BPL trustee and Boston Globe columnist James Carroll has resigned from the Library's Board after eleven years. The announcement was made this week at the BPL's Annual Meeting at Copley Library. Carroll's resignation opens the door for Boston city councillors to initiate a public vetting process of new BPL trustees. Currently, Boston's mayor nominates each new member, the city council issues a pro-forma approval without public input, and a new trustee appears at the next BPL public meeting. Based on past performance, the newcomer makes no statement about his or her intentions for the public library post, nor is information about his or her background made available that would explain suitability for the board that governs the BPL and its more than $50 million in trust funds. As last year's fight over library closures showed, votes by trustees can make a difference in how a library is governed. A trustee devoted to the idea of libraries, books and their safe-keeping for future generations, Carroll had the misfortune in his most recent years as a library board member to find himself in an environment that did not seem conducive to his goals. Mayor Menino, who had appointed him, had usurped the BPL's autonomy and consolidated control over every aspect of BPL's governance, including the library's trust funds and foundation. Fellow trustees seemed asleep at the wheel while library budgets were cut brutally. The July 2008 Neighborhood Services Task Force Report that Carroll produced over several years, suggesting ways to take the BPL into the 21st Century, sat idly on a shelf and was not made electronically available until FOSEL asked for its web publication many months later. (The report has since become the basis for the current long-term strategic planning process headed by trustee Byron Rushing, under the new "Compass for Excellence" label.)
An author who twice won National Book Awards, Carroll advocated time and again at trustee meetings for funds to preserve and catalogue the BPL's treasures. Each time, he was politely but firmly swatted down by chair Jeffrey Rudman, who first and foremost is the mayor's man on the trustee board, and inclined to say, "we can't afford it." The BPL Foundation, moreover, until recently had a dedicated but inexperienced volunteer in charge of fundraising, with the predictable results that donations barely paid for the expenses and salaries of the -minimal- Foundation staff. An unfortunate trustee vote to approve an executive housing allowance for the BPL president out of the Foundation's account further tarnished its image. At the same time, advocacy for library funding at the State Legislature and the Congressional level had mysteriously ceased.
When in March 2008 Menino proposed unilaterally to close the Kirstein Business Library in the financial center, Carroll, a one-time priest not given to loud oratory, protested vigorously and made a point of having his comments about the lack of public process inserted in the trustees' minutes. He was joined by trustee Donna DePrisco. In a subsequent, private, conversation Carroll called the Kirstein closing " a terrible decision." But Menino prevailed, and moved the Kirstein collection and its more than $7 million Thomas Drey trust fund to Copley Library, where it is now helping to pay for operational expenses (off-setting municipal contributions to the BPL). The elimination of the Kirstein Business Branch turned out to be the first salvo in a much larger plan by the mayor to close up to a third of the branches. Ironically, Carroll had convinced himself by that time that closing some branches would strengthen the remaining ones, probably since no money seemed to be coming from anywhere else. But library users wanted none of it. The proposed closures ignited a severe public backlash.
Since Menino appointed one of his most vocal critics, long-time library advocate and State Rep. Byron Rushing to an open seat on the library board, its slumberous trustees, awakened by the inconvenient noise of outraged library supporters, have taken to the betterment of the BPL with an enthusiasm and steady commitment that would have been hard to predict as little as a year ago. Trustee Paul LaCamera, for example, has secured a seasoned fundraiser at the BPL Foundation, David McKay, who reportedly raised $50 million for Berklee College. And come again have the days when the BPL is advocating for funds at the State Legislature, likely under careful tutelage of Rep. Rushing. Even the proceeds of the future sale of the now-vacant Kirstein Library building downtown will be used for "charitable library purposes," according to chair Rudman. Previously, the sale of all BPL real property reverted to the city's General Fund, further draining the public library's assets to benefit non-library muncipal departments.
Filling James Carroll's seat with a nominee who is a true advocate for the BPL's autonomous interests matters because any of the recent improvements in BPL governance can be easily reversed or weakened. At the moment, there are no term limits on the nine-member board. Qualifications or attendance requirements for library board trustees are not published. One of the seats is held by Berthe M. Gaines, who has a history of strong library advocacy. However, she has not been seen at trustee meetings for years. Similarly, conflicts of interest among some trustees and their private business interests have been raised in the past by Boston Globe reporter Donovan Slack in 2008, and should be addressed.
Confirming the next BPL trustee is the city council's first opportunity to influence BPL's board of trustees. Will the councillors rise to the occasion? If you let them know you want them to, they may do just that. Here's the contact info...