In a welcome change, the Boston Public Library trustees, who govern the nation's first public library system, have begun to display an openness to and appreciation of public engagement that had been sorely lacking under the Library Board's previous leadership. Instead of barely contained impatience with public comment and occasional scathing criticism of those who dared to question BPL leadership or its decisions, the current trustee chair, John T. Hailer, has encouraged audience participation, taken some of their suggestions to heart, and thereby set a completely new tone. At the latest trustees meeting in November at the Mattapan Library, Hailer stopped the Library Board's discussion before a vote was to be taken, and asked for public comment. The somewhat startled public, used to being ignored and limited to two-minute statements at the end of long meetings, wanted to know whether they could still have a say on other matters.When told they could, they happily gave their opinions on the issue at hand, in this case, the long-contentious subject of commercializing a prominent part the lobby space in the Johnson Building, scheduled to open after a $78 million overhaul sometime in 2016. The vote allowed the BPL to go ahead with contract negotiations with WGBH and The Catered Affair to create a satellite broadcast studio and an all-day cafe in the Copley Library's street-level lobby in exchange for an annual rent of about $130,000.
A presentation by the new executive director of the Boston Public Library Foundation, Lisa Bevilaqua, showed the same comfort level with open-minded inquiry and decision-making at the meeting. Bevilaqua reported she was in the process of visiting all the branches, meeting with Friends groups, and getting to know the 18 members of her board. Most promising was her announcement that she had been in touch with other library foundations to get information about their "best practices," a first for the beleaguered foundation whose employees were more often than not well-meaning but inexperienced patronage appointments. Bevilaqua said talking to other library foundations had been "very enlightening." She is currently looking into the governance, strategic plan and mission of the BPLF. Under past leadership, the anemic library foundation had been used inappropriately to provide executive benefits to BPL administrators and, at one point, only raised enough funds to pay for its own operational expenses. With the exception of the most recent head, David McKay, who left a year ago, the BPLF was headed by volunteers who loved the library but lacked the fundraising prowess required to meet the BPL's financial needs. Bevilaqua, on the other hand, has extensive non-profit experience, most recently as the director of development at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum during its successful $180-million capital campaign.
In another example of positive change at the BPL, John Palfrey, head of Phillips Academy, who chairs the search committee for a new BPL president, briskly and cheerfully led the first 'listening session' to find out what the public would like to see in a BPL leader. The last time such a search took place, in 2008, the Boston Globe complained on its editorial page about its "flawed process" and "lack of transparency." Although Palfrey's 'listening session' was put together with little notice for right after the November 17 trustees meeting, he said he didn't want to miss the opportunity of finding so many library supporters and staff in one place already, especially with some other members of the search committee present as well. Palfrey patiently listened and took notes while library advocates and staff made numerous suggestions about the changes they would like to see made by the new BPL leader, and the qualities he or she should bring to the job. These included restoring the autonomy needed by branch librarians to best serve their neighborhoods; getting from a culture of "no" to a culture of "yes;" decentralizing book selection to allow for nuanced and neighborhood-specific collection building; and collaborating with Friends groups. There was strong support for Palfrey's proposal that the new BPL president does not need to have a library degree, "as long as there is a chief librarian." Equally important, all agreed, was that the next BPL head should know how to navigate the local, state and federal political landscape to advocate for the BPL.
There are two additional listening sessions with John Palfrey:
Monday, November 30, at 6:30 PM at the Brighton Branch of the BPL
Saturday, December 12, at 9:00 AM at the Copley Library's Commonwealth Salon.
For details, click here.