A Thought Got Loose at the State House: Should the BPL Become Decentralized?

The meeting with the Boston State Delegation on October 13 brought nearly all of the more than two dozen legislators to the Members Lounge and listen to the frustration and alarm expressed by library union representatives, library Friends groups, and the People of Boston Branches. Alarm about the culling of the library's collections at all branches, about  not having an inventory available to prevent out-of-print or rare books from being recycled or sold for a pittance to Amazon. Frustration about the painful layoffs and long circulation lines at the Copley Library after the severe cuts in staff. The inappropriate use of trust funds and foundation accounts was another subject. The lack of private fundraising by the trustees. Lack of responsiveness by the BPL leadership. It sounded like a school committee hearing. Which is perhaps what led a representative from Rep. Gloria Fox's office to ask the following question: Had any of the Friends groups and other library advocates thought about doing what the schools had done: decentralize by means of pilot schools, charter schools? Local libraries would "get part of the library budget, like the pilot schools," she suggested.

Union representatives pointed out that the BPL trend was exactly in the opposite direction, more centralization, more conformity among the branches, regardless of the needs of different neighborhoods. But it was acknowledged as "a brilliant idea."

Restructuring the BPL to separate the main library at Copley Square from the branch libraries has been brought up before. In a 2007 OpEd piece in the Boston Globe, William O. Douglas,  former publisher of the Boston Globe and a veteran Boston Public Library trustee at that time, pointed out that the private sector should become a major partner of the BPL, perhaps by becoming responsible for the Copley Library while leaving the branch libraries to the city's governance. "If the MFA can raise $450 million, surely the BPL can raise half as much," he wrote.

Regrettably, it has become clear that the city, when in charge of governance, will not do well by the branches. If he private sector can make the Copley thrive, perhaps private fundraising for local branches can make them shine, too, especially if they become decentralized, chartered locally. Of critical importance will be, who governs the BPL, how are trustees selected, vetted, tossed out when they don't raise funds or otherwise benefit library patrons.

Ironically, this brings us back to some of the candidates who competed for the job of BPL president with Amy Ryan in 2008: Thomas Birmingham, former MA State Senate President, a veteran fundraiser who..guess what..wrote the legislation that allowed the advent of charter schools in the state. A missed opportunity? Perhaps. Another candidate at the time was  Susan Hildreth, who instead went to become director of the Seattle Public Library system:  she was recently appointed by President Obama as director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services,  a key administrative post. Stellar candidates, both. Let's dream on...