A Tour of the Boston Public Libraries – Marie Davis



Driven by both ideals of democracy and a love for natural landscapes, Frederick Law Olmsted saw parks as public spaces to be enjoyed by all. Olmsted’s parks held many functions beyond their aesthetic qualities. The landscape architect placed a strong emphasis on the social function of a park, which he believed had restorative qualities for the chaos of city life. Olmsted’s landscapes were given both cultural and ecological roles, such as connecting the city through a linear park system (the Emerald Necklace) or water management systems (the Boston Fens). Olmsted also believed in parks as a place of gathering and event for people of all economic and cultural backgrounds.

Just as Olmsted’s parks are not only plants, libraries have never been only books. A public library represents free access to knowledge, as well as a place of gathering. In Boston, public libraries have long coordinated with organizations, such as The Freedom House or the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, to create public events in library spaces. Libraries are also valuable establishments to their respective neighborhoods and cater differently to the needs of their community. The Boston Public Library (BPL) network currently has 26 locations in the Greater Boston area. Each library branch also has different allocated resources, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Libraries in different neighborhoods have unique needs that require different resources. These needs can be met both through books/media and through specific programs that are of interest to community members. For example: the Chinatown Boston Public Library’s collection is 36% Chinese language, and the branch offers weekly programs like Tai Chi, mandarin lessons, and english conversation groups.
Logically, each branch should have resources that reflect the needs of their community and can equitably help to address them. We would maybe imagine that a library in a poorer neighborhood would require a higher budget because their community’s needs are greater. With no surprise at all, it is usually the opposite. Libraries in less affluent communities have faced greater challenges in terms of access to information and even just keeping their branches open. This leads to a question regarding the inscription on the Copley Square library’s facade: is the BPL network really “Free To All”?

The idea of “Free To All” is somewhat misleading. The BPL system is not really “free” to people who pay taxes in Boston. The BPL is only free to people who live outside of Boston, and to college students or temporary residents who don’t pay Boston taxes. These groups are also the ones being benefited by the new Collection Ordering Plan this year, at the expense of Boston residents and smaller library branches. According to the Boston Public Library Professional Staff Association (BPLPSA) website, “56% of the people who checked out ebooks between March and August live outside of Boston.” Not only does this plan benefit people who already fall into the category of actual “free” access to library resources, but it does so at the expense of library branches, who will have less of a say in what books their branch receives. The BPLPSA website also states that “ebook checkout rates are highest in affluent, majority-white neighborhoods.” The new plan would thus skew resources towards privileged library members who mainly use online services, and away from communities with less access to digital media, mainly minoritized communities.

This year’s pandemic has highly emphasized the importance of green space. Especially in densely populated areas, parks and outdoor spaces provide a break from indoor confinement for individuals working from home, and a safer meeting place for groups. These two areas of program are closely related to Olmsted’s view of parks as both restorative and as gathering spaces. On the other hand, they do not reflect Olmsted’s belief in democracy and the idea that everyone should have equal access to green spaces. The pandemic has made even more obvious the disparity in access to outdoor spaces between neighborhoods or different economic and racial communities. As a result of racist policies––such as redlining and housing discrimination––Black communities have faced disinvestment in many different areas, including community programs. The outcome is a lack of community spaces in Black neighborhoods, including public parks. People in poorer communities––which are highly racialized––must often travel further to reach a park. This presents a challenge, especially during a time period where public transportation is risky. The same is true of public libraries. While libraries in Boston have mostly closed, many still offer services which allow patrons to pick up books or attend outdoor events in the same area. However, the Collections Plan shows that library services are highly skewed towards wealthier communities who have internet access and transportation access.

In defense of the BPL system, there are also events offered which cover how to use computers and the digital library. According to the BPL website, participants of tech-learning programs are also eligible to receive their own laptop. The central Copley Branch is also offering in person and socially distanced computer hours. There are eight computers total with three appointments per day, allowing for at most 24 people to make an appointment in a day. Considering that this is the only branch with this program, and in a highly gentrified neighborhood, it is not enough to justify the library placing more value on people who use online services versus in-person services. Even prior to the pandemic, the digitization of books was increasing in many libraries. As a result, the role of the library as a physical space has become less important. This tour will explore the theme of public access in the Boston Public Library network, and how it has succeeded or failed to be “Free To All.”