BPL Trustees Annual Meeting Begs the Question of Library Governance: Do the Trustees Represent Bostonians' Interests?

The short answer is, No. The longer answer is, Very Circuitously. If you like the mayor (whoever he/she is) and are in full support of him/her, and respect his/her judgment in the intellectual and cultural life of this city, and can vouch for his/her passion and support for libraries, you would fully endorse the current system of governance of the BPL. That is because the current mayor appoints all nine trustees, and does not have to worry about qualifications of a trustee of what is held to be one of the most prestigious public library systems in the country. Nor does the mayor have to submit their appointments for consultation or confirmation to either an elected body, such as the city council, or a group of library professionals. That is the Very Circuitous answer to the question of how well the BPL trustees represent Bostonians interests. The No answer goes likes this: the BPL trustees, because their only loyalty is to the mayor who appoints them, only represent the mayor's interests. Not yours, not mine. Only the mayor's. That explains, for example, why during each of the two most recent budget cycles, none of the trustees protested the severe budget cuts proposed by the mayor and his budget chief, Lisa Signori. The mayor said, Cut. The trustees cut.

This is also why the trustees unanimously agreed to close the Kirstein branch last summer, even though no debate about whether to close took place before they were asked to vote on the closing, either among the trustees, or the library users in Boston. Moving the Kirstein collection to the Copley Library allowed the BPL to benefit from the $7 million Kirstein trust that had maintained the collection at the Kirstein Library in the financial district, offsetting the city's cost for the BPL by the same amount. When the Kirstein building is sold, moreover, its proceeds will go into city coffers, not the BPL's, further impoverishing an already struggling library system and enriching the city's capital inventory. The closing was a unilateral decision by the mayor who appointed the trustees. He said, Cut, and the trustees cut.

It explains why the trustees voted unanimously to take $20,000 from the BPL Foundation last year to pay for a supplemental housing allowance for president Amy Ryan, an operational expense that should have come out of the city's operational budget and not out of a foundation meant to benefit the library and its programs. When I asked trustee chair Jeff Rudman during a phone conversation why the money was not taken from the city's operational budget, he said there was a "municipal cap" on pay and benefits for city employees. Again, the mayor needed a fix for this cap, and the trustees provided it, impoverishing the BPL's foundation and beneficiaries, but helping the mayor's budget.

In better-governed cities and towns, library trustee appointments are a shared political effort that involves the mayor, the council, selectmen and/or county commissioners. An excellent example of  such enlightened representative library governance can be found in the Minneapolis/Hennepin County's library system, where current BPL president Ryan hails from. Their 11-member library board of trustees is appointed by the county commissioners (which in Boston would be equivalent to the elected city council), with input from the Minneapolis City Council and its mayor. Because this library system joins an urban to a county system, three seats on the board of trustees are reserved for Minneapolis residents.

Compare this to the Boston Public Library's system of governance: of the nine-member board of trustees, two seats have been vacant for two years, specifically since library advocates and active fundraisers William Bulger and Angelo DiScaccia resigned in 2008, protesting the firing of Bernard Margolis, the previous BPL president. A third seat has been held by a distinguished library advocate who fought library closings decades ago, Berthe M. Gaines, but is too frail to show up at most trustees meetings and therefore can't cast a vote. BPL trustees try to have her tune in via a conference call but BPL technology seems to date from the 19th century and, beyond crackling phone lines and cries of "I can't hear you"  little communication ensues. That leaves six mayoral advocates representing the BPL and it 26 neighborhood libraries, and all they have to do is please the mayor and his budget chief, Lisa Signori.

Is this great governance, or what?