In the more than six years that FOSEL has attended BPL trustees meetings, no mayoral chief of staff ever showed up, let alone declared his 'love' and 'dedication' to libraries. But on the morning of March 11 at the BPL trustees gathering at Copley Library, here was the chief of staff to Mayor Marty Walsh, doing just that. The 29-year-0ld Daniel Arrigg Koh gave a spirited endorsement of the many new-age possibilities to boost libraries, their status as "hotbeds of the community," adding this was the case "not just here (at Copley), but all over the city."
Yippee for branch libraries, whose second-tier status in the Copley-centered BPL system has long contradicted where great libraries with convenient hours are needed most (in Boston's neighborhoods), and who pays for the BPL (the more than 600,000 residents who do not live near Copley). While the downtown library is open weekends and evenings, for example, the neighborhood branches close their doors most evenings, Sundays, and Saturdays during the summer. Yes, when our kids are out of school. But that will be changing, too, under the new mayor. At Tuesday's trustees meeting, the extension of library hours for branches was approved. Details will become available soon.
Regrettably, modernizing the Boston library system is challenged by its archaic governance structure, best described as a private foundation funded entirely by tens of millions of public dollars each year (FY 2015's proposed budget is around $40 million). Its nine nine trustees are picked by the mayor, in this case former Mayor Menino, without any vetting for public-library knowledge, or a public confirmation process. Transparency about trustees decisions is lacking. BPL patrons might like to know, for example, how a job opening for Library Board clerk this month came to be filled by the legal assistant of BPL chairman, Jeffrey Rudman, who is retiring from his law firm, Wilmer Hale, but staying on as BPL trustee chair. There may well have been a city-wide search with affirmative-action goals in mind, but who knows? It would also be useful to learn who decides which library branches will be renovated next, based on what criteria: in addition to an $18 million request to do a long overdue overhaul of Copley, the FY 2015 budget proposal includes actual and planned renovations at seven BPL branches (Jamaica Plain, Roslindale, Adams, Eggleston, North End, Parker Hill, Uphams Corner). Based on what criteria were they selected? When can the dilapidated South End branch and its Library Park have a turn? No one knows and no one tells.
No one tells, because the only opportunity to influence the BPL trustees at their public meetings is severely circumscribed by the Library Board. No public comment at all was allowed for years, except at the chair's discretion, until State Rep. Byron Rushing was named trustee in 2010. Now that it is part of the agenda, 'Public Comment' is taken literally: it means No Questions, Comments Only. If questions are asked, they are met with stony-faced silence.
Nevertheless, the general trend for the BPL's well-being is positive compared to several years ago when 'consolidation' of its 26 branches to reduce them by up to a third was all the rage. All its branches, including the South End's, now have electronic check-out machines, long popular in urban library systems elsewhere. Even though a poorly conceived proposal by a BPL Foundation board member to promote BPL's image, called BPL52, is probably dead in the water, at least there's an effort to spread the idea that libraries are great civic institutions of critical importance to neighborhoods everywhere. President Amy Ryan and her staff have planned extensive and high-quality programming in April at the downtown library to commemorate last year's devastating bombing at its doorstep, and celebrate the positive Boston Marathon's spirit. Unfortunately, emblematic of the Copley-centered culture, no branches were asked to participate, not even the one in Dorchester frequented by the family of Martin Richard, the 8-year-old boy who was killed in the attack, whose sister was severely injured, whose family was deeply engaged in their neighborhood, and whose mother, also injured, is a charter-school librarian.
Better news was the thoughtful response by trustee --and State Rep.-- Byron Rushing when asked what the outlook was for the Legislature's financial support. Rushing answered he foresees a "gradual increase" in state money for libraries. He explained that the outsized focus on Boston libraries' funding almost two decades ago by legislative leaders from Boston, who loved libraries, had caused resentment among legislators from other parts of the state, who felt neglected. With the creation of the Legislature's Library Caucus, and an increased appreciation of statewide services provided by the BPL, that has begun to change. "Things look pretty good," Rushing said.