Remarks from MBLC Board Chair Roland Ochsenbein

Remarks given as the Board Chair Report at the April Meeting of the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners

Twenty-eight days ago, on March 5, we held our monthly MBLC board meeting at the Boston Public Library. BPL President David Leonard welcomed us and we conducted our business that day in the usual fashion, together in the Commonwealth Salon. Afterward, we toured the digitization labs. It was a normal, bustling day at the BPL.

The next morning, I spoke at a legislative breakfast hosted by the Bigelow Free Public Library in Clinton, one of the last of the breakfasts leading into the FY 2021 legislative budget season. The breakfast was well attended, the mood upbeat and enthusiastic. Representative Natalie Higgins, the House Library Caucus Co-Chair, also spoke, as did Senator Harriett Chandler and Representative Harold Naughton, all of them articulate library supporters. Coming off a year in which our total funding exceeded our request (for possibly the first time ever!), there was by contrast a hint of caution in their comments regarding next year. Important needs in education, transportation infrastructure, and other areas would compete for any increases the state would see in its revenue collections. Mind you, this was before the spread of the corona virus was fully understood. Libraries will be okay they assured us, but just know that there is some pressure next year. As of a few weeks ago, that was where we were going into next year.

Since then, and with stunning speed, the world has completely changed.

Beginning on March 13, Governor Baker began issuing increasingly severe emergency orders in response to growing concerns over the spread of the corona virus.  On that day, he issued an order prohibiting large gatherings. Two days later, he ordered public schools closed, prohibited gatherings of 25 or more, and prohibited on premises consumption of food and drink at bars and restaurants. Four days after that, he activated the National Guard. In another four days, on March 23, he ordered non -essential businesses to cease in-person operations, and he issued a statewide stay-at-home advisory. And just two days ago, he announced that the DCU Center in Worcester is being stood up as a field hospital, and that an arena at Fitchburg State is being outfitted as a temporary morgue if needed…an arena to serve as a temporary morgue.

As we meet today, remotely via Zoom video conference, it is a very different world compared to that of last month’s board meeting in the marvelous surrounds of the Boston Public Library. Today, all public library buildings in the Commonwealth are closed to the public, as are nearly all academic and special libraries. That is an extraordinary statement. The only other time this has occurred was not during the Great Depression or a World War, it was during the influenza pandemic of 1918, when an estimated 675,000 people in the U.S. and tens of millions worldwide succumbed to the disease.

I am extraordinarily impressed with the response of the MBLC leadership and staff and those of our affiliates during this difficult time. The number of communications that have come out this past week or so as things have developed so rapidly– updates, advisories and announcements, including the comprehensive MBLC Service Update from yesterday– are excellent and so needed at this time. I was also pleased to see articles from publications such as the Boston Globe and the Atlantic describing how the availability of library services, many of them digital, are playing an even more important role at a time when buildings are physically closed—eBooks, audiobooks, databases, online courses, virtual story times, outside-the-building WiFi access, phone assistance and outreach, and more. The MBLC, the affiliates, and others have been working to expand the already wide access to electronic offerings. At a time when most are staying home and schools are closed, these services are enormously beneficial, possibly even life saving. I’ve seen any number of communications from libraries around the state, on social media and elsewhere, offering service updates that are resourceful, creative, and uplifting even in this heavy time. Libraries at their best. I am proud to be associated with this community.

We will eventually recover. I personally think it will take a long time to fully recover. There are many long-term consequences that are not yet understood. That said, public libraries and the role they play in society will be, I am certain, critically important to recovery efforts in too many ways to list here. And I think this may well be the focus of our message over the coming months, as we, at the appropriate time, turn our attention to regaining full operations.

The budget fallout may also be significant. The FY 2021 state revenue forecasts will certainly be revised as a result of the economic disruption we are experiencing, and that in turn will inform a new look at FY2021 and beyond. We will need to communicate our needs and our value often and clearly to lawmakers. Further, it is unclear what impacts, if any, there may be on the construction program in terms of passing the bond bill, raising the cap, and whether or to what extent projects may be delayed or reconsidered at the local level. I think there is also concern building on the municipal level about next year’s local budget picture. Local tax receipts will be directly affected by the temporary closure of businesses, loss of sales/meals/room taxes, and the compounding effects of job losses. But then there may also be some positive countervailing consequences from the various stimulus measures.

Looking ahead, there are at this moment more questions than answers but what IS clear is that the future looks very different today than it did just a few weeks ago, and our role in supporting libraries and helping make things better for people may never be more important than it will be over the coming months and possibly years.

Finally, I’d just like to say that, according to health officials, it seems clear we are in for a very difficult few weeks or months immediately ahead. I pray for all of our good health.