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Voices | Sam Allis

Private help for public library

Boston’s corporate community holds the key to averting layoffs and branch shutdowns

By Sam Allis
April 12, 2010

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There’s still time. The City Council doesn’t even get Mayor Tom Menino’s budget until Wednesday, and then the fireworks begin.

The four branches of the Boston Public Library slated for extinction can live. All of the 26 branches can remain as they are. The only question is where the $3.3 million needed to preserve everything will come from.

Absent more city support, the private sector, that’s where. This kind of situation is why God invented the private sector. Foundations too. I don’t mean to belittle $3.3 million — I would roll over with joy like a porpoise were it to appear in my bank account tomorrow — but in the grand scheme of things, it’s hard to go wobbly over this measly figure.

The late Everett Dirksen, US senator from Illinois, was reputed to have said, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.’’ No one to my knowledge was reputed to have said, “A million here, a million there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.’’

Yet the figure is not minuscule for Menino, who faces brutal budget realities. But let’s be clear here: He could find those funds tomorrow if he wanted to, but his priorities are elsewhere and this predicament provides him the cover he wants in order to make structural changes in the BPL system. Virtually everyone knows that the system is unsustainable as now structured and financed. I’ll bet some passionate branch library advocates concede as much at 2 a.m. when no one’s listening.

Still, this crisis should prompt Boston’s corporate community and the Boston Foundation to pick up some slack. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s priceless PR. Companies always tell us they need an educated workforce. They’re right, and much of that workforce is created in the petri dish of our libraries. Few acts would galvanize their commitment to an educated workforce more than this one. I see win-win here.

It’s not just the books or even computers, the sine qua non for the future transfer of knowledge. It’s the fundamental assumption that Boston prizes the culture that the branches foster across the city. The BPL is part of what separates us from Tulsa. It gets worse. Library president Amy Ryan’s proposal, accepted by the board last Friday, also calls for the elimination of 69 jobs at the BPL mothership in Copley Square and administrative offices.

At some point, this hemorrhaging has to stop. If people think the closing of four branches and major staff cuts will secure the future of the BPL, they’ve been sipping too much Lapsang Souchong. There will undoubtedly be more carnage for the same reasons unless help arrives.

The white hats here should be a loose group of executives who ride in with the scratch to help keep the BPL the jewel in our municipal crown. They don’t have to create another Vault, the influential group of Boston movers and shakers that for decades quietly helped solve the city’s problems with Boston mayors. (The Vault had its Brahmins, a risible group to many, but they understood civic responsibility.) Now, a new generation must. There’s the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, a worthy endeavor formed to increase jobs in the state, not help libraries.

Most corporations will tell you they’re stretched taut with commitments to many other good causes. I believe them. But a strong BPL is critical to Boston. (I know, everyone’s favorite is special.) I’m talking about small money from a lot of outfits to create a modest safety valve for situations like this one. There already is corporate support for specific BPL programs. That’s fabulous, but the mother’s milk for nonprofits is unrestricted funds.

Any number of businesses announce during layoffs they can do more with less. Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire. We are under no such illusion. The option approved by its board will only diminish the library experience of real live people. Those without computers at home, particularly the elderly, will struggle to reach a branch farther away. Some may stop going to a library at all. This must never happen again.

Sam Allis can be reached at allis@globe.com.