In this series, I have given a brief history of the public library system in America, and its changing role in community development. In my final post, I aim to tell the story of one branch library, and show that the same influential factors, values, and missions seen throughout the institution’s past are also echoed on a micro-level.
Boston’s Chinatown had a branch library for the most part until 1956, when the City of Boston demolished it to make way for more housing and highways. Since 2000, community groups in Chinatown have been advocating for their own branch of the Boston Public Library. Below, I provide a visual history of this missing branch and the movement to bring it back to the neighborhood.
The motive behind a delivery station, especially in immigrant neighborhoods, was to help educate and Americanize foreigners by providing them convenient access to reading materials. The Boston Public Library (BPL) Trustees, stated in their 1874 report that “a book never accomplishes the object of its production unless in the hands of someone,” (Whitehill, 1956, p. 88) and it was this sentiment within the BPL administration that led to the proliferation of delivery stations throughout Boston.
The Tyler Street Branch Library and the former delivery station could not necessarily be referred to as just Chinatown’s facility because of the diverse group of immigrants that lived in the surrounding area. Fanny Goldstein was the Tyler Street branch librarian, and in an annual BPL report from 1922, she shared how she recruited patrons for the library from the Quincy Evening School. She saw it as her mission to help these immigrants, which included Syrians, Greeks, Jews, Italians, French, and Chinese assimilate into society.
The Tyler Street Branch Library provided valuable services and information such as citizenship coaching, reading material in several languages, and recreational community events. Goldstein expressed that “the staff was proud of the diversity of its patrons and having the library serve as the most democratic meeting place in the district.”
Unfortunately, the Boston Public Library administration shut down the Tyler Street branch in 1938 for budgeting reasons. Historian Walter Muir Whitehill explains, “The 1929 crash brought simultaneously the need for stringent economy in municipal government and a vastly increased use of the library by victims of the depression who had no other means of passing their days.” (Whitehill, 1954, p. 222)
The City felt the backwash of the Great Depression for several years in the municipal budget, and public institutions such as libraries were taking the hardest hits during and after the Depression. In Boston, it was of utmost importance to maintain the prestige of the Copley collections during these hard times. (Whitehill, 1954, p. 222) When the BPL trustees announced that the Tyler Street Branch would be no more, a protest was organized by city councilor John Fitzgerald and other community members.
Despite the strong community protests in 1938, the library did not reopen, and residents of the area demanded that their community facility return for years after its closing. For example, in a 1946 newspaper article from the Christian Science Monitor, the headline reads, “Curley Urged to Open South End Library”, and the reporter states, “Citizens of Boston’s Chinatown and bordering areas, where numerous Syrian, Greek, and Italian families live have petitioned to Mayor Curley to reopen the Branch Library in their district at Oak and Tyler Streets.” (Christian Science Monitor, 1946)
The article also goes on to show that the mission of libraries after WWII was to promote American values such as freedom and democracy. It states: “The representatives, in their statement to the Mayor, said there are 1,000 children in the immediate neighborhood, and that the population of the area has no civic center where American ideals may be encouraged (Christian Science Monitor, 1946).” Two years later in 1948, the Christian Science Monitor published an article titled “Boston Plans Widespread Branch Library Expansion.”
Just five years after its opening in 1956, the City demolished the reading room (a small branch) on Tyler Street in order to make way for the presumed path of the Boston Central Artery and because of other urban renewal efforts. Most research materials about the Chinatown Library movement state this fact. However, the Central Artery actually does not run through the parcel. While the City originally slated this land for the highway, Tai Tung Village, an affordable housing development, now stands on the former library site.
In 1954, Boston’s branch library system consisted of thirty-three branch libraries and two bookmobiles. The Boston Planning Commission published a report evaluating Boston’s existing branch libraries with the purpose of making a long-range plan for the location and construction of future branches. The report basically dismissed the needs of Chinatown and other immigrants in the area and said that because of several new redevelopment projects, the Tyler Street branch was no longer needed.
Since the closing of this facility in the mid-1950s, the only type of library in the neighborhood was an assortment of book vans that visited the community on and off from 1960 to 1980. Beverly Wing, a community member states: “It was a large van that brought books. It came to the same location everyday, and you could pick up what you ordered.” The bookmobile came to Chinatown once a week, but according to many of the residents that remember it, the van was also very inconsistent and did not seem to adhere to a proper schedule. Parents and kids found it unreliable. (Boston City Council Hearing, 2006, June 13)
With a sizeable portion of Chinatown residents forced to move during the 1950s and 1960s because of land takings, along with the other social justice violations in the neighborhood, the library movement lost momentum and the community was more focused on solving other problems.
Then, in 2001, young Chinatown residents began asking, “Why don’t we have our own branch library?” Through the Chinese Progressive Association Youth Initiative, a new movement was formed. On June 13, 2006, the Boston City Council convened a hearing around the issue. At the hearing, advocates explained that while it seemed that Chinatown might not need their own library because of the proximity to Copley and the South End branch, there were several barriers preventing residents from utilizing these establishments. These challenges included language barriers, the distance for elderly and young children, as well as lack of desired Asian materials.
When the recession hit hard in 2008, all forward movement with opening a new branch in Chinatown stopped due to a constrained municipal budget. Thus in 2009, Boston Street Lab, a local non-profit started the Storefront Library with the Friends of the Chinatown Library to loan books and do other cultural programming from inside a vacant, commercial space in Chinatown.
The experimental Storefront served as a living testimony to the City that Chinatown was in dire need of the facility. People from inside and outside of Chinatown flocked to the small space in Chinatown to take advantage of its services. It served as an intergenerational gathering space, recreational facility, information center, and a living history of the neighborhood. The Storefront finished its stint on Washington Street in January 2010.
On April 9, 2010, the Boston Public Library announced that they would be forced to shut down or reduce hours at branches because of their own fiscal crisis. Members of the Chinatown Library movement wonder: where does Chinatown fit into this complicated picture, and what will happen to the momentum created by the Storefront Library? Professor of Asian-American studies, Peter Kiang, responded to the news about branch closings by saying, “There is still no reason as to why a Chinatown Library does not exist today.”
Whitehill, Walter. (1956). Boston Public Library: A Centennial History. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts
Fan Stephanie. (Fall 2006). The Boston Chinatown Library. Chinese Historical Society of New England Newsletter. Vol. 12, No. 1
Curley Urged to Open South End Library (1946, March 29). The Christian Science Monitor. Page 2
Hub Branch Library Opened (1951, December 13). Hub Branch Library Opened. The Christian Science Monitor. Page 12
Aditi Mehta completed her Master in City Planning degree from MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning in May 2010. For her thesis, she researched the history of Boston’s Chinatown branch library, and the present-day community movement to reopen this branch. Her other series on CoLab Radio include Who’s on Broad?