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Boston Public Library’s art in state of neglect, report finds

Calls for massive overhaul

Library leaders and critics agree that much of the public does not know what lies behind the 19th-century facade of the library’s historic McKim Building in Copley Square.Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff/File

Historical researcher Margo Burns was stunned three years ago when she discovered four handwritten records at the Boston Public Library from the case of a woman hanged in 1692 during the Salem witchcraft hysteria.

The elation felt by Burns and two colleagues turned to panic only days later, when one returned and was told the documents could not be found. After a month of anxious, follow-up questions, the records were rediscovered.

That episode preceded — and perhaps foreshadowed — the widely publicized disappearance of prints by Albrecht Dürer and Rembrandt, a case that launched a criminal investigation in April and led to the resignation of library president Amy Ryan. The prints — “simply misfiled,” said Ryan — were found June 4 just 80 feet from their proper place.


A report to be released this week will find that the library’s problems go deeper. Its 320,000 prints and drawings have been neglected for years and are in dire need of space, a massive reorganization, and a complete inventory, according to a draft copy of the consultant’s report obtained by the Globe.

“The Print Department cannot be expected to function effectively without better oversight, specialized departmental leadership, additional staff, and adequate space for both storage and access,” wrote Martha Mahard, a Simmons College professor hired as a consultant by the library a year ago.

Mahard also found that “the overall arrangement of the print stack defies logic,” making it difficult to locate some items.

The library has started implementing some of her recommendations, Mahard said, but many of the suggestions will have to wait for funding and administrative decisions.

“Benign neglect is no longer acceptable,” Mahard wrote. “Active engagement, informed leadership, and increased resources are called for.”

Critics have argued that library administration has been more focused on modern amenities, the digital future, and creating a robust presence in the neighborhoods than it has on keeping track of its invaluable treasures. As usual, money and resources are at issue.


“They haven’t got enough people,” said David McCullough, the best-selling historian and a former library trustee.Bill Brett for The Boston Globe/File

“I’ve never felt that there was adequate funding for adequate care of it all,” said David McCullough, the best-selling historian and a former library trustee. “I got very much involved in trying to rescue the national treasures that had ended up being allowed to deteriorate at an unconscionably fast rate.”

Ryan has a radically different take. In her view, the library system has balanced a host of competing needs and moved aggressively to reach out to a broader, more digitally aware audience. And that includes Special Collections.

“So our commitment, is it perfect? No,” Ryan said in a June 19 interview. “But as our services have expanded, actually our commitment to Special Collections has expanded.”

Some of the increased resources called for in the consultant’s report should be used to restore city-paid jobs in Special Collections, according to current and former staffers, several of whom asked not to be named for fear of retaliation. But determining exactly how many Special Collections jobs have been lost in Ryan’s tenure is difficult.

One longtime member, who is a critic of the library administration, said the equivalent of six full-time jobs have been cut since 2009. Library spokeswoman Melina Schuler told the Globe that the number of jobs has not been reduced. However, in an e-mail response to a follow-up question, Schuler conceded that two full-time and two part-time jobs are currently funded through an independent group — the Associates of the Boston Public Library — and not by the city.


Environmental concerns, such as dramatic shifts in relative humidity, also are a serious problem, said Stuart Walker, who retired in 2013 as chief book conservator.

“The conditions have gone from bad to worse,” Walker said, who added that mold grows on many rare books in summer.

Ryan, who is stepping down July 3, said in the interview that she recognizes the personnel and physical needs of Special Collections, which contains nearly 3 million rare books, prints, manuscripts, photographs, and other items.

She also acknowledged that her staff does not know exactly what is in the collections, a trove begun by idealistic Boston Brahmins that has become one of the world’s great library holdings.

When she arrived as president in 2008, Ryan said, she found a library system reeling from the recession, with at least one foot in the past — as evidenced by its heavy reliance on antiquated card catalogs.

In fiscal 2009, the library had 676 employees, full- and part-time; in fiscal 2015, the number was 535. In that time, the budget decreased to $36.6 million from $39.7 million.

“We were engaged, I would say, in survival,” Ryan said.

Ambitious exhibitions, Ryan said, are bringing the Special Collections into public view more often. A system of “digital stacks” will open up the library’s treasures — at least virtually — to even more patrons next year, said Beth Prindle, manager of programs and exhibitions. And the library’s treasures are being prioritized into dozens of Collections of Distinction.


In addition, Ryan said, more attention is being paid to logging visits to Special Collections, where the disappearance of the Durer and Rembrandt prints exposed a glaring gap in protocol. The Print Department was not recording when an employee removed artwork from the stacks or when a particular print was viewed by a patron, library officials acknowledged.

Instead, the library kept a calendar that listed individuals and groups who came to the rare books room to view prints. However, Schuler said, the records did not identify the items they viewed.

Ryan said in the June 19 interview that she was unaware that the staff failed to keep a log.

Sinclair Hitchings, keeper of prints for more than 43 years until his retirement in 2005, said the library failed to maintain the security protocols that he instituted in 1961 and were in place when he left. Hitchings said he kept a loose-leaf notebook to log the name, address, and telephone number of every patron who viewed a print, which often were described in general terms such as a “Rembrandt.”

Hitchings said he told Ryan after she was hired that the Print Department urgently needed an inventory.

Ryan said she did not recall that suggestion and added that if he had asked for one, she would have responded: “Why didn’t you do it? You’re the one that has been doing this for decades, and now it’s all dumped on my lap.”


Hitchings’s job was eliminated after his retirement.

Library leaders and critics agree that much of the public does not know what lies behind the 19th-century facade of the masterpiece McKim Building in Copley Square, nor what is needed to sustain the treasures.

“The Boston Public Library deserves more attention and respect than it gets: from City Hall, the State House, and the citizens of Boston. This institution provides a public service — free, unlimited access to knowledge — that is every bit as important as those provided by our schools, police, and fire departments,” said Vivian Spiro, chairwoman of the Associates of the Boston Public Library.

Spiro said she has been told that cataloging the Print Department alone would need five full-time catalogers working for five years.

Without the help of outside groups such as the Associates, Ryan acknowledged, much important work in Special Collections would not be done. A fund in McCullough’s name and an Associates endowment fund have a combined $3.9 million dedicated to preserving the library’s treasures, according to the Associates.

“The people trying to do the job are superb. There is nothing wrong in my view with their attitude or ability or their devotion to their jobs,” McCullough said. “They haven’t got enough people.”

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at; Shelley Murphy can be reached at