In a Bow to Public Demand for a Change in BPL's Top-down Culture, the Library Board's Nine Trustees Appoint Jill Bourne as President, a Veteran Librarian Who Honed her Collaborative and Outreach Skills in Three West Coast Libraries

  Jill Bourne (facing), making the case for her appointment to the BPL trustees

After a lengthy search process for a new BPL president that for the first time included numerous sessions with the public and staff, the BPL's Library Board choose the candidate they said would represent a change to a more inclusive, collaborative and transparent management culture. BPL's interim-President, David Leonard, and the Director of Libraries of San Jose, CA, Jill Bourne, each made their case on Saturday, May 21 in front of the nine BPL trustees and a surprisingly large audience of members of Friends groups, library employees and patrons. The two were the only ones left standing out of an initial group of 200; a third candidate opted out at the last minute. While the trustees repeatedly praised Leonard during his presentation for the outstanding job he had done stabilizing the BPL after last summer's raucous disintegration of the previous BPL leadership, it was clear from some of their questions during the interview, and comments after both candidates had spoken, that the "outsider" would win out over the "insider."

Jill Bourne after her public interview in a conversation with Search Chair John Palfrey, seen from the back

Trustee questions about Leonard's take on "lessons learned" from all that went wrong when he worked under the last BPL president, Amy Ryan, were an early indicator of what one trustee  described as the "incumbency penalty" that would be hard to overcome, despite Leonard's strong and, at times, moving presentation. In her interview, Bourne focused on the many ways in which she said she had worked at increasing library services in poor and immigrant communities in Seattle and San Francisco, expanded library hours and staffing, and created beneficial partnerships with Silicon Valley tech companies in the city of San Jose which, she explained, did not have a strong tradition of philanthropy. In choosing the outsider over the insider in less than twenty minutes, the Library Board cast aside the obvious advantages Leonard would have brought, having held senior positions for more than nine years at the BPL in administration, finance, technology and project management. "We are at an inflection point," commented trustee Carol Fulpe, who added that Bourne represented "a new way of thinking" and "a breath of fresh air." "I believe it won't take Jill long to start working," assured trustee Byron Rushing.

Bourne gained the bulk of her librarian's experience in the innovative and forward-looking libraries of Seattle and San Francisco. Seattle renovated its entire library system within ten years by means of a $200 million dollar bond issue, called Libraries For All, that voters approved by almost 70 percent in the 1990s. (The average time it takes to plan and renovate one library in Boston is ten years.) The Seattle renovation included a stellar new downtown library and 26 branches redone in whole or in part, including three that combined affordable housing and libraries, according to a report on this project. Bourne worked on a number of them.

In San Francisco, the public library was the first in the nation to hire social workers on its staff, in 2009, to assist and manage their large homeless population, a venture that has since expanded to include the formerly homeless, and has been featured on PBS. A moving and path-breaking photo exhibit of homeless patrons at the San Francisco downtown library, moreover, called Acknowledged, also described the many ways in which those showcased in the exhibit had become homeless. One of them was a descendant of President Abe Lincoln. In 2015, Acknowledged moved to the MLK library in San Jose, where Jill Bourne was in charge as its director.