Library Legislative Day Opening Remarks

Good afternoon. Welcome. I’m Alex Lent. I’m Director of the Peabody Institute Library of Danvers, and I’m President of the Massachusetts Library Association. Welcome to Library Legislative Day!

I’d like to thank the MLA Legislative Committee for making this event a reality. This is a complicated, long-planned day with a lot of moving parts. Thank you for making it happen.

I’d like to thank the Massachusetts School Library Association for being here, and I’d like to thank the Western Massachusetts Library Advocates, not just for sponsoring this morning’s breakfast, but also, along with our colleagues from the Cape, for chartering buses to bring large contingents here today. Thank you.

Thank you all for being here. This is something we have to do together. Thank you to our coworkers back at our home libraries for keeping the doors open today, so we be here working to keep the lights on.

And finally, I’d like to thank our legislators for being here for us. When you support libraries, you support your communities and you support our Commonwealth. That is the idea I’d like to talk about today.

I am President of the Massachusetts Library Association. I’m the 103rd President. The first was Charles Ammi Cutter, who was Librarian at the Athenaeum here in Boston for 25 years and then Librarian at the Forbes Library in Northampton until his death in 1903.

Cutter is known in libraries mostly for his work in taxonomy — classification, the organization of information. We still use Cutter Numbers today — strings of characters at the end of call numbers that allow us to place items in precise locations in the taxonomy, in the collection. Cutter came up with these.

Cutter’s larger contribution to taxonomy was the development of the Cutter Expansive Classification System, which he would be disappointed to hear me describe as an alternative to the Dewey Decimal System, but from the patron’s perspective, that’s what it is — it’s a way to organize a library’s collections.

What makes the Cutter System special is its ability to expand or contract to suit the needs of individual libraries. If, for example, you were going to add a item to a library with a large, well-developed collection, you might want to give that item a long call number, in order to give it a very precise location in the collection. If you were to add that same item to a library with a smaller collection, or a collection less well-developed in that item’s subject, you might want to give that item a shorter call number, because its precise taxonomic location wouldn’t be as useful in that library. The Cutter Expansive Classification System permits this flexibility.

This sounds arcane, but what Cutter was doing was establishing systems that could work across libraries of different types. He was finding ways for us to work together, to collaborate, to coordinate our efforts to better serve our communities.

Cutter’s passion for collaboration was not limited to taxonomy. In 1890, he founded the Massachusetts Library Club, to further his mission to make libraries work.

It’s important to remember that libraries as we think of them today are not all that old. They’re between one hundred and one hundred and fifty years old, depending on your definition. So, 1890, 128 years ago, the year Cutter started the Massachusetts Library Club, was the middle of the birth of modern libraries in America. Libraries were new and Cutter and his colleagues were trying to figure out how to make them work. They started the Massachusetts Library Club to strengthen what was then a burgeoning library community in Massachusetts.

We changed our name from the Massachusetts Library Club to the Massachusetts Library Association, but our work remains in essence unchanged. The Massachusetts Library Association works to strengthen the Massachusetts Library Community. That hasn’t changed in 128 years.

What has changed is our understanding of what the Massachusetts Library Community is.

In 1890, it was Cutter in Boston, Fletcher in Amherst, and a handful of like-minded librarians scattered across the Commonwealth.

Today, we know that the Massachusetts Library Community is the Commonwealth.

Everyone in Massachusetts is a library staff member, a library trustee, a Friend of a library, a patron, or a potential patron. And most of us are patrons. Fully two-thirds of Massachusetts residents over the age of five have library cards, and that number goes up if we include residents who have access to library cards through a parent or spouse.

Last year, Massachusetts residents visited their public libraries nearly forty million times. That’s greater than the attendance of entire seasons of the Bruins, Celtics, Patriots, Red Sox, and Revolution combined. Forty million visits means that on average, every single Massachusetts resident — whether a second old or a century old — visits their public library about once every six weeks.

The Massachusetts Library Community is the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

This means that Commonwealth issues are library issues. The opioid crisis. Access to mental health resources. Income inequality. Demographic changes. The need for local economic development. The digital divide. Changing job skills requirements. These are all Commonwealth issues. These are all library issues.

Commonwealth issues are library issues because the Massachusetts Library Community is the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

And because the Massachusetts Library Community is the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, library needs are Commonwealth needs.

We are asking for funding for technology because there are places in Massachusetts without access to high speed internet, because most libraries in Massachusetts aren’t meeting federal recommendations for internet speed, and because even in places that do have high speed internet, there are people who can’t afford it, and who rely on the library to apply for jobs, to access information, and to communicate with loved ones. Libraries need funding for technology because the Commonwealth needs access to technology.

We’re asking for funding for resource sharing because we need systems that allow us to function as one library, because the Commonwealth thinks of us as one library.

We’re asking for support for the library construction program because the Commonwealth needs safe, accessible library buildings that can collectively handle forty million visits a year.

We’re asking for a fully-funded Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners because the Commonwealth need good libraries, and the MBLC is the organization tasked with making sure libraries meet standards, and because the MBLC is the organization that administers the grants that allow libraries to go beyond standards and find new ways to serve our Commonwealth. The Commonwealth needs a fully-funded Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, because the Commonwealth needs good libraries.

You’re going to hear a lot today about libraries, and about money, and about needs, and about numbers. Throughout all this, I’d like you to keep three things in mind.

First, the Massachusetts Library Community is the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. We are one and the same. Libraries are not a special interest group. We are the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth needs us. Library needs are Commonwealth needs.

Second, our work does not end today. Library advocacy is a year-round endeavor. When you go home, spread the word, talk with your friends and your families and your neighbors about libraries, about the great things happening in libraries, about the need for sufficient library funding. Sign up for legislative alerts. Call your representatives and tell them you want them to take every opportunity to support libraries. Get your friends and your families and your neighbors to call. Join the MLA or the MSLA. Help us in our work to strengthen the Massachusetts Library Community and our Commonwealth. There is strength in numbers.

Finally, remember that this is a golden age of libraries. Cutter is a hero of mine, but I wouldn’t trade eras with him. Cutter spends nearly half of his most famous essay about libraries, in which he imagines the Buffalo Public Library in 1983 — one hundred years into the future for Cutter — talking about lighting and ventilation and fire prevention.

Things are better for libraries today. You need only to stroll through the Great Hall today and see the displays to know that we are doing great, worthy, interesting work, in service to our communities and our Commonwealth. We are doing that work more efficiently and more effectively than ever before.

The doom and gloom articles about libraries being obsolete are wrong. We’re vital to the success of our communities and our Commonwealth. Libraries aren’t going away. But for libraries to go forward, we need sufficient funding.

So thank you for being here today, supporting libraries so libraries can continue to support our Commonwealth.

Thank you.