Were We Just Dreaming or Did the BPL Actually Reach Out To Us? A Report on Wednesday's Strategic Planning Session at the South End Library

What a difference a good BPL trustee makes. Since South End resident and State Representative Byron Rushing was named to the Library Board in September, remarkable changes have taken place on the BPL planet and, by extension, ours. Instead of the stone-faced resistance to pleadings by Boston's library supporters to keep their libraries open, BPL trustees and executives have discovered the virtues of listening to the public and displaying (can this be true?) flexibility in decision-making.

Last week, for example, during a meeting with supporters at the to-be-closed Lower Mills library, BPL president Amy Ryan made a 180-degree turn when she told the audience desperate to save their library that she would  "strongly support" keeping branches open if the funding, totaling about $375,000, can be found. As described by the Dorchester Reporter covering the event, Ryan said she would make that recommendation to the BPL trustees. The Boston Globe, interviewing Ryan after the Lower Mills meeting, called her change of heart  "a significant shift in tone." Note that as little as three weeks ago, during a City Council Library Budget Post-Audit hearing chaired by City Councillor Charles Yancey, Ryan reacted coolly to a similar request by the councillor when he suggested part of the city's 2010 $9 million budget surplus be used for that purpose (see the FOSEL report in the Save Our Libraries category).

The shift in tone was evident as well at the South End Library last Wednesday where trustee James Carroll introduced about 70 patrons to the Second Phase of the BPL's Strategic Plan, also known as the BPL Compass (the First Phase took place in January of this year. You didn't know about it? Join the crowd. Hardly anyone else did, either). Wednesday's participants were asked to write their suggestions for a better library on seven sheets of paper, tacked on the wall and organized by seven "principles of excellence."  In the time-honored South End tradition, there were lots of opinions about what people would like to see in their library, ranging from weekend and evening hours to handicapped accessibility to better technical services to more of everything: books, DVDs, periodicals, newspapers. The hot topic of more/better outreach to the neighborhoods by the BPL came up repeatedly.

In a brief comment period at the end of the session, for example,  Stephen Fox, founding board member of FOSEL and chair of the Rutland Square Association, said he deals with city departments all the time. "Whether it is Public Works, Transportation, Police or Fire, each department reaches out to the neighborhood associations," he pointed out. "But not the BPL."

Trustee Carroll said that this was the first time he heard of the suggestion to reach out to neighborhood associations directly and called it "an excellent idea." Trustee Rushing, quietly observing the goings on from the sidelines, assured the audience worried about transparency in BPL decision-making that there would be "layers upon layers" of process.

It was not the first time trustee Carroll was confronted by the criticism of feeble BPL outreach to neighborhoods, however. The first phase of the Compass Strategic Plan took place during three one-hour evening sessions earlier this year in the libraries of Mattapan, South Boston and Hyde Park. FOSEL attended all of them but few other members of the public did: apart from on-line notification on the BPL web site to anyone browsing there, communities had not been contacted.

Frustration over not being informed about the BPL Compass conversations was a recurring theme at the January hearings. When BPL personnel defensively pointed out that dates and locations were "posted on-line," a South Boston resident asked: "Does it occur to you that many people don't have access to computers?"  Or, said one participant at the Mattapan Library, "I only found out about it because I returned a book to the library and saw there was a meeting. There's a huge church across the street: why did you not let our churches know about these meetings, or the schools, or the neighborhood associations?"

Nevertheless, the public library users who did show up in the depth-of-winter sessions made excellent recommendations, many already in use in libraries outside Boston. They included: keeping libraries open seven days a week, especially weekends and evenings; making them more welcoming by means of better signage, space allocation, and library staff help; installing more computers; getting faster computers; opening more teen centers with teen specialists; establishing informational medical/wellness clinics; setting up legal clinics; sponsoring literacy workshops; computer workshops; creating more outlets to charge electronic devices; forming connections with community-based organizations; opening small retail libraries; and becoming both an electronic  gateway to information about its own collections (and not just electronic pathways: "Don't you have a booklet about it?" one participant asked). Another library user pointed out that, while the Apple Store has less information than the BPL does, the Apple Store employees are better at conveying it.

One would think that between the suggestions voiced peacefully during the January sessions, and those flung at the BPL trustees during the heated protests over proposed library closings in March and April, the library's board and executives would have a pretty good idea about what Boston's library users wish for. After all, some are trained professionals in library science and BPL president Ryan came here from one the BEST library systems, Minneapolis-Hennepin County, in the country. Nevertheless, the BPL can't seem to get enough of it and Bostonians have the chance to give them their all during  five additional hearings to be held between now and November 13 at other branches. For a schedule, and more information about the BPL's Compass, consult the Compass Web Page. An update will be provided at the BPL's next trustee meeting on Tuesday, November 16, at 3:00 PM, at the Roslindale Branch.

FOSEL will be there, and report back.