Lower Mills Library decision will be harbinger of bigger things to come

One promise stood high from the Boston Public Library (BPL) management during last spring’s budget process: Cuts in personnel and branch closures would secure the stability – even the improvement – of library services citywide. We recently learned that this promise no longer holds true. Cuts in personnel that took effect this week will cause services and programs to be significantly reduced throughout Boston.

BPL President Amy Ryan acknowledged in two recent meetings (with the BPL Trustees and with the Friends of Libraries groups) that the system will be in “tremendous upheaval” with “adverse impacts” on services and programs. What, then, have the BPL system and the surviving branches gained from the decision to close the Lower Mills Library and other three neighborhood libraries in Boston? The answer is: Nothing!

A story in last week’s Dorchester Reporter told about the Boston City Council’s post-audit hearing on the BPL budget. We learned more about what is not in the BPL budget than about what is in it. When at-large Councilor Felix Arroyo asked BPL officials to explain what provisions they were making for another difficult budget cycle, particularly at the state level, no response was forthcoming. When Councilor Ross pointed out that the Council’s effort to provide the BPL Trustees with fundraising powers was rejected by the Menino administration and asked what else could be done in this area, again BPL officials provided no answer. Clearly the BPL administration is less concerned with fundraising to close the institution’s budget gap than it is with using the budget shortfall as an “opportunity” to promote changes. We know where these “changes” have led us – to the imminent closing of vibrant libraries, to upheaval in the system due to staff layoffs, and to the risk of further reduction in services and programs throughout the system.

But as State Representatives Mike Moran and Linda Dorcena-Forry always say, the BPL’s “new direction” has nothing to do with either money or budget shortfalls. This was clearly confirmed during last week’s hearing when Ryan stated that the BPL deficit provided “an opportunity to think through different changes.” For those who remember the onset of last year’s budget process, the changes envisioned by the BPL included the closing of eight to ten neighborhood libraries, and the redirection of resources to technological innovation.

Much as the BPL administration seems to have made its mind independently about what “opportunities” the financial crisis might hold for its future, our activism and the support of our elected representatives have forced the BPL to reach out to the public as it redefines such “opportunities.” Reaching out to the public, however, remains problematic for BPL officials. Meaningful dialogue in the promised upcoming community outreach meetings may be lost by the BPL’s continued insistence in controlling the outcome of the participatory process.

For instance, in a recent meeting of the BPL Board of Trustees, Ryan defined the community outreach process as one in which the public will be asked what library services it values most and then learn how some of these services might be provided by different non-profit partners, most likely at different locations. There might also be a discussion on how to utilize what would otherwise become empty library buildings. Dorchester’s residents will easily recognize Ryan’s definition of the “community outreach” process as an identical copy of last spring’s unproductive “task force” process, adamantly rejected by supporters of the Lower Mills library who refused to discuss only processes leading up to closing the branch, rather than creative solutions to keep it open.

Another example is the on-line questionnaire available this week on the BPL website and other online venues. The questionnaire aims at collecting information about the public’s priorities regarding BPL services. Interestingly, it is only available online, thus skewing the universe from which responses will be drawn. Clearly, input from this online questionnaire will represent disproportionately the views and expectations of those who are already tech-savvy and who prefer to access their information online. There is no equivalent instrument being used by the BPL to assess the priorities of those who either have limited access to on-line resources, or who prefer to obtain information by other means.

The question about future of the Lower Mills Library matters is not limited to its patrons and to the Dorchester community. What happens to the Lower Mills Library as the process to discuss its future unfolds in the upcoming months will signal the direction of the Boston Public Library system for decades to come. I hope that you all strive to participate in building this future. 

Maria Guadalupe Rodrigues, PhD, a resident of Brighton, is a board member of the Friends of the Faneuil Library and a professor of political science at the College of the Holy Cross.