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Unpopular books flying off branch libraries’ shelves

Some bridle as Boston trims collections in effort to update offerings

Fosiya Ismail browsed through books at the Boston Public Library’s Dudley Branch with empty stacks nearby.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Fosiya Ismail browsed through books at the Boston Public Library’s Dudley Branch with empty stacks nearby.

At the Dudley Branch of the Boston Public Library, clustered volumes fill only half of many long, red shelves; the rest stand empty. In the adult nonfiction section, some shelves are completely barren.

The library, in Roxbury, once brimmed with books. But officials have been steadily culling its collection the past few months as part of a push by BPL administrators to dispose of up to 180,000 little-used volumes from shelves and archives of branches citywide by year’s end. Library officials say the reductions help assure that patrons can comfortably sift through a modern selection that serves their needs.

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The Dudley branch stands to lose up to 40 percent of its inventory, according to an internal memo acquired by the Globe. The branches at Egleston Square and Uphams Corner could lose 30 and 28 percent of their collections, respectively.

All but one of the city’s two dozen branch libraries will lose books, the exception being the newly opened East Boston library.

Some patrons, as well as current and former library employees, find the exodus of books troubling.

“You have students in the branches — high school students, junior high students — who are coming in to do reports. You’ve got to have a certain number of books, a certain number of hard-copy sources,” said Metro Voloshin, a former librarian at the Fields Corner branch who has served as curator of music for the library system.

It cuts into the branches’ core mission, critics say, eroding a service that can’t be duplicated by digital media. Even books that have not been checked out recently can still serve an essential purpose to the community, they said.

The plan, instituted in February, targets books that have not been checked out in varying periods: three years for small branches, four for medium-sized ones, and five for large libraries like Dudley. The volumes are to be sold at book fairs, listed on sites such as Amazon.com, digitally archived, or, in some cases, recycled.

Officials at the central library say the whittling of collections is intended to update the system’s database of more than 23 million items and further establish branches as a communal space where people go to make use of computers, study rooms, and general meeting spaces.

“It’s a changing landscape in terms of libraries,” said Amy Ryan, president of the Boston Public Library. “This is just a transition time as we’re getting the collection to the right size.”

Ryan acknowledged that more than a hundred thousand books may eventually be removed, but said some items filed for removal may be missing or duplicates. The library system continues to add 132,000 volumes to its overall collection each year, she said.

Ryan, who took the helm of the library system in 2008, said a 21st-century library should be modeled after the East Boston branch. Opened in November 2013, it carries the system’s smallest supply of books — with a capacity for 20,000 items — but has dedicated communal spaces for children, teenagers, and adults. The building has free Wi-Fi and 54 computers available for public use.

“People talk and laugh, which is our goal,” Ryan said. “It’s about helping close the achievement gap, it’s about doing our part in the digital divide, and then it’s just a friendly wonderful space too. And there’s books.”

Branch librarians who spoke to the Globe on the condition of anonymity said staffers have been working constantly to meet the monthly targets for the reductions. That goal is 75 percent of their quota every month, allowing staff to retain items they believe are essential to their collection.

At the Dudley branch, visitors can find a large selection of books on the slave trade, the Underground Railroad, the Harlem Renaissance, and the Civil Rights Movement. Visitors flip through many of these books, an employee said, but never check them out.

“What we’re losing is things pertaining to minorities particularly,” the librarian said. “There’s a book about [blacks’] contribution to literature, which is an old book. The slave narratives are going to wind up being weeded, a lot of them.”

Advocates of the community libraries said books should remain at the heart of libraries’ mission, not simply as a part of it.

“I can’t begin to imagine what their thinking is in this wholesale removal of books,” said Jane Matheson, a member of Friends of Fields Corner Branch Library in Dorchester, which is being asked to cull up to 25 percent of its collection. “If you want books you’ve got to go look for them. . . . A whole lot of poor people are not running around with an iPad in one hand.”

In addition to books, branch libraries offer e-books, CDs and DVDs, and computer tablets and e-readers that may be borrowed.

At the Dudley branch, which is undergoing exterior renovations and is being considered for further improvements, a new, colorful mosaic outside the entrance greets visitors.

One student browsing shelves for summer reading materials Thursday was told that none of the five books were available on site. Ryan said some materials may have been shifted or moved to the system’s floating collection due to the ongoing work.

Another patron, Michele Ewing of Mattapan, said she has noticed the dwindling presence of old books. She has recently had to begin probing libraries around the city to find the works of her favorite authors: Harlan Coben and Robert Parker, a hunt she attributed to the book reductions at the branches.

“I find it kind of unproductive for readers,” said Ewing, 60. “It’s like they’re forcing readers to buy them.”

Faiz Siddiqui can be reached at faiz.siddiqui@globe.com.
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