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Library may cut 10 of its branches

Boston weighs layoff of quarter of staff

By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / February 18, 2010

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The Boston Public Library is considering closing up to 10 of its neighborhood branches and laying off one-quarter of its staff, cuts that would irrevocably alter America’s oldest municipally funded library system.

Amy E. Ryan, the library’s president, said yesterday that because of steep budget cuts the only alternative to closings would be slashing hours at 18 library branches, with the smallest facilities open only one to three days a week.

“As we think about the shortfall, there is a sense of urgency,’’ Ryan told a board of trustees meeting packed with more than 80 people. “The status quo can’t work. We cannot sustain the system as it is currently configured.’’

Ryan’s proposal also calls for significant cuts at the library’s headquarters in Copley Square and in behind-the-scenes administrative offices.

But the most visible impact would be in the city’s 26 neighborhood libraries, a system which has outposts from Hyde Park to Charlestown and includes the nation’s first branch library, established in East Boston in 1869.

“Closing branches should be our last resort,’’ said Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who met for three hours earlier this week with the library president. “But I think the library also has to have a transformation in how they serve the public. . . . In the last 25 years, technology has become a more important factor.’’

Menino pointed out that some branches were built close together, long before the Internet, and added that library hours need to evolve to meet the changing needs of families with working parents.

City Council President Michael P. Ross also sat down with Ryan and said he would only consider closing branches after being convinced that an exhaustive effort had been made to trim other expenses, including automobiles leased by the library and energy waste in buildings.

“I need to know that everything - and I mean everything - has been done to lower other costs,’’ Ross said. “When you shut something down, you foreclose an option for a young person or an elderly person . . . who will not walk to the branch in the next neighborhood. They will stop going to the library.’’

Library officials say they face a $3.6 million shortfall next year because of anticipated state budget cuts and a small reduction in funding from the city.

If locations are closed, they hope to strengthen the remaining 16 to 18 branches by adding staff, programming, computers, books, CDs, DVDs, and other resources.

Trustees have made no decision about whether to close branches, but vowed to keep the process public and to make decisions by early spring.

Library officials are in the process of determining what criteria would be used to determine which locations could be closed.

Some patrons already fear for their local branches.

“The branches are like little satellite nations,’’ said Koletta Kaspar, who begged the board to pull all 26 branches off the chopping block, including her local library on Faneuil Street, located in Brighton just a mile from another library on Academy Hill Road.

“They are miniature cultural arts centers for so many people who can’t afford to go downtown to the theater,’’ she added. “. . . Each local branch is a safety center for children and a culture gem for those who cannot afford the culture world of the wealthy.’’

And Mary Ann Nelson said she is concerned about her local branch, Parker Hill, on Tremont Street in Mission Hill.

“It has one of the lowest circulations among the branches, and it’s probably on the most valuable piece of real estate,’’ Nelson said. “But I like to be able to walk there in 10 minutes. And I know the people there sitting at the tables. And I know the staff.’’

But David Vieira, president of the City-Wide Friends of the Boston Public Library, offered support for some closings.

“There are some branches that probably need to close,’’ said Vieira, urging trustees to limit the casualties to three or four branches. “Some of them are functionally obsolete.’’

Trustees said they expect many difficult conversations over the next six to eight weeks about how each of the 26 branches serves its community and about the distinct quirks of each location.

But several trustees said the expected funding cuts, which include a proposed 73 percent drop in state aid since 2009, have forced officials to rethink how the 162-year-old library delivers services.

“We’re broke,’’ said Jeffrey B. Rudman, chairman of the board of trustees. “We are $3.6 million in the hole, and that’s a gap we have to close.’’

He added, “It is possible today that we are overbricked, overmortared, and underwired.’’

Circulation in the system has risen 31 percent over the last three years. But library officials are paying particular attention to the surging popularity of electronic offerings, from its website to downloadable audio books.

Trustees said yesterday that they would prefer closing branches to slashing hours.

“There are two very bad options on the table,’’ said trustee Paul A. La Camera, who also expressed skepticism that the shortfall would ultimately be $3.6 million. “No one could ever be excited about closing a branch library, but the [other] option is just a suggestion of weakness. I can’t imagine running a system that would be diminished to that extent.’’

Trustee Donna M. DePrisco agreed that the plan to slash hours would be “so convoluted and confusing.’’

“Is it Monday? Is it Tuesday? Is it open? Is it closed?’’ she said. “No, it would never work.’’

A union leader scolded the trustees for focusing on budget numbers, reduced hours, and the prospect of closing branches and ignoring that the plan would cut up to 104 of the library’s 480 full time positions.

“Not once has there been a mention of the human impact . . . at the Boston Public Library,’’ said Elissa Cadillic, president of AFSCME 1526, one of the library’s two unions. “I find that disheartening.’’

In addition to considering cuts at branches, library officials say other potential cuts include eliminating 38 full-time positions at the main library in Copley Square; closing five Sundays a year on holiday weekends; and further reducing hours in the children’s, teens’, and fine arts departments.

In the administrative offices, proposed reductions would eliminate up to another 31 full-time positions.

Andrew Ryan can be reached at aryan@globe.com.