Which of the Mayoral Candidates Will Give Bostonians the Best Public Library System: Candidate Rep. Marty Walsh Responds

Mayoral Candidate Rep. Marty Walsh One of the two candidates for mayor of Boston, Rep. Marty Walsh, has responded quickly and fully to the seven public-library questions posed by FOSEL two days ago. Below are the original questions, with the answers provided by Joyce Linehan, policy director for the Walsh campaign, in bold italics. As soon as we hear from At-large Councillor John Connolly, we will post his comments, as well. And your questions will receive the same attention, too.

*****

LIBRARY HOURS: the 25 branch libraries, which service the vast majority of  625,000 Bostonians, are closed most evenings, Sundays and, in summer, Saturdays as well. The Copley Library, however, within walking distance of the 20,000 residents of the Back Bay, is open four nights a week, Saturdays and, except in the summer,  Sundays.  In other words, most of Boston’s residents and their families whose taxes pay for the BPL, can’t use their local library when they are off work. As mayor, will you make sure all libraries in the system are open nights and weekends to reflect the specific need for local access? WALSH: The Boston Public Library is a cornerstone of my vision for the future of Boston, in the sense that it represents access, information, and the potential for lifelong learning and community building.  The library represents the best of Boston’s history and its recognition of the value of education at all levels. I would support expanded hours to ensure that more people can use the library at their convenience. I also believe that this will allow the library to consider flex-time for its staff, which I believe will support a workforce that needs flexibility for child care and other needs. I would take into account public surveys and the library’s own statistics about use to ensure that staff and other resources are allocated to best use.

*****

LIBRARY GOVERNANCE: there are no required standards of professional library expertise or library advocacy to be appointed to the nine-member BPL board of trustees. There are no term limits. There is no requirement to show up at public meetings (and some trustees seldom do). There is no public vetting process for library trustees, nor a public confirmation process to make sure the public gets the best library advocates possible to meet the library’s needs. Board seats do not reflect specific library interests, either, as is the case elsewhere: for example, the interests of branch libraries differ from those of the Copley Library;  young adults have different needs than seniors; book acquisition specialists have different concerns than book or art conservators. As mayor, would you set standards for library trustees and their performance, and consider appointing those who would be qualified advocates for specific library and neighborhood concerns? WALSH: I would strongly support a revision of standards for the BPL Board of Trustees. Accountability and transparency are key in all areas of policy for my administration. Just as I intend to seek the most highly qualified Superintendent of Schools and Chief of Police, I feel that every city department should be guided and led by people who have experience in the field, are aware of best practices, and have a vision of how to improve and support the departments they are in charge of.

*****

LIBRARY CAPITAL IMPROVEMENTS: Which local libraries get renovated, or where new ones are built, is governed by mysterious forces. There is no transparent long-term capital plan, nor  is a specific public process in place, by which libraries are upgraded equitably, or  new ones built where needed, or handicapped-accessibility ensured.  As mayor, will you institute a transparent and fair capital plan to upgrade all BPL libraries equitably where needed, or build new ones, as part of a public process? WALSH: The foundation of a Walsh Administration will be ethics and transparency, including financial disclosure.  Just as many schools are in need of capital improvement, the library branches in our neighborhoods, which support after-school learning and programming, need to be maintained at the highest standards with access to up-to-date technology, and safe and healthy buildings. Long-term capital improvements in both areas are critical needs, and ones that we would address as part of a comprehensive review of city property.

*****

BUILDING NEW LIBRARIES: Downtown Crossing is increasing its residential footprint. It is also a transportation hub where many young adults from all over the city hang out with little to do. As such, they can become easy targets for unfair and unnecessary criminalization by law enforcement. Nearby Chinatown, moreover, lost its library decades ago.  As mayor, would you consider building an architecturally exciting downtown library with an outstanding young-adult department and a strong Asian profile that also replaces the long-lost Chinatown branch? WALSH: Yes. A revitalized downtown area is where we see the most potential for growth as people return to living in the city in the next decades. Providing the kinds of resources which support families and empty-nesters who live here would definitely include library services. In addition, Marty feels that each library branch has the possibility of reflecting the richness of its neighborhood and its cultural diversity. The Walsh Administration will support and support all Bostonians.

