The BPL Trustees Have to Hire a New President, but Some Library Advocates Are Asking for the Public to Have a Say in the Matter, Much Like in the Search for Public-School Superintendent

John Palfrey, head of Phillips Andover, will lead the search for a new BPL president At the most recent BPL trustees meeting this summer, library advocates from Jamaica Plain, East Boston, the South End and the City-Wide Friends of the BPL suggested that, this time around, the trustees allow the public to have a say in the search for a new BPL president. The previous president, Amy Ryan, resigned this summer after priceless art went missing for a while and the BPL's art collections appeared in disarray and vulnerable to loss.  Holding up as an example the participatory and transparent selection for superintendent of the Boston public school system, Don Haber, co-president of the Jamaica Plain Library Friends group, pointed out that the BPL touches the lives of more Bostonians (and non-Bostonians) and a broader range of people than the Boston public schools. "Libraries are there for everyone, from birth to death, 12 months a year," he said, "which is why there should be a strong role for the public in finding a new president."

Such a public role would be a first for the BPL: When Amy Ryan was chosen in 2008, the Boston Globe, in an August 10, 2008, editorial, described the selection process as "too secretive" and warned it "may end more quickly than is prudent." The list of finalists had remained largely secret, for example. There were no public forums where candidates, vetted by the search committee headed by two Harvard Business School professors, could introduce themselves to the public, or describe their vision for the BPL, or listen to what library staff, users and supporters would like to see happen in their Central Library and its branches.

At a BPL trustees meeting: left to right, former chair Jeff Rudman, former BPL president Amy Ryan, trustee Zamawa Arenas, (a sliver of) trustee Byron Rushing

Among the candidates of 2008, Ryan was among the least experienced in running a large library system, but had the critical skill of having helped consolidate the bankrupt Minneapolis library system with the surrounding (and thriving) Hennepin County libraries. Mayor Menino at the time had said "there were too many" branch libraries in Boston (a conclusion about which there had no public debate, and for the execution of which there was no strategic plan).  Ryan was introduced as the finalist at a trustee meeting open to the public in the summer of 2008, but, as the Boston Globe editors pointed out, "this transparency comes late." Nevertheless, Ryan was officially hired by the trustees within the day. Her 2010 proposal to close up to a third of the BPL's 24 branches ended when the Boston delegation to the Mass. Legislature threatened to cut off all BPL funding if she proceeded.

Interim BPL president, David Leonard, who replaced Amy Ryan after she resigned this summer

The BPL trustees operate under the public radar, even though the  institution is almost entirely funded by the city and the state for its operating and capital budgets, to the tune of about $80 million this year. Its private fundraising is anemic, less than $1.5 million for the fiscal year ending June 2014, according to the Boston Business Journal. At their handful of poorly advertised public meetings, Library Board members only allow for public comment at the end. Answers to questions are not required. Public comment can be eliminated altogether, as it has been in the past under the occasionally bombastic leadership of the previous chair of the board, Jeff Rudman. State Rep., Byron Rushing, a trustee appointed in 2010 during the raucous battle over library-branch closures, restored the public-comment practice. The current Library Board has two vacancies. The remaining seven members are all appointees of the previous mayor, Tom Menino.

Last week, the Walsh administration announced that John Palfrey, the head of Philips Andover, and the author of the 2015 book BiblioTech: Why Libraries matter More han Ever in the Age of Google,  would lead the search. According to the Boston Globe's article about the appointment, Palfrey said "his first steps will be working with the mayor and establishing a broad and diverse search team."

At the July 30 trustees meeting, Interim Library Board  chair, John Hailer, who replaced Jeff Rudman when Mayor Marty Walsh asked him to resign this summer, told JP Friends' co-president Haber,  "there will be public engagement" for the current search, but offered no details. The next BPL trustee meeting is Tuesday, September 29, at the Dudley branch.

Stay tuned.