The 411 on the Mass. Library System
By Sasha Nyary, Dean’s Editorial Fellow
The transition was fast, exhausting, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes bitter, and immensely sad. Almost everyone involved gave countless unpaid hours to dismantle an outstanding 50-year-old library system for the most mundane of reasons: money. Forced by severe budget cuts, the Massachusetts library powers that be spent last winter and spring consolidating the commonwealth’s six regional library offices into a single, much-reduced organization. The regions were dissolved on June 30, and on July 1, the Massachusetts Library System opened for business. This synopsis of what happened over the last 16 months was recently compiled through interviews and online materials, and while an effort has been made to avoid jargon, two acronyms are essential, MLS and MBLC.
What is the MLS? The Massachusetts Library System is a nonprofit corporation, born out of a budget-driven consolidation of the six former regional library systems across the state. It has a board of directors, a current staff of 21, and a budget of $7 million, and it describes itself as “a statesupported collaborative.” The MLS supports library services for its 1,700 members — libraries of all types, not just the 370 public libraries — and offers resources for everyone who lives, works, or studies in Massachusetts. To that end, it provides services such as database access, continuing education, resource sharing, summer reading programs, and advisory services in such areas as facility design or redesign, policy development, and programming. Nine of the staff are based in Waltham and 15 in Whately, which includes 11 drivers who deliver interlibrary loan materials to libraries in the western part of the state. The drivers will be laid off on June 30 and a single vendor will handle deliveries across the state.
What is the MBLC? The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) is the state agency responsible for the development of library services throughout the commonwealth. It administers state and federal funds in a half dozen ways, including talking-book services for the blind, capital improvements, library technology and resource sharing, and the MLS.
The MBLC disperses funds for the regional systems; it oversaw their demise while guiding the creation of the MLS; and it now directs funds to the MLS. The commissioners are appointed by the governor to five-year terms that can be renewed once — Em Claire Knowles ’88DA, GSLIS Assistant Dean for Student Services, is nearing the end of her second term — and the commissioners hire the director. Massachusetts residents like their libraries. Five million have library cards, about 80 percent of the six million total population. But they don’t seem to want to pay for them: MBLC’s current budget is a meager $21.1 million, down from $34.1 million in 2008, a 38 percent drop; it’s onetenth of one percent of the commonwealth’s entire budget.
What were the regional library systems? The six regional library systems, Boston, Metrowest, Northeastern, Southeast, Central, and Western Mass., did the work the MLS is now doing. Like the MLS, each region was a nonprofit. Each had about eight staff members, except for the Western Mass. Regional Library System, or WMRLS, which hired its own drivers rather than outsource them. The western Mass. library and information science (LIS) community has always been ahead of the curve, creating the state’s first bookmobile in the 1930s and WMRLS, the first region, in 1960. By 1964 there were two more regions, Central and Eastern; in 1998, the eastern region was sub-divided into four, with the idea being that each region would serve about a million people. Whether it was its longevity, or the staff’s dedication, or the particular issues in this large, mostly rural part of the state, WMRLS was deeply beloved by the libraries it served.
What are the networks, and why are they important? The nine automated resource-sharing networks across the state (the colorful names include CLAMS, SAILS, NOBLE, Minuteman, and Old Colony, along with C/WMARS, FLO, MVLC, and OCLN), are also non-profits, and are funded by member fees and the MBLC. Essentially integrated library systems for their geographic areas, these networks operate closely with the MLS to facilitate interlibrary loan services, as they did with the regionals. Their members include more than 300 public libraries, 38 academic libraries, and a handful of school and special libraries. MBLC is also working toward a statewide virtual catalog.
There’s a 10th network, MassCat, that is run specifically for schools and small libraries that can’t afford or don’t qualify for membership in one of the other networks. “Some networks don’t take schools, other networks are just too expensive for schools to be a part of,” says Nora Blake ’98LS, the MassCat manager for MLS, who is based in Whately. “Schools are our main focus, but there are a lot of public libraries, mostly out here in western Mass., about 20 or 30, that don’t have any kind of automation at all, and we have about a half dozen of those in MassCat. These are libraries that aren’t connected to anything. They might see MassCat as a stepping stone to C/WMARS, the network for western and central Mass., but maybe not, because C/WMARS is maybe two or three times the cost of what it is to be in MassCat.” A few libraries are simply not interested in being a part of any network.
The MLS, and before that the regions, offers an interlibrary loan service so that patrons can borrow materials that are either not available in their network, or whose library is not in a network. The per-transaction cost is picked up by MLS. The Massachusetts Broadband Initiative, which is bringing high-speed Internet to rural towns over the next couple of years, will help some of those libraries take the plunge into automation. But some of these towns are tiny and have tiny libraries with miniscule budgets. Even if a library has direct broadband, the cost of joining one of these networks will remain prohibitive for some of them.
What was the process of consolidation? Consolidation of the six regions into the MLS occurred in only nine months. It began with the state’s notifying MBLC in October 2009 that its funding would be cut 29 percent, from a high of $11 million in the 2001 fiscal year to $7 million in the 2011 fiscal year. This cut was particularly galling, given that library usage is at an all-time high and funding is already so low. The regions had been hit with a 25 percent cut the year before and now the decision was made to consolidate.
What that consolidation would ultimately look like had to be determined in the next nine months, by early April 2010, by the 18-member statewide Regional Transition Planning Committee, a.k.a. the TransTeam. Made up of three unpaid members of each region’s board (employees of the regions were not full participants of the committee because of the conflict of interest), the TransTeam met as a group seven times in three months and in sub-committees outside the group.
