Boston Public Library president Amy E. Ryan, in her first interview since two valuable pieces of art were reported missing from the main branch, described the potential theft as “a crime against Boston” and vowed Wednesday to tighten security at the nation’s oldest public library.
Ryan, who arrived in Boston nearly seven years ago from Minnesota, finds herself amid the biggest crisis of her tenure — a controversy amplified by an audit, commissioned before news of the missing prints became public, that describes inadequate protection and haphazard storage of prized items.
The library president acknowledged security lapses in the special collections department and said the disappearance of the Albrecht Dürer and Rembrandt prints was “horrible. It’s egregious.” Ryan, in an interview in her office, pledged: “We’re going to get to the bottom of it.”
Staff knew the prints were missing as early as June 2014, Ryan said. Upon learning last month that the prints had vanished, the stunned library president said she visited special collections. “Why didn’t you guys tell me?” Ryan recalled asking. Staff responded: “We thought you knew.”
But as Boston police, the FBI, and the US attorney’s office investigate, Ryan emphasized that the library’s special collections are not like artifacts locked away in a museum.
“We have a mission of making our collection available to the public, and we balance that with safeguarding our materials,” Ryan said. “We can’t be Fort Knox.”
After the missing prints came to public attention, it was revealed the library had no digital images of the artwork. Asked why on Wednesday, Ryan said the library’s voracious appetite for collecting artwork and books over nearly two centuries had outstripped the capacity to catalog those materials.
“We’re talking about a collection of over 24 million items,” said Ryan, who added she did not think additional items are missing. “We should [have images of everything]. I doubt though that any library our size has every item by item cataloged.”
Ryan declined to discuss in detail the audit that was commissioned by Mayor Martin J. Walsh because she had not had time to study the final draft, released Wednesday. She also declined to divulge whether law enforcement officials are focusing their investigation on library employees or patrons, citing the ongoing investigation. The library’s keeper of special collections was placed on paid administrative leave.
On Wednesday, reporters questioned Walsh about the missing art and the audit. The mayor said it was “too early’’ to declare his full support for Ryan. Walsh did not respond to a reporter’s question about whether Ryan should resign.
“There’s an ongoing federal investigation,’’ Walsh said. “We are going to wait and see what the investigation finds.”
Ryan said Wednesday she did not plan to resign, and several people spoke highly of her tenure as the library’s first female president. Her supporters included the chairman of the library’s board of trustees, Jeffrey B. Rudman, who described Ryan as an astute leader who builds consensus with civility. “She has pulled what was essentially a 19th-century institution into the 21st century by dint of her persistent labor,” Rudman said. “Is she perfect? I don’t know many perfect people.”
It would be unfair, Rudman said, for “this very unfortunate incident involving two works of art [to] swallow her career.”
During her tenure, Ryan has increased visibility of neighborhood branches, boosted special exhibits, and digitized more collections, according to Brandon Abbs, president of the City-Wide Friends of Boston Public Library.
But Abbs said there are issues the library president needs to address. “Some of the staff at times, especially the ones in the branches, can feel a little bit out there, or disconnected from the central administration,’’ Abbs said.
At her core, Ryan remains a librarian. Her excitement for the vocation remained palpable Wednesday during a whirlwind tour of changes that transformed a stodgy building that is part of the main branch in Copley Square. Beige carpet, tinted windows, and rigid bookshelves have been replaced with something that looks like a cross between a comfortable reading room, interactive day-care center, and hip teen center.
“These people,” Ryan said glancing at the crowded tables, “were never here before.”
Ryan’s first job came in 1976 in Minneapolis, as a librarian performing in-depth research for businesses. She worked as a branch librarian, toiled in special collections, and worked her way up the ranks at the Minneapolis Public Library. She left that job and took over as director of the Hennepin County Library and began the massive task of merging those two library systems.
“She remained calm in the face of people who were upset,” said Kathleen Lamb, a member of the Hennepin County Library board. “Her eyes were always on the horizon about what needed to be accomplished and how to get there.”
In 2008, Ryan emerged as one of four finalists to replace Bernard A. Margolis, who was ousted after 11 years as library president by former mayor Thomas M. Menino.
Ryan told The Boston Globe at the time that she loved her job but the opportunity in Copley Square was too compelling to pass up. “From the point of view of the library,” Ryan said, “Boston has it all.”
Ryan’s arrival coincided with the Great Recession. By 2010, she became the public face of a plan to shutter four branch libraries to shore up finances. The proposal met fierce resistance, and Menino capitulated.
During her time in Boston, Ryan has helped steady the aging network of 25 libraries. She oversees a system with 470 employees, and a $43 million budget.
Ryan was paid $193,000 in 2014, payroll records show.
“I’m proud of many of my accomplishments,” Ryan said. “That’s not to minimize the missing artwork. This is a huge, wonderful responsibility that has a broad spectrum.”
Her efforts have revitalized the once dreary Norman B. Leventhal Map Center and helped create Collections of Distinctions to showcase the library’s most renowned artifacts, from medieval and early Renaissance manuscripts to one of the nation’s premier Shakespeare collections.
One of Ryan’s signature achievements is in East Boston, a 15,000-square-foot library that opened in 2013. The branch boasts massive glass walls and an open-floor plan that includes a reading porch decked out with Adirondack chairs overlooking a park and the Boston skyline.
“That was . . . revolutionary,’’ said William Rawn, the architect who oversaw the East Boston project. “Amy was the visionary for the building without question.’’
Meg Mainzer-Cohen, president of the Back Bay Association, said she was confident Ryan would weather the crisis.
Ryan serves on the association’s board of directors and led an advisory group of business, community, and civic leaders that provided input on the main branch’s reconstruction. Mainzer-Cohen said the library president faced entrenched problems.
“I see Amy as being an absolute breath of fresh air, and she has been trying to move through some of these entrenchments and work through these system problems,’’ she said. “She’s only been here for a short time in the long-term scheme of things.”
Andrew Ryan can be reached at email@example.com.