Finding the Center: The South Boston Branch Library

By Richard Campbell

While members of the community give the South Boston Branch Library positive ratings on service, and in general the atmosphere of the library is welcoming, we hold the position that the library facilities of the South Boston Branch are in need of major improvement. It is very hard to ignore the fact that in South Boston, the branch library is the only truly open public meeting space, and its design is entirely inadequate to that task.

The small footprint of the library, with its weak design and technology infrastructure make it a rudimentary building that was adequate in the early post World War II period that simply cannot be afforded the gradualist approach in order to meet 21st century library standards. The space in the South Boston Branch Library is not large enough, or adequately designed to serve a community that is increasingly accustomed to better technology, and a higher level of design. While private commercial interests in South Boston and the Seaport erect glorious monuments to business interests, the time to consider major plans for a new library is long over-due. Some politicians have been advocating for a library space in the Seaport, but it must be understood that the purpose of a branch library is to serve the residents of our community.

The rationale for a bigger public space recognizes how libraries are changing in our city and across the nation. Where once libraries were considered fortresses of knowledge and repositories of books, they are now platforms for information literacy, cultural and civic events, varied instruction, and advanced research with digital media-while still maintaining their traditional services. But even more critical for South Boston, the lack of a well-designed free public community meeting space large enough to accommodate larger civic events demands a different design approach. The current program room, with outdated projection equipment, poor lighting and inadequate seating, is not sufficient to support the growing needs of the entire community.

Residents of South Boston are fully aware of the design and construction industry in our neighborhood, from the recent Seaport developments to the history of carpenters and craftspeople that is a part of South Boston’s tradtion. What cannot be said about the current library is that it reflects the uniqueness and high level of craftsmanship in architecture and design that is routinely created by construction teams who reside in South Boston. I invite any member of the community to visit the East Boston Branch, designed by William Rawn, to see an excellent example of a modern branch library. If the decision was made to remodel the South Boston Branch Library it would require at least the addition of a second floor to create a decently sized public hall, a dedicated children’s room, proper reference services, computer labs, and amenities like a café or garden. When considering these requirements alone, one might ask whether the future library would be better relocated to accommodate parking for residents accessing the new significant programming space.

When one looks at the current large scale neighborhood plans, the power plant community near Medal of Honor park stands out as a most likely candidate to include a significantly enlarged three floor library. The redesign projects along Dorchester Avenue and near the waterfront, or even the Gatey school remodeled should not be out of the question; and it must be understood that designing a new building from the ground up presents the most potential for expanded capacity. The advantage of being right on the commercial main street of South Boston must be weighed against the ability to create a building to serve the whole community.

This is clearly not the time for minor improvements. South Boston residents need to support the idea of a new open cultural space to compliment all the private development in our neighborhood. Because the Boston Public Library has proven its ability to create such new spaces in other city neighborhoods, their leadership on this issue should be openly invited. It is understood that advocating for a complete renovation or rebuilding of a city library involves a lot of community cooperation between city officials, professional librarians, architects, designers, construction managers, and local community input. As we head into 2018, we at South Boston Online believe that advocating for a new library should be on the top of the list for residents of South Boston.

Jeanne Rooney

Jeanne Rooney is the Editor in Chief for South Boston Online.