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Rhetoric softens to keep library branches open

By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / October 26, 2010

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Boston Public Library president Amy E. Ryan expressed a renewed openness yesterday to keep doors open at four neighborhood branches scheduled to close at the end of March. But any reprieve would require a fresh infusion of cash.

An additional $372,000 would keep the four buildings open through the fiscal year, which ends June 30, according to library officials. That brief stay would push talks about any closures into next year’s budget, acting like a reset button for a controversy smoldering for months.

“If more funding is available for the branches, I’m in favor of keeping all the branches open,’’ Ryan said yesterday in an interview. “I would make that recommendation to the library Board of Trustees, who I believe would support this option.’’

The subtle but significant shift in tone from the library, which had been resolved to shutter the branches to stabilize the system, buoyed the spirits of residents fighting to save the branches. It also increased pressure on Boston’s delegation at the State House to find the money.

Ryan’s comments came as library administrators embarked on a new round of community meetings at the four branches slated for closure, beginning last night at Lower Mills in Dorchester. The next meeting will be Thursday night at the Faneuil library in Brighton’s Oak Square, followed next week by meetings at the Washington Village in South Boston’s Old Colony Housing Development and Orient Heights in East Boston.

“I think this whole thing is being driven by the pressure from the community as well as citywide opinion of the value of libraries,’’ said David Vieira, president of the City-Wide Friends of the Boston Public Library. “Nobody has been standing up and saying that this process is good.’’

City officials first publicly discussed closing branches in February when the library faced a $3.6 million budget gap. The steepest cuts came from the state, which slashed funding from $8.9 million to $2.4 million over the last two years. Ryan and Mayor Thomas M. Menino argued at the time that the library system was stretched too thin to support its 27 locations and spoke about transforming the nation’s oldest municipally funded library for the digital age, which drew criticism.

Boston lawmakers at the State House publicly chided Ryan and Menino at a series of community meetings and passed a punitive measure that will strip the city of its remaining $2.4 million in state funding if any locations are shuttered. The four branches were scheduled to close at the end of the summer. Under pressure in June, the city increased the library’s budget by $654,000, enough to keep the four branches open through March 2011.

The extra time allowed the rhetoric to cool between the city and state lawmakers. Menino met with the Boston delegation at the Parkman House, and he appointed Representative Byron Rushing to the library’s board of trustees. Talks between lawmakers and Menino’s administration now occur with some frequency.

“I think we are in a great position right now,’’ said Representative Michael J. Moran, whose district includes the Faneuil library in Brighton. “Since my time in the Legislature, I have not seen this type of constructive dialogue. I’m met numerous times with the administration trying to solve these funding issues.’’

Boston lawmakers made a hard but ultimately unsuccessful push to get more money for libraries in the supplemental budget passed this month.

Already this year, the library has laid off 31 people, cutting positions at its headquarters in Copley Square. In 2012, it would cost the city $1.5 million to continue operations at the four branches for an entire year, library officials said yesterday.

“Long-term sustainability is something we still need to keep thinking about,’’ Ryan said. “But the additional time is allowing us to work with residents and others on how to keep the branches open.’’

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

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