It wasn’t quite the Gardner heist, but the case of the missing masterpieces certainly roiled the quiet world of the Boston Public Library, bringing criminal investigators to the doors of the iconic McKim Building on Boylston Street. Although the artwork is back after an intense search, and perhaps was never gone to begin with, the fallout has been messy: an ongoing probe by the Boston Police Department, the FBI, and the US attorney’s office, the hasty resignation of library president Amy Ryan, and the resignation of board chair Jeffrey Rudman.
By many accounts, Ryan was a well-regarded leader, who had a broad mandate under late Mayor Tom Menino. The East Boston Branch, which opened in 2013, gets rave reviews. The Johnson Building was renovated this year in order to create a sparkling new space for teens and children.
Ryan’s decision to step down is a loss for the city, but could also galvanize library staff and supporters and accelerate a much-needed fresh start. Mayor Walsh should move quickly to search for a worthy successor and work with the board of trustees, donors, and the library’s loyal patrons to chart a path to security, sustainability, and, ultimately, growth.
In fact, the BPL, which is the oldest urban public library in the nation, should be an innovative centerpiece of Boston’s knowledge ecosystem, a space where the city’s enduring history and its soaring future are both on full display. The missing artwork — a 1634 Rembrandt etching valued at $30,000 and a 1504 engraving by Albrecht Dürer valued at $600,000 — is part of an irreplaceable collection of 23 million objects that rivals the Library of Congress in scope. But a city-commissioned audit of the library’s operations and finances by Chrysalis Management found that security measures were lax and storage of valuable items was haphazard. It’s time to assess the entire system in order to give the BPL the support it deserves.
■ Clarify the role of the board of trustees. The nine-member board, which Ryan reports to, is made up of volunteers who have prominent roles in the community — and who are presumably already busy with their day jobs. Rudman’s resignation on Thursday gives Mayor Walsh an unmatched opportunity to begin reshaping the leadership team with people who can take on the daunting task of governing a museum-quality research institution and beloved community center that is sorely in need of reform. To be sure, no financial misdeeds have been uncovered, but the board must play an important role as an independent check and should, at the very least, be fully engaged. According to minutes published on the BPL website, although trustees’ meetings have always had a quorum, only one meeting since 2012 has been attended by all trustees at once. At the meeting on March 17, for example, four out of nine trustees were absent.
■ Tighten up inventory management. The audit found that the BPL has not kept a complete inventory of its prized objects. Questions about missing items that predate Ryan’s tenure still need to be answered — the library should move quickly to make a comprehensive list and be completely transparent about any other treasures that might have been misplaced.
■ Commit to more robust fund-raising. The BPL has a complex funding structure that includes city appropriations, state support, and donations from the library foundation, library associates, and citywide friends’ groups. State support fell significantly during the recession of 2008-2009, from an average of $8.4 million annually to $2.9 million. The BPL’s budget for 2014 was $42 million, with $33 million, or 78 percent, allocated by the City of Boston, according to the audit. The library and its foundation, which is searching for an executive director, should seize this opportunity to double down on modern fund-raising strategies and rely less on government funding. Boston is teeming with knowledge workers who have arrived from other places to work in life sciences, education, or finance. The BPL should reach out to cultivate this potential new generation of donors through innovative programming that makes the library an essential destination.
■ Digitize and revolutionize. A deep, digitally focused review of who uses the library — and how — could push the BPL into the 21st century. From 2013 to 2014, the number of visitors was down 3.7 percent, according to the Chrysalis report; physical circulation was down 4 percent, and program attendance was flat. But there was a surge in online demand: Digital circulation is up 30 percent, and the use of the library’s Wi-Fi by patrons is up 34 percent. Indeed, the library has already identified expanding online access as an important goal: Although progress has been made, an estimated 32 percent of the collection is still accessible only through card catalogue, microfiche, or the help of a librarian.
Since it was founded in 1848, the Boston Public Library has been a major part of the city’s intellectual life. It plays a vital dual role, as a museum of culture and history as well as a gathering place and respite for urban dwellers. Charles Follen McKim’s “palace of the people” with its carved tribute to Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, was a testament to Victorian Boston’s aspirations. That hasn’t changed. Boston cannot have a world-class library if it lags on basic security and is starved for support. What better time to turn the page?