A Fresh Breeze is Blowing at the Boston Public Library, with a New Appreciation for Public Engagement by the Trustees and the First “Listening Session” by the Presidential Search Committee’s John Palfrey
In a welcome change, the Boston Public Library trustees, who govern the nation’s first public library system, have begun to display an openness to and appreciation of public engagement that had been sorely lacking under the Library Board’s previous leadership. Instead of barely contained impatience with public comment and occasional scathing criticism of those who dared to question BPL leadership or its decisions, the current trustee chair, John T. Hailer, has encouraged audience participation, taken some of their suggestions to heart, and thereby set a completely new tone. At the latest trustees meeting in November at the Mattapan Library, Hailer stopped the Library Board’s discussion before a vote was to be taken, and asked for public comment. The somewhat startled public, used to being ignored and limited to two-minute statements at the end of long meetings, wanted to know whether they could still have a say on other matters.When told they could, they happily gave their opinions on the issue at hand, in this case, the long-contentious subject of commercializing a prominent part the lobby space in the Johnson Building, scheduled to open after a $78 million overhaul sometime in 2016. The vote allowed the BPL to go ahead with contract negotiations with WGBH and The Catered Affair to create a satellite broadcast studio and an all-day cafe in the Copley Library’s street-level lobby in exchange for an annual rent of about $130,000.
A presentation by the new executive director of the Boston Public Library Foundation, Lisa Bevilaqua, showed the same comfort level with open-minded inquiry and decision-making at the meeting. Bevilaqua reported she was in the process of visiting all the branches, meeting with Friends groups, and getting to know the 18 members of her board. Most promising was her announcement that she had been in touch with other library foundations to get information about their “best practices,” a first for the beleaguered foundation whose employees were more often than not well-meaning but inexperienced patronage appointments. Bevilaqua said talking to other library foundations had been “very enlightening.” She is currently looking into the governance, strategic plan and mission of the BPLF. Under past leadership, the anemic library foundation had been used inappropriately to provide executive benefits to BPL administrators and, at one point, only raised enough funds to pay for its own operational expenses. With the exception of the most recent head, David McKay, who left a year ago, the BPLF was headed by volunteers who loved the library but lacked the fundraising prowess required to meet the BPL’s financial needs. Bevilaqua, on the other hand, has extensive non-profit experience, most recently as the director of development at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum during its successful $180-million capital campaign.
In another example of positive change at the BPL, John Palfrey, head of Phillips Academy, who chairs the search committee for a new BPL president, briskly and cheerfully led the first ‘listening session’ to find out what the public would like to see in a BPL leader. The last time such a search took place, in 2008, the Boston Globe complained on its editorial page about its “flawed process” and “lack of transparency.” Although Palfrey’s ‘listening session’ was put together with little notice for right after the November 17 trustees meeting, he said he didn’t want to miss the opportunity of finding so many library supporters and staff in one place already, especially with some other members of the search committee present as well. Palfrey patiently listened and took notes while library advocates and staff made numerous suggestions about the changes they would like to see made by the new BPL leader, and the qualities he or she should bring to the job. These included restoring the autonomy needed by branch librarians to best serve their neighborhoods; getting from a culture of “no” to a culture of “yes;” decentralizing book selection to allow for nuanced and neighborhood-specific collection building; and collaborating with Friends groups. There was strong support for Palfrey’s proposal that the new BPL president does not need to have a library degree, “as long as there is a chief librarian.” Equally important, all agreed, was that the next BPL head should know how to navigate the local, state and federal political landscape to advocate for the BPL.
There are two additional listening sessions with John Palfrey:
Monday, November 30, at 6:30 PM at the Brighton Branch of the BPL
Saturday, December 12, at 9:00 AM at the Copley Library’s Commonwealth Salon.
For details, click here.
In his Library Talk, Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk Praises US Research on Causes and Impact of Trauma but Finds Other Countries More Interested in the Implementation of his Proposed Solutions
Whether trauma is caused by short-term war experience or long-term chronic abuse, using the body and not just the brain to reverse the effects of it is the key to healing, psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk told a standing-room-only crowd at the South End library last month. Reading from his 2014 New York Times Science bestseller, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, the long-term South End resident, and founder and medical director of he Trauma Center in Brookline, MA, explained that trauma “reorganizes” the brain of patients and their perceptions in such a way that they remain trapped in a world of fear. To recover and live in reality again they need to learn that the danger that has traumatized them has passed. For that, van der Kolk places the body at the center of recovery therapy.
“Bessel is not just important because of his having trained so many people in his field, but also to the field of psychiatry in general, and child development, in particular,” said Ed Tronick, director of the Child Development Center at UMass, Boston, who introduced his colleague at the library. “He flipped on its head what was known about trauma, insisting that the body be the focus of therapy, not just the mind. He used radical ways to treat it, centered on dance, yoga, theatre, neuro-physiology and other biological ways. He has been on the cutting edge of understanding trauma and child development for 30 years.” Amid audience chuckles, Tronick added, “Well, maybe not always on the cutting edge but, when he became cutting edge, he stayed cutting edge.”
