By Karine Vann
June 9, 2021
On the 1-Year Anniversary of the CPL’s Shut Down
It’s spring, dear readers! The flowers are flowering! The trees are treeing! And much has changed since my last column three months ago. But there are some things that haven’t changed, and I’d like to take a moment to talk about one of them.
On March 13, 2020, Cambridge Public Libraries announced that they would be closing their doors for two weeks in response to the threat that the COVID-19 pandemic posed to the public and its staff. At the time, it was a reasonable response to a virus that was still very new and very frightening.
But as I write this, it is one year, two months, and 10 days since the library’s initial notice of closure and by the time this issue reaches print in June, Governor Baker will have lifted Massachusetts out of the stifling state of emergency we have lived under for more than a year. Yet in spite of the science they have claimed to have been following for the past year, in spite of the data, in spite of the essential services libraries provide to the most vulnerable members of our community, the CPL network will still not have resumed its full services to the taxpaying, majority-vaccinated public that funds it.
As we approach the end of the pandemic, despite a rough start, the U.S. is emerging out of it better than most, with robust vaccination programs taking place all over the country and over 150 million people already having received one dose. Yet over a year in, certain institutions—ironically, the ones which have put on the biggest show about being progressive, inclusive, and anti-racist—are still closed.
Perhaps nothing illustrates this new, detached breed of COVID elitism disguised as social justice more than the newsletters of the Cambridge Public Library. Each week, the library’s director, Maria McCauley, voices her commitment to anti-racism and inclusivity with a new Zoom event, while keeping the library’s physical spaces closed to the minorities who need it most.
We aren’t going to solve America’s problems with race and inequity over Zoom. Given the science, the most equitable move the CPL could make at this point would be to safely open its doors.
The irony is that in towns with libraries that receive far less funding than the CPL, libraries have found ways to adapt. One elderly resident of Cambridge, dissatisfied with the CPL’s curbside pick-up program after waiting in a line in the freezing cold dead of winter for nearly half an hour, took to social media to ask residents of other towns how their libraries were coping. She received responses from people in Framingham, Watertown, Arlington, and towns all over the state, who said they were finding ways to get books to residents and even (in the case of Watertown), allow folks inside to safely browse even during the pandemic. (The original commenter, who prefered to remain anonymous, responded to the flood of comments: “Consensus is....every library does it better than Cambridge! Good to know.”)
While other less-well-funded libraries, like Watertown, were finding ways to safely open, in January 2021, CPL fell even deeper into a hole of regression, shutting down even curbside holds it was offering for several months. This total shutdown of services (save for anti-racist Zoom calls and virtual book readings) stood at odds with the city’s decision to increase the library’s budget by 25% for the 2021 fiscal year (from $13 million to $15 million).
On May 3, the CPL finally announced that it would be resuming limited, 30-minute in-person services by appointment only, starting in June. I’ve been told that the Cambridge City Manager, Louis DePasquale, whose income for this year was recently approved at $330,937 with 2.5% salary bumps every six months, is the public servant whose sole decision it apparently is to press “Go” on the library’s services. To him, I say: Limited in-person service by appointment is not the same as safely opening.
Every single day that the CPL’s spaces are not made available, it is failing the anti-racist mission that its newsletters suggest it is obsessed with and its commitment to these ideals is purely lip service. We need a date that the library will open, and accountability for the money that should have funded extending (not retracting) the library’s services for the first half of 2021.