Library oasis survives budget storm

Posted June 28, 2010 10:04 AM

By Danielle Dreilinger, Globe Correspondent

The town where I grew up was nothing like Somerville – less diverse in every way. But the library where I read and later worked was the same: the funky kids’ librarian, the European newsmagazines with their racy covers, the slightly uncomfortable wooden chairs, the Ellen Gilchrist story collections with such evocative titles — “Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle;” “I Cannot Get You Close Enough” — it’s a wonder I never took them off the shelves.

I loved the books but I needed the librarians. This month, Somerville’s librarians managed to convince the mayor the three branches couldn’t run without them. The fiscal 2011 budget would have replaced three full-time positions with part-timers — on top of four layoffs the year before. On June 24, the library got a last-minute reprieve thanks to concessions from the city’s entire non-union employee base.

Cathy Piantigini (17 years at the library) and Ann Cassesso (40 years) waved goodbye after story hour that morning to hordes of young kids — about 80, they estimated. Patrons see “a smiling face at the desk,” Piantigini said. But between helping visitors, the librarians coordinate events, such as a six-week program garden club Groundwork Somerville is starting; read review journals to choose new materials; and weed out older materials from the full-to-capacity shelves.
Patrons need staff with a “thoughtful approach to selecting materials,” Piantigini said. People donate books, but they usually don’t fit the library’s needs and so get sold through the Friends of the Somerville Public Library.

Dvora Jonas, president of the Friends, was squeezing some of those donations into shelves at the circulation desk: $1 for hardcovers, 25-50¢ for paperbacks. The organization raises about $15,000 per year, all for add-ons like events. Jonas floated the idea of contributing to salaries but people worried that if the nonprofit picked up the slack, “the city will never fund that again,” she said.

Ron Castile, head of reference, only kept his own job last year by bumping someone in the union with less seniority — an unpleasant and difficult decision. His department selects and orders reference, young adult, large print, English as a Second Language, and adult nonfiction books, as well as novels and periodicals. The adult nonfiction collection alone gets over 2,000 new books a year.

“I’m not sure that part-timers would be able to do as good a job as full-timers,” Castile said, moving an issue of “Oggi,” with a barcode next to the cover girl’s bikini. The five-and-a-half-person staff — the department lost one position due to attrition — also answers questions, often from amateur genealogists; maintains the city’s records and the local history collection; and helps patrons use the computers. Library director Nancy Milnor was herself out staffing the reference desk.

Though lifelong bookworms will always love the library, it may be even more important for a growing segment of the community. “We have a lot of people who come in looking for work … who may never have even sat down at a computer,” Castile said. Even companies like Home Depot now require online applications. “It’s a challenge for us because they need so much individual help and you only have so much time to give them.”

The English as a Second Language classes at all three branches see a lot of activity as well. For immigrants, “This is one of the first places they come. It’s free,” Castile said.

That’s why well-meant suggestions to charge fees and raise fines never fly, even though a library user who has checked out though not necessarily read 55 books in 2010 to date may look at the $3.35 they owe and think it’s really too low.

“Taxpayers … all this material is theirs. We maintain it for them,” Castile said, smiling benignly. “If you charge for materials you’re charging [taxpayers] for it twice.” (Any 13-year-olds hiding out because of that lost or impossibly overdue book should come in, he said.)

For Linda Riley of Somerville, 54, the library’s budget-friendliness means her nephew Kenneth’s education can flourish. Just done with first grade at the Prospect Hill Academy charter school, “because of the library he’s reading at a third-grade level,” she said proudly. In her car, his house, “everywhere’s books.” If the family had to buy them all, “It would be a fortune.”

For one group of boys on the third-floor mezzanine, the library’s just a cool place to hang out on a hot day. Right around the corner from the best carrel, the one that looks over rooftops to the woods, five rising sophomores were deep in their Magic deck games. “We’ve been doing this for like two days,” said Hernani Tavares. “It’s quiet.”

Bernard Ewah of Somerville, 40, chose the library for the same reason: It’s a good place to concentrate. He sat with a canary pad and his own Project Management Professional exam books on the second floor, next to the I.M. Pei-like pyramid that tops the stairway.

In Nigeria where Ewah grew up, libraries also are publicly funded on the US model. but “it’s been deteriorating,” he said. At the bank of computers, screens glowed with a Bunker Hill application and a Word doc that started “To whom it may concern.”

“We had to let people know just how important we are and what a drastic effect the loss of library workers would be,” Castile said. “I think we successfully did that.”

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some books to finish before they’re due back.

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1 Comment

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