The Boston Public Library opened its new Chinatown branch last Saturday, becoming the first public library in the neighborhood since 1956. Though this branch is a temporary installation, a new library is scheduled to open in a few years, closer to both the center of Chinatown and the previous library’s location on Tyler Street.
Located on the bottom floor of the China Trade Center near the Boylston T station, the library is clearly marked with signage along the side of an escalator. It is smaller than most other branches of the BPL, but houses a unique collection of books, discs and other equipment, with a prominence of materials written in Mandarin Chinese.
Branch librarian Allen Knight said he has seen firsthand the community-building effect the library has had, even on its opening day last Saturday.
“[Chinatown residents] are very thankful for the library and it really is being used and appreciated.” Knight said.
Knight, a Dorchester native and former head librarian of the Dudley branch of the BPL, said he was chosen to head this library due to his prior experience and fluency in Mandarin.
“Last Saturday, when the library opened and we had the red ribbon cutting, the kids who had campaigned to get the library open when they were still [grade school] students came back to celebrate what they had done,” Knight said. “Some of them even traveled home from college to see it.”
The Chinatown library has already attracted large crowds in its first week, with most visitors populating the communal section in the front of the library, where visitors can sit and read once they have checked out their books. The library has additional access to the BPL database, which makes up for its lack of physical space, Knight said.
The library is primarily staffed with multilingual librarians, like Knight, who speak English and Mandarin and are able to communicate with community members of various ethnic backgrounds.
Susan Roman, 38, of East Boston, said she is happy to see the return of a Chinatown library, and thinks the community can benefit from the establishment.
“There are all these kids of different ethnicities living in the Chinatown area now,” Roman said. “I think it will be good for them to be able to take advantage of the educational programs offered by the Boston Public Library system in their own neighborhood.”
Another unique feature of the library is a prominent children’s section, which takes up over a third of the library’s space and is stocked with children’s books in both English and Mandarin.
Annie Li, 7, of Chinatown, said she was so excited to have a library in her neighborhood that she asked her mom to bring her there every day this week after school. Although Li said she cannot read all the words in every book just yet, having access to a nearby library has inspired her to learn new words so she can read them all one day.
“I get all these books now,” Li told The Daily Free Press as she skipped down the children’s fiction aisle. “They’re all mine and I’m going to read them all and we’re going to get one of the cards that lets you take them home if you want. Can you believe that?”
Such advocacy groups such as the Friends of the Chinatown Library and the Chinese Youth Initiative have been petitioning the Boston government for a new library for over a decade. According to the FCL website, the original Chinatown library was closed to make way for the Boston Central Artery freeway project, which made it easier to drive straight through Boston without having to travel down side roads.
Since the closing, temporary “pop-up” libraries and “book mobiles” have appeared in Chinatown for many decades, the website states. However, no attempt at a permanent library was made until the then-candidate Boston Mayor Martin Walsh signed a pledge in 2013 to bring a public library back to Chinatown.
In his 2017 State of The City address, Walsh promised to reinstate a Chinatown public library, according to a press release from Walsh’s office. He said the new library location will function for three to five years while plans for a longer-term library facility are created.
“I’m so proud that today fulfills our promise to the Chinatown community and brings library services back to this neighborhood for all to enjoy,” Walsh said on the opening day of the library. “So many Chinatown residents have waited decades for this day and the opening of this space marks our commitment to ensuring all neighborhoods have the resources and support they need. I look forward to residents benefitting from this space and services.”
Mike Wilder, 53, of Dorchester, said he came to explore the new library to see what resources it provides to the Chinatown community. Wilder said he was impressed with what he saw and thinks the new branch is an important institution for young residents.
“The local kids here needed a space to come learn and have access to books and tapes in their native language and now they have that,” Wilder said. “I’ve seen so many kids in here with their families, talking in all different languages, and I think this has the potential to be a really special space for them.”
John Turini contributed to the reporting of this article.