Monday, August 17, 2020

Boston's Branch Library System

While every library has a charm all its own, a public library, which serves all, regardless of status, education, or wealth, is a resource that can be transformative to the widest range of users.  The Boston Public Library was the first large free municipal library in the United States.  Many visitors know the beautiful and recently renovated central library in Copley Square.  Designed by McKim Mead & White, it stands across the street from its equally famous neighbor, Trinity Church, the masterpiece of Henry Hobson Richardson, whom I have been studying this summer. 
BPL from the East

An 1841 Resolution that led to the establishment of the public library of Boston, Massachusetts eleven years later stated: “such an Institution would benefit the great body of the people, by opening to all the treasures of Science, Literature, and Art, by breaking down the factitious distinctions which separate class from class, by disseminating knowledge and taste through every portion of our population, and by all the influence it would have in the promotion of universal education” (Wadlin, The Public Library of the City of Boston: A History, 1911).
The BPL's Renovated Facade
However, it is the 25 branches of the Boston Public Library that make it so special. The BPL opened the first neighborhood branch library in the United States, the East Boston branch, in 1870.  The branch library in their neighborhood plays a key role in educating Boston residents, particularly families or those who cannot easily travel downtown, and provides a focal point where people, young and old, can gather for events, to study, get their taxes done with the Boston Tax Help Coalition, access the Internet, and socialize.

Each branch library – some new and shiny and some old and leaky – serves a unique neighborhood and has dedicated, trained library professionals who make collection development decisions based on community needs while managing shrinking budgets.  From my first library, where I got a library card at 6 years old that I still possess, to my current branch in Roslindale where I serve on the Friends Board, I have been impressed by the skill of branch librarians in selecting books that meet the needs of our patrons and create a sense of “personality” for our branch.   This is particularly important because recently 25% of Roslindale was foreign-born and Roslindale has a higher percentage of Hispanics than Boston as a whole.  Our children’s librarian not only serves families in the library but also visits children at local schools and community centers, and her experience with them informs her purchases.  Collection development is a balancing act, determined by needs assessment because deciding what items to acquire necessarily implies what items to forgo, what to cut, and what to keep.  Materials selection could be done by staff at the central library but then the branches might lose the richness that allows us to walk and feel we belong.
The Roslindale LIbrary's blue dome is a landmark
I should add that “old and leaky” is temporary!  My Roslindale branch is in the midst of a $10.2 million renovation, thanks to the commitment of our Mayor in investing in the City’s branch libraries.  I know it will be beautiful when it is done.

Does your library have more than one branch?   If so, does each have its own personality?


Katrina said...

I'm so impressed. Sadly libraries in the UK have taken a battering as the 'austerity' which the Conservative government has used to strangle everything good for ordinary people has resulted in libraries being closed. Sixteen have closed within Fife and over 50,000 library workers in the UK have lost their jobs within the last ten years or so. It's such a false economy to 'save' money by closing libraries.

TracyK said...

This is a lovely post. I wish I could write a post about the Birmingham, Alabama libraries, but too long ago and far away. I loved the downtown library, I visited there often to do periodicals research when I was in elementary school. And we had a lovely small branch in my neighborhood that I walked to often.

CLM said...

One thing about the BPL main library renovation that I don't really care for is that the main level now resembles an Apple store. They must think this is what younger patrons want and it definitely seems busy but I like the other floors better (more books).

Now that I am going to graduate school in Mississippi (albeit remotely), I see a trip to Alabama in my future so I can walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge when I visit my campus. I see the U of A has not banned fans from its football games; we'll see how that turns out.

I agree with Katrina it is a false economy to close libraries. Also, so many people who don't have internet access use the library for job hunting and bill paying. It is so frustrating that libraries are so vulnerable to budget cuts. I think most Boston residents can walk to a branch.