Research show that in brain scans of traumatized people the entire frontal lobe of the participating patients goes ‘off-line’ when re-living their trauma, and that the primitive animal part of the brain takes over, van der Kolk said. “That ‘nether region’ is what has to be calmed down” for recovery to occur. Using innovative therapies like dancing, yoga and theatre, among other practices, helps the brain to get ‘rewired’ and reactivates the system that has shut down due to a traumatic event, or a persistent environment of abuse and trauma. Yoga, for example, makes you concentrate on your physical self but, said van der Kolk, ” but the tango might even be better than yoga because you have to know the other person’s moves.” The late Nelson Mandela told him once he engaged in boxing because “it is a complex sort of a dance where you have to read others’ expressions, and gage your own every second,” Mandela said. Van der Kolk agreed with several members of the audience who brought up that martial arts could be similarly beneficial.
Van der Kolk called the pervasive violence in this country ‘a cultural issue’ during the Q and A after his talk, and suggested that policy changes like lowering incarceration rates, offering no-cost day care, and providing home visits to young parents would reduce the incidence of violence in the family. “When I travel abroad, I am often asked by policy makers for advice based on the latest American research in the field,” he commented. “We do great research here but the implementation takes place in other countries.”
Local Historian, Russ Lopez, Will Present His New Work, “Boston’s South End: the Clash of Ideas in a Historic Neighborhood,” at the South End Library on Tuesday, December 1 at 6:30 PM
Russ Lopez was a graduate student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government when he attended a Saturday night party in the South End; the native Californian fell for the neighborhood, never mind the abandoned tenements and burned out row houses of those grimmer South End days that he had observed from the window of the cab taking him there. Now an adjunct assistant professor in Environmental Public Health at Boston University, Lopez will talk about his new book, Boston’s South End: The Clash of Ideas in a Historic Neighborhood, at the South End library on Tuesday, December 1 at 6:30 PM.
Lopez joins what has become a cottage industry of historians, history buffs and mere longtime residents who have written about the South End’s art, culture, gentrification and urban renewal battles. A number of them have come to speak about their favorite subject at the South End library, including South End News’s former Police Blotter scribe, John Sacco (famous for his recurrent phrase, The Scoundrel Was Arrested on the Spot); Lynne Potts (A Block in Time: a History of the South End from a Window on Holyoke Street); Hope J. Shannon (Legendary Locals of Boston’s South End); Jean Gibran (Love Made Visible –a biography of her marriage to South End sculptor Kahlil Gibran); Alison Barnet (South End Character: Speaking Out on Neighborhood Change and the fictionalized South End thriller Sitting Ducks); and Richard Vacca’s outstanding history of the local music scene (The Boston Jazz Chronicles: Faces, Places and Nightlife 1937-1962).
Lopez, who teaches at Northeastern and is a member of the South End library’s History Collection Committee, says in his introduction that Boston’s South End is not a book of colorful anecdotes, but rather one based on “public records, newspaper articles, older books, published reports and the personal papers of past and current residents.” His account is likely to stand out for another reason: It can stake a claim to what must be the longest arc of any South End chronicle that has been produced up till now: The first sentence of Chapter One reads, “The South End’s story begins at the end of the Ice Age as the glaciers that created its flat features began to melt.”
The South End library is fully handicapped accessible. The event is free. Refreshments are served. Copies of Boston’s South End will be available for borrowing, sale and signing by the author at the reading. Seating is limited.
Russ Lopez’s talk will complete the speaker series for 2015. More to come in 2016. Stay tuned.
Psychiatrist and Trauma Expert Bessel van der Kolk Will Talk About His Bestselling Book, “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma,” at the South End Library on Tuesday, October 27, 6:30 PM
Dutch-born and US-trained psychiatrist, Bessel van der Kolk, has for many years investigated the long-term consequences of trauma and its effect on the mind, brain and body. Trauma keeps people stuck in the past, his research shows, causing changes in the brain, and in the body’s hormonal, immunological and perceptual systems. He and his colleagues have focused on how profoundly trauma, abuse and neglect affect the formation of mind and self, confining people in a condition of terror, self-loathing, collapse and rage. Van der Kolk’s efforts to redefine what trauma is, and establish appropriate recovery therapy for both its acute and chronic manifestations, is outlined in his latest book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. It has been on the New York Times Science bestseller list for more than a year. Van der Kolk will talk about his path-breaking work at the South End library on Tuesday, October 27 at 6:30 PM.
A decades-long resident of the South End, van der Kolk is founder and director of the Trauma Center in Brookline, MA, part of a larger social-justice non-profit called the Justice Resource Institute. According to a 2014 New York Times interview with Jeneen Interlandi, van der Kolk had concluded broadly that “the mind follows the body” and that successful trauma treatment would have to be through the body, not the mind. “In so many cases, it was patients’ bodies that had been grossly violated, and it was their bodies that had failed them — legs had not run quickly enough, arms had not pushed powerfully enough, voices had not screamed loudly enough to evade disaster,” Interlandi wrote. Van der Kolk told her that, in his opinion, “the single most important issue for traumatized people is to find a sense of safety in their own bodies,” but that “unfortunately, most psychiatrists pay no attention whatsoever to sensate experiences. They simply do not agree that it matters.”