“Eighteen people worked together very intensely,” says MBLC Director Robert Maier. “They produced a report, a budget, a service plan, a staffing plan, and a legal transition process.” The proposal “to designate the Massachusetts Library System as the administrative entity to provide regional services to libraries and residents beginning July 1, 2010” was presented to the MBLC board on April 1 and approved on April 13.
Next came the practical task of organizing the MLS and closing the regions. The region employees were laid off and invited to apply for jobs at the new organization. Almost everyone who applied for a job with MLS was hired, but as brand-new employees in a brand-new organization.
It was a stressful time. By July 1, MLS had basic staff in place, including an executive director, Gregory Pronevitz. “They provided service that first day, picked up the phones — delivery was consistent. There were no hiccups at all, and that in itself was a great achievement,” says Maier.
“They came together; there was a great team spirit,” says Carolyn Noah, MLS assistant director, who started in August. “They built a continuing education program schedule out of thin air in a couple of weeks. They hired a business manager. They are great professionals who are excited about the opportunities. We know there are limitations but we also think that we can accomplish a lot.”
Who was opposed to consolidation, and why? Opposition came from all the regions but it was strongest from the LIS community in the western part of the state. The granddaddy of the regions, WMRLS, with more than 300 members across all library types, covered the largest geographical area, including the biggest part of the state lacking broadband. Of the commonwealth’s 69 public libraries that serve communities with populations under 2,000, 57 are in western Mass. The area has the largest number of non-automated libraries, although WMRLS employees had worked tirelessly to help libraries get connectivity in whatever way they could. Like the other regions, many WMRLS employees had been in their jobs for decades; they were known to libraries throughout the region, and they were familiar with the communities they served.
Western Mass. often feels slighted when it comes to services from the commonwealth, so many in the LIS community were apprehensive about the possibility of closing the WMRLS facility, a large warehouse with offices and classrooms in Whately, about 15 minutes north of Northampton. Many were also concerned that the western Mass. representatives were outnumbered on the TransTeam. When the final report was issued, it included eastern and western offices in the 2011 fiscal year only. It gave no assurance that a western presence would be maintained in future years. “That galvanized folks in the western part of the state to take action,” says Maier.
Feeling unique, and concerned that they would be forgotten, the LIS community rallied to save WMRLS, including holding a vote of member libraries on a proposal to reject dissolution and strike out on their own, independent of the MLS. “The people made their concerns known,” says Maier. “They were heard by the MBLC, the legislature, the governor. The governor was well aware of them — when he went to his home in Richmond, he’d hear from people.” Their plan was financially unfeasible; the vote failed, but as a result of the strong sentiment, says Maier, “we made a commitment that there would be a western Mass. office. That in turn is why we have so much interest and commitment to being sure that an appropriate level of service is offered in the western part of the state.”
What is it like today? “This has been a really tough time for public libraries,” says Noah, “because they were really familiar with their regional library systems. They had that local touch, with nearby, familiar faces, robust services, and a good community feeling. The MLS is a completely different creature. The staff has been halved, the funding is significantly lower, and obviously the services don’t begin to give what the regional library systems provided.”
But a single unified library system has its advantages, she adds. “There is much greater buying power. When we had six regional systems all going out to bid for small chunks of databases, they weren’t really attractive contracts for vendors. But now it’s the whole state, so the possibilities are quite different, and many of them mean better service for libraries and better service for residents.” Operating as a single entity, the MLS was able to extend the databases that the Boston Public Library had under contract to everyone in the state, which happened in early September.
The next decrease in funding — MBLC is preparing for a probable 7.75 percent cut in the next budget; Maier is trying to protect the MLS as much as possible — will only reduce library services further, of course. Maier is cautiously optimistic about future funding, but the situation for the next fiscal year is distressing.
The western Mass. LIS community does feel out of the loop at times. It was a surprise to several to learn in recent interviews that the WMRLS drivers will be laid off. (MLS is instituting a unified label-less delivery system; transit slips will go away completely and the system will rely on barcodes to direct each item, saving a significant amount of time and a half a million dollars worth of paper, according to Noah.) The immediate reaction is sorrow for their colleagues and renewed fear that the remote libraries with only a handful of weekly deliveries will be relegated to a mail-type delivery service; Noah and Maier stress that the request for proposals with delivery vendors specifically calls for universal truck delivery and 24-hour turnaround, at least in the first contract.
Still, the fears remain. “I have no doubt that they’re trying,” says Sally Caldwell of the Egremont Free Library. “But the communications are just not what they were before. Small libraries particularly need this. I’m a single person running this library” — her library serves one of the smallest towns in the state, with a population of 1,300 — “and it’s very easy to get tunnel vision. I just don’t feel a part as I did a year ago, and I am quite sure that I am speaking for a lot more than just myself.”
“Budget language and commitments from the MBLC and MLS assure that there will be an MLS facility in the western part of the state for the foreseeable future,” Maier promises. “There will be staff, training facilities, and a computer lab, just like today, even if it’s in a different western Massachusetts location. There will be staff who are familiar with libraries, and the needs of libraries in western Mass.” The Waltham office is expected to move to a more central — and less expensive — location near I-495 and I- 90.
For Blake, who worked for WMRLS for nine years, the future is in collaboration. “The challenge for everyone working in libraries in Massachusetts is to think beyond their own walls and their own area and start connecting with libraries from all over the state,” she says. “We have to broaden our vision for ourselves and for our libraries, especially with other types of libraries. Public libraries should be thinking of ways to work with their schools in town, for example. We can only become stronger this way.”