After months of public, often heated, debate, three neighborhood branches of the Hartford Public Library have closed their doors for the last time.
The Blue Hills branch, located in a rented storefront on Blue Hills Avenue in the North End, was shuttered Wednesday evening. It was followed Thursday by the Goodwin and Mark Twain branches, the latter of which was located inside West Middle School on Asylum Avenue.
“We will continue to be there for the community, and this model allows us to be there, even with the financial challenges the city is facing,” Bridget Quinn-Carey, the chief executive officer of Hartford Public Library, said Thursday. “I think, at its heart, we’re still the same: We’re still a great library system and really, we’re here to be here and serve the community.”
These final days were the culmination of a plan set in motion more than a year ago, when the board of directors at the Hartford Public Library contracted with a Boston-based firm “to address HPL's long-term sustainability.” That firm found that a steady reduction in funding from the city over several years had led to the erosion of services and hours at the library’s 10 branches, which it noted were double the median number in other cities Hartford’s size.
Since the closures were announced, the remaining branches have increased their hours, including some open on Saturday.
“We’ve been offering more at each branch location,” Quinn-Carey said. “The plan has been unfolding as we have been intending: With more hours come more programming that people can find when they come into the library.”
Initially, the branches were going to close in early September. But an almost constant drumbeat of community outrage pushed the closure date to this week, with the targeted branches — chosen for their low usage levels — operating on reduced schedules.
Quinn-Carey said she and her staff are looking toward 2018 as an opportunity to lay the foundation for changes to the library system that will benefit city residents.
While the collections present in Goodwin and Blue Hills will be redistributed in the coming weeks, Mark Twain’s is remaining intact inside West Middle School, even as the branch is transitioning to a mobile location serving the Asylum Hill neighborhood.
In the new year, the former branch will become a learning center hosting ESL classes and citizenship services, she said. The books present there will also be available to teachers in the middle school.
It’s unclear what exactly will happen to Goodwin, located inside a building that the city owns. Quinn-Carey said she and her staff are having “robust dialogues” with community groups about the space’s future, and have let some use it as a regular meeting space.
One plan is centered on a working partnership between the four schools near the former branch, including a possible extension of the Boundless program that allows students to withdraw books from both their school libraries and the public library.
In the interim, one local politician is continuing his struggle to find ways to reverse the closures, despite Mayor Luke Bronin’s explicit support of the library’s choice.
Since July, City Councilman Larry Deutsch has introduced various pieces of legislation concerning the neighborhood branches. His most ambitious measure would transfer control of the city’s library to a new city department, away from the nonprofit that operates it now. That ordinance will be discussed at a public hearing Jan. 16, more than two weeks after the branches shutter, due to a previous hearing being canceled over a lack of heat in city hall.
“These branches closing is tragic, especially in view of the emphasis that everyone places on literacy and early childhood education,” Deutsch said. “It’s just a backwards step.”
Deutsch has been working with various community groups, including some Neighborhood Revitalization Zones, whose more vocal members have called on the library to find an alternative to closures. Proposals have been widely floated — everything from fundraising campaigns to private ownership of branches.
“Overall, I’m disappointed in the outcome,” said Victoria Fennell, a Blue Hills resident. “There are solutions, but the library has been stiff-necked and arrogant in resolving this problem.
“The bottom line is that in our neighborhood here, we have the highest rate of homeownership, we pay the highest property tax in the city, and this is what happened,” she added. “The silence of our leaders on this matter is troubling.”