomas Menino have talked a lot about how more people are using the BPL Web site--as though library services are reducible, as one Dorchester resident put it, to a Yahoo or Google search.

People are also angry at the continued loss of public resources in general. Mimi Ramos of New England United for Justice (the former local ACORN chapter), spoke at the April 7 meeting about how "people feel like they're not worth it anymore" because of budget cuts, foreclosures and job loss. She also argued that a recent shooting in the Dorchester neighborhood demonstrated a lack of investment in youth who use libraries as safe places.

There is a sense that, while cuts to city and state funds to the library are real, the measly $3.6 million gap is being used to support elite and corporate interests at the expense of working people.

In fact, a patron questioned the trustees at the March meeting on whether their plans would change if money were found. Yet Trustee Jeffrey Rudman even asked whether it would be a bad thing in any case to "consolidate" branches and staff in order to increase the number of computers and programs--as though maintaining branches and perhaps increasing staff (which is already stretched thin) runs counter to providing computers and programs.

Grace Ross, a Green-Rainbow Party candidate for governor, argued at the April 7 activist meeting that money "'s our tax money," but that we don't have control over it. She added that the recent $22.5 million tax break awarded to the company Liberty Mutual by the state could close the budget gap for Boston's libraries and schools.

The BPL's own data on the budget, available on the library Web site, sows suspicion about a budget cut that requires sacrifice only among working people. City funds account for about 70 percent of the BPL's budget, and it's falling by 1 percent for the next fiscal year. That's about $300,000.

Organizers of the April 7 activist meeting argued that the city has reserves that it has tapped into in the past to shore up falling budgets without harming other public resources. In addition, Boston is considering making mandatory the Paying in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) program, which currently allows non-profit organizations to voluntarily pay money to the city, rather than taxes.

THE CUTS to the BPL will have an impact well beyond Boston. Many towns in Massachusetts use the BPL as a central source for research and interlibrary loan items. But, according to a recent article in the Globe, the state has lost $25 million a year on a 1990s tax break program for corporations that were supposed to bring jobs to the state. One can easily see how ending this kind of waste could help put funds back into necessary public institutions.

Armed with this kind of information, activists came to the April 9 meeting ready to grill the BPL Board of Trustees. Many in the audience held up neon green "NO" signs handed out by the local Jobs with Justice chapter. This caused some of the trustees to make sheepish apologies for their decision. Five voted for closures and layoffs; one abstained.

Later that night, dozens rallied at the Faneuil Branch, one of the four branches slated to close. Speakers pointed out the illogical criteria used to choose the branches to close--Faneuil has some of the highest circulation statistics in the system.

Maria Rodrigues, a vocal patron of that branch, argued that people have to continue to fight, because more branches could be slated for closure next year. In fact, Ryan initially called for the closure of up to 10 branches back in February.

A number of union members and patrons want to continue the fight despite the April 9 vote. There has already been discussion about rallies that can push the city council to reject a budget that includes closing branches and layoffs. The aim is to create enough political pressure to put off any cuts for at least a year and force library management to have a real conversation with workers and patrons about how to improve the BPL.

So far, a number of city council members have been supportive of these demands, which has encouraged people to keep speaking out. Beyond gaining a hearing from politicians, activists are emphasizing the need for patrons and library workers to mobilize themselves to demand what they want their library services to look like.

This is a strategy that will be key to taking back and extending our public resources.

Dana Morgenstein contributed to this article.

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