Boston’s Chinatown has been without its own branch public library since 1956. Now, more than fifty years later, the historic immigrant neighborhood is celebrating the opening of its community-organized Reading Room, which is part of the Chinatown Lantern Cultural and Educational Center initiative. The 800 square-foot Reading Room has access to over 8,000 books (the facility only holds 2,000) through donations and a partnership with the Boston Public Library, provides a range of workshops and events, and runs a small exhibit gallery.
The newly opened Reading Room, located on the ground floor of the Oak Terrace apartments on Washington Street, is the culmination of advocacy efforts started in 2001, when the library movement began in Chinatown. The movement also catalyzed momentum from the 2010 Storefront Library demonstration project. In 2011, the Chinatown Cultural Center Committee (CCCC), formerly known as the Friends of the Chinatown Branch Library (FOCL) changed its advocacy strategy of asking for a permanent branch so that the neighborhood would not have to depend on the financially strapped Boston Public Library for services.
Rather, organizations such as the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, the Asian Community Development Corporation, the Chinese History Society of New England, the Chinese Progressive Association and the Asian American Resource Workshop came together to create a vision for a Community Cultural Center that would provide gathering and performance space, educational resources, and programs and exhibits to preserve the neighborhood’s memories and history. The Reading Room was initiated and executed out of this collaboration. Because the Reading Room is only slated to exist for one year, The Chinatown Cultural Center Committee continues to brainstorm potential permanent 20,000 square-foot sites for the future home of the Chinatown Lantern Cultural and Educational Center.
Alice Leung is the Start-Up Manager for the Reading Room. Alice was part of the Chinese Youth Initiative that incited the campaign to bring back a Chinatown branch library over ten years ago. In this audio clip, Alice reflects on her work with the library movement as a youth and now as an adult. She also explains the importance of having this space in the neighborhood.
Kye Liang is the Coalition Coordinator for the Chinatown Coalition (TCC). In his role as coalition coordinator, Kye oversees the planning for a Chinatown Lantern Cultural and Educational Center. He discusses the challenges of organizing a community around a cause and the future of the library movement.
From 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. on Saturday, April 21st, Chinatown residents, community members and others involved gathered inside and outside the new Reading Room to celebrate the neighborhood’s hard work. Chinatown youth even performed a traditional lion dance and drum show. Many individuals spoke during the event including State Representative Aaron Michaelwitz; Central Library Services Manager, Mary Frances O’Brian; Stephanie Fan of the Chinese Historical Society of New England; and Principal Bac Fun Wong of the Josiah Quincy Upper School. Alice Leung emceed the program and provided Chinese translations for all the speeches.
Below are a series of clips from the event.
There is still controversy in the Chinatown community about whether the community-run Reading Room and Cultural Center initiative is an appropriate solution for the missing branch library. Some Chinatown residents believe that the new Reading Room acquits the City of its responsibilities to serve and respond to the neighborhood’s needs. On the other hand, sometimes communities know how to solve their own problems best.
Photos by Laura Delgado
Aditi Mehta researched the history of public libraries and Boston’s Chinatown Library movement for her Master’s Thesis in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT.