Upham's Corner Online

Public Comments - BPL Trustee Meeting 2/24/11

Posted: April 11, 2011     Nancy J Conrad

At the Feb 24, 2011 Boston Public Library trustees meeting, attendees were allowed to make comments during the Public Comment section of the agenda. This appears to be a new and exciting mechanism for the public to contribute to how the library is being managed.  As of Aprill 12, almost seven weeks have passed without response or even acknowledgemBoston Public Libraryent from the trustees.

The February 24, 2011 Boston Public Library Trustees Meeting (BPL) was held at the Central Library in the Rabb Lecture Hall.  "Public Comment," which appeared as agenda item #5, appears to be new to the Trustees Meetings.  It was not on the agenda of the prior meeting (January 18, 2011) and Maria Rodriquez of the Faneuil branch thanked Rep. Rushing and Pres. Ryan for their commitment to public consultation. 

Of the people who signed up to speak (limited to three minutes each), at least five represented Friends of the Library groups and two others, union groups.   Analysis of speaker comments follows along with editorial comment.  We encourage everyone to print and thoroughly read the Public Comments as they are an authentic indication of the relationship between the trustees and the public.

Please note:  Spelling of speaker names is based on the audio and may be in error.

Full Transcript of Public Comments

Distant from the People

Several of the speakers thanked Rep. Rushing for encouraging the trustees to open the lines of communication out to the public and the front line operation of the library. 

Karen Chow, steward of the Boston Public Library professional staff association, welcomed Rep. Rushing encouraging an attitude that enables staff to feel comfortable making recommendations. 

Don Haber, co-chair of the Friends of the Jamaica Plain branch library asked that public comment be allowed at all trustee meetings.  He attended a January meeting, he said, where the capital projects budget was approved unanimously by the board in about 50 seconds of discussion.  By comparison some of the members of the Jamaica Plain friends had been "working for years and years to get a renovation or a capital project in place."  He would "have appreciated the time to at least make a small public comment."

Commentary

Rep Byron Rushing appears to be making a significant difference in the operation of the trustees.  His comments throughout the meeting were incisive and popular, as if he were representing a faction long lost to the ears of the trustees.  Following the meeting he was thronged by his supporters and friends as they continued the conversation.

Karen Chow's comments may reflect the existence of a controlled working environment where employee comments are not solicited and not welcome. 

That there has not been opportunity for public comment indicates that the BPL trustees are operating in a somewhat isolated manner.

Regarding the JP decision, how, in all good conscience, could the library management/trustees fail to acknowledge years of volunteer work done at the Jamaica Plain branch - no comments allowed, no thank you's, just a 50 second guillotine chop?

Friends Groups Depict a Sequestered Management

The first speaker (name unknown) said he was representing "all" the Friends groups and stated:  "We are here to help [in this time of budget crisis]."

Sarah Ann Shaw, President of the Dudley Library Friends, focused on the relationship between the Friends groups and the Boston Public Library.  While there are many Friends groups, all of which engage in fundraising, there is no clear relationship or guidance from the Boston Public Library.  The Friends groups would like to be a part of solving the budget problem but can't be if they have no understanding of the needs.

Charles Carroll, president of the Friends of the Hyde Park branch library, stated that each Friend group tends to be focused on its own branch library.  If there were more direct communication with library management, all of the Friends groups could get a better sense of the library system, its priorities and the budget restrictions.  Each Friend group would then have the option to make decisions that benefited more than just their local branch.

Don Haber, co-chair of the Friends of the Jamaica Plain branch library called for public comment at all trustee meetings, citing an example of a unanimous board decision that in effect dismissed years of work put in by the JP branch library supporters towards effecting renovations and capital projects.

Boston Public Library Branches
Dudley Branch
Boston Public Library Branches
Hyde Park Branch
Boston Public Library Branches
Jamaica Plain Branch


Commentary

The message is clear!  That five Friends speakers showed up at this trustee meeting is a clear indication that Friends groups, small as they are, want to help in guiding the future of the library.  While Friends actively engage in fundraising activities, the real goal is to make a meaningful difference. 

We ask:  How can the Friends groups be included in the management of the library including budgetary challenges, political issues, priority setting and so forth?  What will is take to bring the trustees/management down to the grass roots level to work directly with the groups that want to make a contribution to the future of the library?
 
Library not Focused on Raising Revenue
Boston Public Library Branches
Maria Rodriguez from the Faneuil branch talked about the fundraising arm of the Boston Public Library.  They raised, she said, a mere $715,000 which is completely unacceptable performance.  By comparison one person working for the Presentation Foundation raised twice that amount in the last year. This is, she said, part of why the library is experiencing a budget gap.

Bill Taub described his frustration in wanting to purchase items the library has for sale and pointed out that the "sales" function does not exist, very different by contrast with the New York public library.

Commentary

Maria's comment is a point well taken.  The trustees are not allowed by law to engage in fundraising so a separate organization has been created to perform this function.  That fundraising has failed in a year when the budget is being so drastically cut is such a disappointment.  Are the trustees truly performing the right level of oversight?

The trustees have contracted with a 3rd party online sales organization yet Bill Taub says the library's sales function is inadequate to non-existent.  Whatever Bill has identified should be taken seriously with an aim of improving the current library offerings.  In particular he would like to see inside sales especially in combination with special events. 

Finally, the frustrated calls for direct communication discussed in the "Friends" issue above apply here. Friends groups want to be actively involved in the fundraising requirements of the library but without direct communication with library management, it can't be done.

Politicizing the Process

Melissa Kadlec, union rep from 1526 asked that the trustees and management work proactively with the unions, not against them, so that we all can find acceptable solutions to the budget problem.

Nancy Conrad heard trustees make comments suggesting a hesitancy for the Library to look at budget-balancing options necessitating union negotiations.  "All options," she said, "must be under consideration."

Charles Carroll, president of the Friends of the Hyde Park branch library, stated that library management has made decisions that jeopardize the ability of the branches to function as libraries.  Cutting back on security personnel has led to librarians having to assume the role of disciplinarian and babysitter.  Cutting back on library staff has led to the unavailability of books because they have not been re-shelved.  These decisions do not make any sense.

Abigail Furey, member of Friends of Faneuil library, asked that the trustees not target reducing hours at four or five branch libraries.  She said this is completely unacceptable as all branches are important to their communities.  Equity across all of the branches including the central library should be the guiding principle.  If a reduction of hours is the only solution, then hours should be reduced everywhere.

Commentary

Politicizing the library process means protecting the unions, the library staff, the trustees, the buildings and who knows what else, as an alignment of support WITHOUT paying attention to the real focus.  The real purposes of a library include providing material and resources that encourage free speech, education and the elimination of illiteracy (poverty).

The standard budgetary model that everyone envisions is dollars flowing down from on high, filling the coffers of revered institutions such as the library and life goes on.  But dollars only flow so far.  There are the beneficiaries and there are the groups that get nothing.  The only way that changes is through grass-roots efforts including voluntary service.

While the 1526 union rep asked for cooperation, Nancy Conrad heard the trustees/management advocate capitulation in the face of wanting to "get along" more effectively with the union.  Our focus needs to lie on the issues of keeping our libraries fully functioning, not on appeasing the unions, staff, management or patrons.  Everyone will benefit - everyone - if we find creative solutions to our vexing budgetary problems.

No other topic generated more mutterings from the attendees than the concept of equity across the branches including the main library in Copley Square.  Why is that?  People at the grass-roots level care about each other.  We can find a way to solve the budget issues without discrimination and without reducing library services.

How about volunteers helping out at the Hyde Park branch or the Faneuil library?  Are we afraid a book might be reshelved incorrectly?  If so, have the librarians do the reshelving or train a college/high school student.  Or have the front desk managed by the volunteer while the technical work is handled by technical staff.

Think like a book - with an imaginative view of the world like no other.
Several of the speakers suggested that standard solutions to the budget shortfall are no longer acceptable.  "There are no sacred cows remaining."  The modus operandus of the trustees appears to be to hold on - fully shouldering the burden of solving the financial problems without reaching out.

There's another approach.  Rather than holding on to the problem, the trustees and management would be better off sharing the budget responsibility with all the down-line resources including staff, union, Friends groups and library patrons.  Here are some suggestions that might work, many of them straight out of the Public Comments:
  1. Allow volunteers to help at the library branches
  2. Work with the Friends groups on targeted fundraising goals
  3. Create an effective library sales capability
  4. Create a "donate a book" opportunity for the public
  5. Fix the fundraising group's performance problems immediately
  6. Ask for solutions from everyone and be willing to listen
Think of it this way.  The very first speaker (name unknown) said:  "We are your friends.  We are here to help." 

Boston Public Library, your Friends are offering help.  Are you listening?

Read the Transcript of Public Comments for more information.

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