Bessel van der Kolk will be introduced by his colleague and South End neighbor, Ed Tronick, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at UMass, Boston, director of its Child Development Center, and a lecturer at Harvard.
The event is free. Books will be available for sale, signing and, yes, borrowing. The South End library is fully handicapped accessible. Seating is limited. We serve refreshments.
Recent Reading Topics at the SE Library Ranged from the US-Iran Nuclear Pact (Steve Kinzer) to Caravaggio’s Lost Art (Diana Nicosia) to Frederick Golder’s Fictionalized Account of US Anti-Semitism
The presentations at the South End library’s speaker series this fall thus far have run the gamut from the highly polished (Steve Kinzer) to the fun-and-snappy (Diana Nicosia) to a difficult-to-interpret account of anti-semitism inflicted on a Holocaust survivor in the US. Difficult, because names and places were changed to protect everyone’s privacy, and the account itself was fictionalized by the author, Frederick Golder. Too much variety in subject and style perhaps? Or an example of why branch libraries are so important in their communities as a showcase for it? “The point is that it is offered,” commented Susan Brauner, an East Boston library advocate who attended one of the events,
Foreign-policy reporter and Boston Globe columnist Steve Kinzer, talked to a standing-room-only crowd in late September about his recent bus trip across Iran; his wife, the artist Marianne A. Kinzer, presented a slide show with photos she had taken. Assigned to report from Asia Minor as the New York Times Istanbul bureau chief in the 1990s, Kinzer ended up covering the 1997 presidential election of reform politician Mohammad Khatami in Iran. “I was a ‘naif’ about the Middle East,” he said. “I knew that it consisted mostly of “fake countries” with borders drawn on a map by “diplomats in country clubs.” But he discovered that Iran was “the opposite of an invented nation,” more like a 2500-year-old country with borders and a language that had largely remained the same, and a population aware of the history of its cultural, political and scientific influence. “The gap between what Iran should be and what it was seemed like a mismatch,” Kinzer told the audience. He learned that the 1953 overthrow by the CIA of the only democratically elected government in Iran headed by Mohammad Mosaddegh was an explanation, a coup that still haunts the Iranians, as does the 1979 hostage crisis haunt the American political establishment. Kinzer declared that, in his opinion, the nuclear agreement between the US and Iran is “the greatest breakthrough since the opening of China” although he is concerned that it is seen by too many US politicians as a way “to corral Iran and keep them down.” “The US and Iran have coincident strategic interests,” Kinzer explained, adding he hopes that the “real Iran” he came to know over years of reporting from there will replace the US “fantasy concept” of a terrorist state so prevalent now.
Diana Nicosia’s debut-thriller, The Caravaggio Contract, is a fictionalized whodunit set in our time, based on actual lost art work of Baroque painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio; he died under mysterious circumstances in Tuscany in 1610. Nicosia, an accomplished visual artist (and former wife of South End’s real estate mogul, the Mario), painted in Tuscany for 20 years before trying her hand at writing when there was a downturn in the art market in 2008. She took writing workshops at the St. Botolph Club and researched the life of Caravaggio at the Boston Public Library, in Italy, and by talking with many art historians. She uncovered a profile of a tormented painter who survived a tough childhood as a young orphan in Milan. He had a penchant for making enemies, but is nevertheless beloved by Italians, she learned. “Italians feel he’s alive, they own him, and everyone has an opinion about him,” she said. The strong visual qualities of her writing has drawn some interest from movie companies, Nicosia said; she is currently working on a screenplay and a sequel.
When God Looked Down and Wept is the title of a book by Frederick Golder, who introduced himself as a civil rights attorney with 35 years experience. “I sued everyone,” he said mildly. The case upon which the book, his first, is based centers on a survivor of Nazi concentration camps, Alex Sharf, who became a beloved and accomplished high school teacher in the US, but who was fired during a period of declining enrollment for being ‘too Jewish.’ One of the complaints against him was he took (unpaid) leave during Jewish holidays, something he was entitled to: he was an observant Jew. The case had been referred to Golder by Leonard Zakim, then the regional director for the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith. An oral history of Alex Sharf is in the collection of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, submitted by a former neighbor who knew him.
Golder presented a short filmed interview with the subject, but told the audience that he was unable to provide actual names, places, or time frame of when the case took place. In the book, the narrator is called Benjamin Sharkofsky. Nor did he want to reveal the outcome of the case he brought, because “that’s in the book.” When asked why he could not provide more facts so the reader could better assess the particulars of the story, Golder said he was protecting “the privacy” of all involved. Even the location of the case was “not relevant.” He let it slip it was somewhere in New England. He said that the actual story had been fictionalized in his book for the same reason, and remained adamant about not providing any details of this otherwise compelling and heart-wrenching story.