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The incredible shrinking library

Facing a $900k deficit and angry book lovers, the PPL reconsiders its city-wide approach
By IAN DONNIS  |  April 27, 2006

EMBATTLED INSTITUTION: The PPL's hybrid structure - a private organization with a public mission - sparks competing claims of who best speaks for its interests.When a leaky roof closed the Washington Park branch of the Providence Public Library in January, a small number of children’s books were moved to a nearby former Benny’s store on Broad Street, and the branch’s literacy and after-school services fanned out to other locations. While a PPL spokeswoman basically describes this as making the best of a difficult situation, critics call it a telling sign of the troubled state of Rhode Island’s biggest and best library system.

Almost two years after the PPL set off a public furor by axing 21 jobs and reducing hours at the downtown Central Library, a far more sweeping proposed reduction — to shut six of 10 library branches and cut staff to make up for a $900,000 deficit — has ignited another impassioned response.

During a Tuesday evening gathering at the Fox Point branch, about 40 people, including residents from as far as Cranston and North Kingstown, mulled strategies to preserve the existing branches, including staging a May 8 march from City Hall at 4 pm, culminating in a rally at the Central Branch. Surrounded by books, DVDs, and other library materials, the abiding sense was one of community resources under siege. As one resident put it, “From my perspective, this is not a Renaissance City if the branches are [shut] down.”

At stake is nothing less than the composition of the Providence Public Library. Two summers ago, PPL director Dale Thompson told the Phoenix that the library’s major commitment was serving the city’s neighborhoods through its network of 10 branches, a stance reinforced by how a 1992 proposal to close six branches sparked widespread outrage. “The premise of all of the decisions we are making is that our first priority is public service, and public service as it relates to serving the children and families of Providence,” Thompson said at the time (see “Whose library is it, anyway?” News, August 6, 2004). “We primarily are a neighborhood, branch-based library system.”

Now, though, the PPL’s leadership clearly favors a slimmer operation, albeit one marked by expanded hours at three of the four branches slated to survive and “innovative delivery options,” as the library put it in the April 10 news release announcing the proposed cuts. Central, Rochambeau, South Providence and Mount Pleasant would remain open under the plan, while Fox Point, Smith Hill, Olneyville, Knight Memorial, Wanskuck, and the already shuttered Washington Park branch are targeted to close.

The traditional branch network may not be the best way of carrying out the library’s citywide mission, PPL spokeswoman Tonia Mason says in an interview, contending that some neighborhoods presently go underserved and that the branches have exceeded their fundamental role by serving as de facto after-school centers. While critics point to factors including high administrative salaries, Mason blames the library’s recurring financial problems on a combination of rising costs, aging infrastructure, and level or near-stagnant funding increases from the city and state, which provide more than half of its $8.5 million operating budget.

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