The last week of September was a good one for Boston's public libraries for several reasons: After twelve years of lobbying, false starts and disappointments, shovels were put into the ground for a $10 million overhaul of the Jamaica Plain branch, the oldest and the busiest in the system. It will reopen in 2017. The renovated building will preserve the excellent bones of the old branch and include a glass extension into the green space in front of it. In 2010, during the ill-conceived proposal by Mayor Menino to eliminate up to a third of the BPL's 27 branches, Jamaica Plain's library had been on a list considered for closure until the Boston delegation to the Massachusetts Legislature threatened to cut off state funding if any branches were closed.
The second piece of good news is that Mayor Marty Walsh, who was one of those state legislators at the time, confirmed that the search for a new president of the BPL will be a public process. "We're going to do it like with the public schools," he said after the groundbreaking ceremony in JP in separate conversations with library Friends representatives. Referring to the recently appointed head of the BPL's search committee, John Palfrey, head of Phillips Academy prep school, Walsh said, "He's terrific. We're in the beginning of the process now and will be working on the details." The previous selection process by the Library Board, in 2008, to replace the BPL president, Bernard Margolis, with the now-departed Amy Ryan, was widely criticized for lacking transparency and public participation.
And, last but not least, during a Library Board meeting a few days later, John Palfrey enthusiastically affirmed his commitment to a strong public role in the search. Calling the BPL 'the most important library anywhere, as the first public library in the country and the one that introduced the first branch system,' Palfrey, 42, said that its next president will both have to be "a manager and a leader to address a broad array of needs, one who can lift the sights of the BPL broadly, a dynamic person."
Palfrey elaborated that the search will be conducted by a representative committee whose members have different functions in the search, and that he will hire a 'nationally qualified firm.' The description of the BPL president's position "will have input from the community and members of the board of trustees," he said, adding that "candidates will be presented to the public." He cautioned "there will have to be a balance between the public interest and the need for privacy for some candidates who may not necessarily want it known they are looking for other jobs."
In response to Library Board members' questions about the current role of libraries, Palfrey, the author of the 2015 Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google, said it was important to respect both the past and the present and figure out ways to move ahead. “We need physical libraries,” he said, "but they need to both respect the past and stretch for the future. If they’re only about the past, libraries will be out of step and lose the public support they need. The balance is very important.” To a question about the city's changing demographics, Palfrey answered that 'inclusion was crucial in ‘any search.’ "It has to be there at a couple of levels, on the search committee with the right voices, but the search firm also has to be devoted to it," he suggested. “The top of the funnel is most important. There needs to be a broad area of background and genders.”
Trustee (and State Rep.) Byron Rushing said that during the hearings for the BPL's strategic plan in 2011, he learned how much knowledge there is in the communities about libraries, and how much love for them, too. "I heard very good suggestions about the branches," he recalled. He recommended to Palfrey that to engage people in the process, "the more we know about schedules and process, the better. Pushing the community process will make for a stronger candidate."
Palfrey responded that he will be "as inclusive as possible to involve people caring for the library." "It will be a much better process if it is open and transparent," he concluded.