(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)
After more than half a century’s wait, Chinatown once again has a library to call its own, thanks to the efforts of a group of neighborhood activists.
On Saturday, about 100 members of the Chinatown community gathered with city and state officials to mark the opening of the Chinatown Lantern Cultural and Educational Center, a name that was selected from around 60 suggestions submitted by community members.
Members of the Chinatown Cultural Center Committee created the library inside the Oak Terrace apartment complex at the corner of Oak and Washington streets. It will be open to all and offer a rotating collection of 8,000 books and magazines in English and Chinese.
Already, the library has had a positive response from the community after a trial period for Oak Terrace residents and a soft opening for the wider community earlier this month, according to Alice Leung, startup coordinator for the library.
Speaking at the ceremony on Saturday, library supporter and donor Stephanie Fan said that when Chinatown community members first approached the Boston Public Library to discuss bringing a branch back into the neighborhood, they were told it would take 5 – 10 years before they could even discuss building a branch, because they needed to demonstrate community need and secure financing.
“That was 12 years ago,” Fan said. “And a lot of things have changed in those 12 years.” The global recession hurt the abilities of municipal governments to add services, she said, while the growth of Internet access has made some traditional uses of libraries less necessary.
“But the one that has not changed is that this community still believes in a library, because libraries are not just a repository for books,” Fan said.
“We know that for a community like Chinatown, or for any immigrant community … that accessing that information on the internet or at a bigger library is not that easy,” she continued. “What we want to do is to model a new way to provide library services that are more cost-effective and more efficient, using the technology that is available to us.”
Chinatown had a BPL branch from 1896 to 1938 at 130 Tyler St., the present-day location of the Tai Tung Village housing complex, and then a reading room at that address from 1951 – 1956. That building was demolished in 1956, apparently to make way for the elevated Central Artery, though the route was later changed to run just east of that site.
After the demolition, Chinatown briefly received visits from a bookmobile, but it has been without a library for more than half a century, except for a three-month period from late 2009 to early 2010, when the Chinatown Storefront Library was in operation in the Archstone building on Washington Street.
Leslie Davol and her husband Sam Davol, Chinatown residents since 2006, worked with the Friends of the Chinatown Library, the predecessor to the Chinatown Cultural Center Committee, to create the storefront library. To fill the shelves, they collected roughly 5,000 books from people in the Chinatown community and throughout the area, mostly in donations of 10 – 20 books at a time.
Those books are now part of the new library’s collection, along with other books donated by community leaders including Tunney Lee, professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Dr. Nelson Y.S. Kiang, professor emeritus at Harvard Medical School. Due to space limitations, about 2,000 titles will be on display at any one time.
“The idea was always that even if the storefront library was temporary, the books would stay in Chinatown and form the start of a collection of books that could be a resource for Chinatown,” Davol said on Saturday.
The work that went into setting up the storefront library and the lessons learned there were also passed along from the Davols to the library organizers, she said, as they shared their experiences and advice with the Cultural Center Committee.
“This is wonderful, and the books are out again — that’s what so great, that everybody can use them,” she said.
In addition to books, the library offers free Internet access, with a small number of laptop computers and iPads available for patrons, and will have basic computer literacy classes, lessons in iPad use, English conversation practice, and children’s story time.
The Chinatown Cultural Center is a project of the Chinatown Coalition, a group of organizations, institutions, and individuals serving the Chinatown community through collaboration and sharing of resources.
The space was made available by the Asian Community Development, which owns Oak Terrace, and Maloney Properties, which manages the building, for a rent of just $100 per month for the first year, utilities included. That lease may be extended by up to five years. Startup funds included a $50,000 donation from the Barr Foundation and $100,000 from an anonymous donor.
Emilia Fong-Gallagher, 10, a student at the Josiah Quincy Elementary School, has been active in preparing for the new library through the Red Oak After School Program at the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center. She and other children in the program designed bookmarks to be given as prizes in a bean-bag-toss game at the library opening.
“They’re handmade and they’re laminated,” Fong-Gallagher explained of the bookmarks. “It’s mostly stickers, some stamps, and drawing.”
Her mom, Mimi Fong, is a teacher at the Quincy School and has been active in the Chinatown community for 22 years, since moving to Boston from Canada. “It’s just my second home,” she said.
Fong, 50, became involved in the effort to bring a library to Chinatown about two years ago and still serves on the executive board. She has brought her daughter to every meeting she’s attended.
“Especially being a teacher, I see the importance of having a place for children to go after school that’s safe and a place of resources,” Fong said.
Fong offered high praise for Alice Leung, the library’s startup coordinator, and Kye Liang, coordinator for the Chinatown Coalition and a driving force in making the dream of a neighborhood library a reality.
“He’s a visionary,” she said of Liang, “and I’m really glad that the executive board has him with us.”
Fong and the other organizers hope that this library is just the beginning of what will be a 20,000-square-foot cultural center that will bring together Asian literature alongside the visual and performing arts.
Already efforts are under way to bring additional cultural elements to the small space, with a current display of Chinese scrolls donated by Jacquie Kay, a founder of the Asian Community Development Corporation, and plans to display a historical atlas of Chinatown currently being developed by Tunney Lee and his students from MIT.
Liang said in a recent interview that the cultural center organizers are currently looking at several potential sites and are in talks with developers who would partner with the group to include the cultural center alongside housing in a mixed-use project.
Fong stressed that, while the Boston Public Library had not brought a branch to Chinatown, it has supported this effort.
“They have their own financial constraints, needless to say,” she said. “And we absolutely understand that.”
She said Mary Frances O’Brien, central library services manager for the BPL, had attended planning meetings for the Chinatown library and offered her ideas to the committee. O’Brien also attended the grand opening celebration, and she explained how the BPL has partnered with the Chinatown library.
“The Boston Public Library is also looking at moving services outside the walls, and this was a wonderful opportunity,” O’Brien said. She said the BPL will allow the Chinatown library to borrow 50 – 100 books at a time and circulate them to its members.
The BPL plans to make some of its programs available through the Chinatown library, including children’s programming and a Chinese-language book discussion group. And O’Brien hopes to bring tours of readers from the Chinatown library to the central library in Copley Square to show them all the resources that are available to them.
“We have a fabulous collection of Chinese-language materials and films, children’s materials, and a nice slate of children’s programming,” she said. “We’re really happy. This is good for the library, and, I think, good for the community.”
State Representative Aaron Michelwitz, a North End Democrat who represents Chinatown, also said he’s seen the need for a library in the neighborhood.
Speaking before Saturday’s ceremony, the representative said that in 2010 talks with the city about proposed closures of branch libraries, he had cited the loss of a Chinatown branch and the community’s decades of effort to bring a library back to the neighborhood.
“I think it’s no secret that we need a fulltime public library facility in Chinatown,” said Michlewitz, 33. “Not just for the reading and the learning that goes on there, but for the community space. Community space is something that is cherished in the neighborhood, and every little bit of community space is necessary in keeping the community strong.”
(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)