BPL's Strategic Plan Is Better Than What Existed Before (No Plan At All) But Does Not --Yet-- Address How to Improve BPL Governance or Establish a Transparent and Fair Library Renovation Process

The Boston Public Library's Trustee committee formed last year to draw up a Long-Term Strategic Plan has come up with a draft proposal it hopes will be adopted by the Library Board in November. It is a major improvement over what existed before, namely, no strategic plan at all. And, as State Rep. Byron Rushing, the BPL Trustee heading the so-called Compass Committee, said during the angry days in 2009 when library closures seemed imminent, "You can't make cuts without a strategic plan." To begin the current turnaround effort, the trustee committee  studied other library systems' strategic plans, including those of the Seattle Public Library, the British Library, and Pina County Library, AZ., among others. Combined with public comments delivered to the BPL via surveys, blogs, BPL staff meetings and related forums, as well as at meetings at Copley Library and the library branches in Boston's hinterlands, the Library Board approved the proposed Principles for Excellence culled from the feedback earlier in the process. This go-around was followed by additional meetings and commentary, in real time and on the web, all of which has now resulted in an impressive, unwieldy but hope-laced Draft Long-Term Strategic Plan. The goal is for it to be ready for approval by BPL trustees at their November 15 public meeting. Additional comments are welcomed until October 7.

As important for what it addresses are the matters the draft plan doesn't mention, for obvious political reasons. These issues, BPL governance and a fair process for system-wide library renovation, would encroach on the prerogatives of Mayor Menino or, for that matter, anyone who will succeed him. Currently, the mayor controls BPL budgets and trust funds, and  appoints all nine trustees. Proposed trustees are not vetted in any public forum by either the city council or another public entity to help ensure they would be the best candidates to protect and advance the interests of the Boston library system and its patrons. In the past, trusts left to the BPL have regularly been used to pay for operational expenses and executive benefits, rather than library enrichment the trusts were intended for. Each time, these actions were approved by the trustees, as were all the proposed cutbacks in BPL budgets, and library closures, including the controversial shuttering of the beloved downtown Kirstein Business Branch Library in 2008. (It's collection was moved to the basement of the Copley Library.)

No requirements relevant to library governance are necessary to become a BPL trustee, nor are there any term limits. The most recent resignation from the Library Board was earlier this month, by Ms. Berthe M. Gaines who had become a trustee 25 years ago, when Boston was a vastly different city and libraries were mostly about silence and books. Ideally, demographic, cultural and technological changes should be reflected within the Library Board to meet the needs of a modern, inclusive public library. For example, in the Minneapolis-Hennepin County system, from where BPL President Amy Ryan came, several seats on the Library Board are reserved specifically for trustees  from the city of Minneapolis: county libraries have different needs and interests than urban libraries. Similarly, in Boston, neighborhood libraries have different needs from Copley, for example, and one neighborhood's requirements for services can be vastly different from another. Academics and researchers, moreover,  wish for other things in their libraries than parents with teenagers or toddlers. A logical way to balance these needs is for those interests to be represented by library board trustees.  Former Trustee Gaines, who was a respected library advocate in the 1980s, had not attended any BPL trustees meetings in the last two years, illustrative of even a basic lack of required attendance requirements for the library's governors.  Thus far, the Boston city councillors have not asserted their muscle to change either the trustee appointment process or library governance.  There are currently two vacancies on the board of trustees.

Eligibility for neighborhood library renovation or expansion is also not part of the proposed draft plan. The current process is a mystery, except perhaps for those who are cynical enough to dare speculate that the road to renovation is highly politicized. A surprising example of this played out in plain view in March 2009 when trustees were asked to vote on a plan to eliminate four libraries, including one in East Boston, a neighborhood close to the heart of Trustee Paul LaCamera. He refused to support it, until a phone call from Mayor Tom Menino to BPL President Amy Ryan during the public vote was revealed to include a mayoral pledge to site a new library in East Boston. LaCamera still voted to abstain but a new East Boston Library is currently "in the design phase," where it wasn't before. Thus, plans for library capital improvements in some neighborhoods become suddenly revealed, while libraries in too many others languish, cramped for space, poorly designed, not ADA accessible, nor otherwise enriched by library specialists or convenient hours for patrons.

Until October 7, you can comment on the proposed plan on the Compass web site.. This is your last chance to offer your suggestions for a better Long-Term Strategic Plan. The blog currently includes a rather pointed commentary by David Vieira, former president of the Citywide Friends of the BPL. A final version of the plan will be voted on by the trustees at their November 15 meeting. All BPL trustee meetings are open to the public and, since Trustee Byron Rushing has joined the trustees, public comment has become a regular agenda item at the board, another sign of the board's rising comfort level with embracing enlightened stewardship and public participation.