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Library Closings Begin


By Michael C. Levenson
STATE HOUSE NEWS [email protected]

The budget crisis is about to close its first public library in Massachusetts, and more may follow.

After nearly 200 years of continuous operation, the Ashburnham Public Library, with 47,000 books, is set to close on July 1, because the town of 5,433 residents, 31 miles north of Worcester, can no longer afford its $128,000 annual budget, said Cheryl Paul-Bradley, the library’s director.

Barring a last-minute gift from a private donor, the library will become the first to fall victim to a fiscal crisis that is squeezing communities across Massachusetts, said Krista McLeod, president of the Massachusetts Library Association.

“A library closing in Massachusetts is an abomination,” McLeod said. “We should all be appalled.”

About 36 miles west of Boston, the public library in Lancaster, open since 1862, is also laying plans to close, if voters in the town reject a ballot measure to override Proposition 2 1/2, the state law capping annual property tax increases at 2.5 percent. Lancaster residents head to the polls today, in a vote that could also determine the future of the town’s police force and other local services.

In a secondary blow, libraries that close could lose their certification with the state Board of Library Commissioners, and residents of that town could be turned away if they try to sign out books from a neighboring town’s library, librarians say. State law requires libraries to “lend books to other libraries in the commonwealth and extend privileges to the holders of cards issued by other public libraries in the commonwealth on a reciprocal basis.”

“Not only will our residents not be able to use our library but they could be turned away if they go to Leominster or Lunenburg,” said Joseph Mule, the Lancaster library director. Library officials say this budget crunch is far worse than the last squeeze in the early 1990s. During the last fiscal crisis, just one library, in Dracut, closed, and it reopened soon afterward when the economy recovered and state finances improved.

Now, libraries across Massachusetts are curtailing services, cutting back hours, trimming children’s programming, and laying off staff, said Robert Maier, director of the Board of Library Commissioners. The Boston Public Library, with 2.2 million visitors annually, has stopped opening on Sundays, Worcester libraries are closed Thursdays, and “it’s entirely possible there could be other libraries that could end up on the chopping block locally,” Maier said.

Libraries’ woes stem from three factors, he said. Direct state aid to libraries has been cut from $9.9 million in 2001 to $7.8 million in 2003, and state aid to cities and towns – which fund most of libraries’ budgets – has also been slashed: down $700 million since the fiscal crisis began in 2001, according to the Mass. Municipal Association, with $140 million of that coming this year and another $200 million reduction expected in the Fiscal ’04 budget now under consideration by a conference committee. On June 10, Ashburnham voters rejected a bid to override Proposition 2 *, which would have brought the local library about $120,000, enough to keep its doors open.

Paul-Bradley, the director there for 20 years, said the library is visited by about half the town’s residents every year, and hosts summer readings, a children’s story hour and an annual book sale.

She said her hope now is to keep the books in the collection safe, in hopes the library may reopen in better economic times. “Maybe we’ll have a bit of good news but for right now I’m just following the procedure to close,” Paul-Bradley said. “I’m deeply saddened by it. That’s all I can say.”

In Lancaster, the town library, with 55,000 volumes, has been in continuous operation since Civil War days. Librarians there, too, are making plans to close and keep the books safe, mindful that their fate hinges on a $2.3 million Proposition 2 * override vote.

The library needs about $220,000 to maintain its already reduced 3-day a week schedule, said Mule, the director. “There’s no money just to run basic services,” he said. In the Legislature, there is little chance cuts in local aid will be reversed, although lawmakers are considering a bill backed by the Massachusetts Library Association to provide about $9.8 million in state bonds for libraries. The money would help run online catalogues for 1,700 libraries, and fund interlibrary loans, which handle about 5,000,000 books annually.

Supporters noted that libraries not only provide books and magazines, they have become popular destinations for people without computers and Internet access to conduct online job searches, and medical and legal research.

“I can’t emphasize enough the importance of libraries, especially in an economic downturn,” Rep. Marie Parente (D-Milford) said. “Libraries do become the poor man’s university.”

Although the bill, sponsored by Rep. Carol Donovan (D-Woburn), enjoys broad support from lawmakers and librarians, it still faces an uphill climb in the Legislature, said Rep. Geoffrey Hall (D-Westford), co-chairman of the State Administration Committee, which reviewed the measure Monday.

“The fight is in Ways and Means,” he said, referring to the budget-writing committee that often holds legislation for months. without Romney’s OK.


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