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The big library debate Friday, January 7, 2005
Rob Haneisen 508-626-3882 Metrowest Daily News
There are some sacred cows when it comes to services and amenities people expect from their town.  Exemplary police and fire departments, timely trash pick-up and maybe even a place dedicated to seniors are certain to top the list.  Count libraries on the list as well.

Framingham is in the advantageous position of having two very nice libraries - the cozy, if not a bit a cramped, McAullife Branch in Saxonville, and the industrial-sized downtown main library.

I've taken out books and materials from both branches over the past four years and as a writer obviously have a soft spot for halls dedicated to the written word.

What I have a problem with is a community having more than one library, particularly if one of those libraries, in this case the downtown main branch, is so huge it should be able to easily accommodate the needs of the entire town plus folks like me who work here and wander inside every so often.

Framingham Library Director Tom Gilchrist pointed out on a message to an on-line message board that 18 of 23 communities in Massachusetts with populations over 50,000 have more than one library.  In fact, the McAuliffe branch is one of the busiest libraries in the state which factored into the state granting the town a $1.65 million construction grant.  This won't cover the full cost of building a new branch - the town will have to kick in about $4 million to make that happen.

Gilchrist also points out in his letter that 16,000 of the town's 37,000 library card holders live north of Rte. 9.  Many of the people who use the Saxonville branch live on the northside or in one of the more affluent communities neighboring the town's northside.

This is a bit before my time, but from what I've been told, when the town created one central high school and stopped the north and south high school layout it did much to ease the economic and geographic class tension in the community.  Rte. 9 is considered by many to be the dividing line between the leafy suburbs of the Northside and former industrial sites, immigrant haven and working class neighborhoods of the Southside.

Of course, there are some folks who live on Salem End Road or near the Framingham County Club who will claim to be Southsiders but it is a hollow assertion - that neck of the woods is Southside in geography only and not in character.

The Saxonville branch library, some might argue, preserves the north-south divide in Framingham.  Bill McCarthy, at Tuesday night's Capital Budget Committee meeting, said as much when he claimed people were not going to the downtown branch perhaps out of prejudice.

There are those who loath Framingham's downtown and lament its decent into a multi-ethnic, traffic-snarled, ugly shadow of its past glory.  With the traffic and need for updating some of the larger industrial buildings to housing, I'll admit the downtown leaves something to be desired, but it is still vibrant, bustling and full of promise in my opinion.

On Tuesday night, the Capital Budget Committee decided to advise Town Meeting against supporting two articles that would set aside money - about $4.2 million - for a new branch library project in Saxonville.  The votes were 3-1 to advise against with two members abstaining.

Member Tom O'Neil, who abstained from the vote, said "I think your biggest obstacle is justifying the need."

I think that pretty much nails it.

Gilchrist will argue that the main library is nearly at capacity and does not have room for the 74,000 items in the branch collection.  Re-working some of the collections and placing them in storage could free up some space and if the town went to one central library wouldn't they be getting rid of some materials because of redundancy?

Here's an idea: Instead of spending $4 million in town money plus $1.6 million in state funds to build a new branch on the northside, why not spend far less to renovate a wing or two of the Callahan Senior Center right next door to the library and make that the new branch?  It would be far cheaper (the town already owns the building) and is more convenient to more people than a northside branch.  The old senior center, once vacated, even uses the same parking garage as library visitors.

So far as I know, there are no immediate plans for the Callahan Center.  If there is concern about taking away the McAuliffe name from the branch, name the main library expansion into the old senior center as the McAuliffe wing.

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