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A library revolution in Providence

January 7, 2009 |  7:00 am

Providencelibrary_0107

Rhode Island, which tied Michigan for the nation's highest unemployment rate in November, is facing state and municipal budget cutbacks. The Providence Public Library, a private nonprofit that has run the city library for 100 years, has proposed leaving open its central branch while closing five of its nine local branches.

Not so fast, a group said in a news conference Monday. Give them to us.

The Providence Community Library, a newly formed nonpfrofit of library and community leaders, says the closures are "unacceptable." Board Chair Marcus Mitchell maintains that the branch libraries could be run much more efficiently, and that the budget gap will be filled with "aggressive fundraising." His organization, which does not seek to take over the central library, has asked the city to hand over its branch library funding -- $7.5 million -- so it can "ensure continued access to a full branch library system that provides services and programs that meet the needs of library patrons across the city."

The existing overseer, the Providence Public Library, responded with a written statement. "Without seeing the Community Library’s proposal, we don't know that the new organization has the infrastructure capable of administering the branch system....  As with any new organization, we would be concerned that it has the financial ability to steward the Library for future generations."

Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline has said that he opposes closing library branches. But it's not up to him; under a November agreement, the City Council can take over the branch libraries; assign their stewardship to another entity, like PCL; or maintain the current library system if it covers the deficit. The Providence Journal reports that the council is leaning toward supporting the new group; Council President Peter S. Mancini told the paper, "I've felt that the PPL did not want to deal with the branch libraries," and that more fundraising could be done.

Whether this will turn into a full-fledged battle, or whether the PPL will quietly hand over the reins to the new PCL, remains to be seen.

But it is clear that the PCL is determined. As many cities are facing similar budget challenges, and libraries no doubt will be in jeopardy all over, the group's commitment is energizing. Its members have  done more than rally in support of Providence's branch libraries; they're stepping up to save them.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo of the Athanaeum, a library in Providence that was a favorite of Edgar Allen Poe's but is not part of the public library system by KevArchie via Flickr

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