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Yvonne Abraham

A rush to judge at the Boston Public Library

Boston Public Library President Amy Ryan.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The Queen had only one way of settling all difficulties, great or small. “Off with his head!” she said, without even looking round.

Like the foul-tempered monarch in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” we do seem to enjoy it around here when heads roll in the wake of scandal.

On Wednesday, Boston Public Library president Amy E. Ryan lopped off her own noggin, anticipating the mayor’s honed ax.

It’s a shame, really. The story of the lost-and-found artworks at the library should have been the most delightful of Boston tales: the big art heist that wasn’t. But delightful tales don’t come with casualties.


To a city still fascinated, and traumatized, by the 25-year mystery of the Gardner Museum thefts, it looked pretty bad at first. Two valuable pieces — an Albrecht Dürer engraving valued at $600,000 and a Rembrandt etching worth up to $30,000 — went missing over a year ago, and Ryan wasn’t told about it until this spring. When she was, she reported it, and an investigation was launched.

Had the works been stolen — an inside job, it was darkly suggested — or simply misfiled? Both Ryan and the library’s chief of special collections stressed the latter possibility. They knew better than most how outmoded the BPL’s systems are.

But the notion of innocent error quickly gave way to the joy of scandal, and the delirious rush to judgment. It was scoundrel time, our favorite.

Once upon a time, we were more measured. Twenty-five years ago, when 13 prized works were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, there was no clamor for director Anne Hawley’s firing. She stayed on to lead the still fruitless search.

But that was then. Nowadays, we like to name the culprit right away. And we know what to do next.

Off with her head!


Amy Ryan with the two recently-found prints.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Usually, a beleaguered official’s boss will attempt to hold off the baying bloodhounds, at least initially. This did not happen for Ryan. In every interview, Mayor Marty Walsh hung her out to dry.

Is it Ryan’s fault that she wasn’t told about the missing pieces right away? Why, yes it is.

“Ultimately, it falls on the leader,” he said. “You’re supposed to have faith and trust in the team you have around you.” (Let’s hope the team around Walsh never screws up).

Walsh called an emergency meeting of the library trustees on Wednesday. He sent Dan Koh, his super high-profile chief of staff — the Koh-mayor, almost — to lambaste leaders over the missing works.

“I, and more importantly the mayor, are gravely concerned about what has happened,” Koh told the trustees. Ryan resigned.

Then, D’oh! The next day, the missing works showed up, a mere 80 feet from their rightful spot in the massive room where the BPL keeps some of its 200,000 prints. Suddenly the “scandal” became something more like comedy, and so relatable. Who among us hasn’t left a trail of sunglasses or earrings lost forever after we put them in spots that seemed perfect at the time?

So, did Amy Ryan un-resign in the wake of this joyful news? Did the mayor and the Koh-mayor apologize, and ask her to reconsider?

No, and heck no.

“She made her decision,” Walsh told the Globe’s Andrew Ryan. “We’re going to move forward.”

That’s cold. The mayor has wanted Amy Ryan gone for a while, even though she is intelligent and highly trained, and steered the BPL system through lousy economic times. She isn’t everybody’s favorite, especially in communities where she suggested branches close. But for her seven years in the job, she has been remarkably dedicated and professional.


Walsh has the right, of course, to his own library chief. But there’s a right way to move somebody out of a job, and a rough way. This administration doesn’t seem to have gotten the hang of the former. Several veterans of the previous administration — who gave the city years of service — have been unceremoniously shown the door.

Why make enemies? Why play to the Queens of Hearts among us?

You can tell a lot about people, Mr. Mayor, by how they treat others, great or small.

The two missing prints at the Boston Public Library were found earlier this week.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.