*****

THE BPL FOUNDATION: the BPL fundraising arm was created to repair the McKim building almost two decades ago, and will target its future campaign on the long-overdue Johnson Building renovation. It does not focus on branch libraries, however, or their local Friends groups’ capital-improvement issues. But branches could use the Foundation’s help. The East Boston library, for example, has14 iconic WPA paintings that will cost $150,000 to restore before they can be installed in the new East Boston library. Their tiny Friends group is left on its own to raise the funds for it.  As mayor, would you direct the BPL Foundation to expand its mission and assist local Friends groups who want to preserve cultural and historic landmarks of importance to their neighborhood libraries? WALSH: Yes. The Boston Public Library is comprised of many parts, and its neighborhood branches are a key component of library services. Just as I intend to bring municipal services to “little city halls” throughout Boston’s neighborhoods, library services are not confined to the main branch at Copley. The Library and the City should be proud that the first branch library in the country was opened in East Boston in 1870, and we are about to open a new branch in that neighborhood. Many of the branch buildings have architectural or historical significance, and should be restored. Others are in need of considerable repair and should be upgraded or replaced. The BPL Foundation should leverage support for the library to be part of this vision of the Library’s future, and I would direct them to do so.

*****

LIBRARY TRUST FUNDS: these are meant to enrich the public library beyond capital and operational allocations from the city’s General Fund, not to substitute for it. But in the case of the disputed Kirstein Business branch closing in 2009, two Kirstein trust funds that paid for the maintenance of that building and its collection, are now used to offset operational expenses at the Copley Library. How? Trustees approved moving the business collection out of the Kirstein’s own beautiful building and into the dank basement of the Copley Library.  The emptied Kirstein library building, located on prime real estate downtown, moreover, is used by the city for office space, at no obvious benefit to the BPL. As mayor, how will you ensure that library trust funds are used for library enrichment only, not to offset operational or General Fund expenses? WALSH: Generous individuals who wish to support the library should feel confident that their legacy will be safely and respectfully administered by the library. While it is possible that original intentions can become no longer viable, all efforts should be exhausted prior to breaking a trust.  I feel that if Library Trustees have been carefully vetted and the process is public and transparent, there would be much less likelihood of such a process being a cause for misunderstanding and anger. Further, the Library should consider social entrepreneurship and increased fundraising efforts to offset the decrease in state and federal funding that many non-profit organizations are facing in the current fiscal climate. As Mayor, I intend to review all city property and resources to ensure the best allocation of resources throughout all the departments.

*****

STABILIZING LIBRARY FUNDING: Between 2008 and 2010 no one from the BPL or the city advocated for Boston’s library funding at the Legislature, so state funding declined. Trustees, moreover, who are appointed exclusively by the mayor, tend to not oppose mayoral proposals to cut the library budget, or fight for library budget increases, adding to the financial decline of the BPL. Would you support a dedicated tax for public libraries as part of the property tax, or come up with another fiscal instrument, to ensure a long-term strategy to  stabilize and expand the BPL budget to meet the exponential growth in demand for library services and community space?  WALSH: Before considering additional taxes for the library, I would like to review the current budget of the library and ensure that it is operating in a fiscally responsible manner. Since ensuring a high quality education is key to my administration, I would not foresee considering cuts to library services. Just as I have pledged to provide universal pre-K education to all 4 year olds, I intend to make sure that libraries are open and available in all the neighborhoods to support this. While it is valuable to have lobbying services for the library, the people of Boston are the most powerful lobbyists themselves. When there was the threat of cuts to the library, they made their voices heard. I stood firm in the legislature to support the neighborhood branches, and I would do so even more firmly as Mayor. I would look forward to working with Library Administration and the Trustees to ensure a healthy and long-term plan for the expansion and success of the entire BPL system.