Let’s continue to invest in libraries across the state

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There’s a lot to like in the Healey/Driscoll administration’s Mass Leads Act, but I write today to draw attention to one piece in particular – the providing of $150 million for the Massachusetts Public Library Construction Program (MPLCP). This program, started in 1987, has benefitted more than 250 municipalities in the Commonwealth, granting them critical matching funds for renovation and construction of these treasured spaces that anchor communities. It is administered by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners.

I was thrilled to be appointed by Gov. Healey in 2023 to serve on this body as a volunteer commissioner.

It was just 15 years ago, in 2010, in the wake of a serious economic downturn, that people in Boston pushed back on proposals to close eight to ten neighborhood branches of the Boston Public Library. There was a widespread grassroots movement to protect and even expand those library services, seen as essential to the health and vitality of the neighborhoods. Lucky for us, the activists prevailed.

People understand that libraries are more than buildings where you can borrow books. They are community centers, and safe spaces where ideas can be explored and shaped. They provide free access to education and learning, as well as tools for access. At some libraries, you can borrow tools, musical instruments, board games, toys, and internet access. At some, you can get seeds for planting a garden, spices from around the world, and artwork. People go to libraries to look for jobs, partake in classes, learn English, research where to go to college, how to sign up for Medicare, and more.

Some libraries have food pantries to serve neighbors struggling with food insecurity. Libraries can be a tool to combat loneliness. The services of a library are limited only by the imaginations of the people who work there, and the people they serve. Libraries are foundational to our democracy. If you think that’s not true, just look at recent attempts to make them pawns in our political culture wars. They wouldn’t be targets if they weren’t essential.

When I was growing up in Adams Corner, our branch was my after-school refuge, a place where I learned that the world was bigger than my neighborhood. I took theater classes, did arts and crafts, learned about music, explored great literature from around the world, made friends, and generally drove the librarians crazy. That ugly pink building, now thankfully rebuilt with support from the MPLCP, was essential to the growth of my intellect and more importantly, my imagination.

Many of our libraries are architecturally significant. The beautiful East Boston and Roxbury branches of the BPL have won multiple awards, as have the Woburn, Eastham, and Norwell Public Libraries, among others. And the BPL in Copley Square is one of the crown jewels of our city. As communities, we take pride in these buildings.

When I served as the policy and planning chief in Mayor Marty Walsh’s administration, we dedicated significant resources to libraries, because we knew how important they are to people. The completion of the McKim Building of the BPL was one of the very first things to which we committed – on our very first day in the office, and we provided capital funding for the complete renovation of the Special Collections Department, which houses rare books and manuscripts, music, fine arts, and more. It houses our history, for all to see. We oversaw the renovations of many branches, including Roslindale, Jamaica Plain, Allston, Roxbury, the aforementioned Adams Street branch in Dorchester. This state funding supported all of these projects. Mayor Walsh told me we would get to every library before the end of his third term. Of course, he didn’t serve a third term, but luckily the library work continues.

In getting to know our state’s libraries outside Boston, the importance of this public construction funding commitment becomes strikingly evident. Our libraries come in all shapes and sizes, from tiny one-room facilities to large multi-branch systems. The public construction program funded by this bill serves all of them with customized approaches. These investments are crucial.

We are lucky to have a governor and other elected leaders who understand that libraries are essential to our culture and our neighborhoods, and I ask you to call your state representative and senator to confirm that they are supporting H.4459, the Mass Leads Act, and specifically funding for the construction and renovation of library buildings.

Joyce Linehan is a resident of Dorchester.