Less than a year ago, the Boston Public Library was in the midst of one of the most embarrassing episodes in its history, which dates to 1848. Two precious pieces of art were reported missing from the special collections section in April 2015, setting off a criminal investigation and raising questions about the institution’s security and management. Library staffers had earlier realized that the artwork wasn’t where it was supposed to be, but BPL president Amy Ryan said she was kept in the dark. Although the pieces — a Rembrandt etching and an engraving by Albrecht Dürer — were eventually found a mere 80 feet from their proper storage space, the incident proved costly in other ways. After withering public criticism, Ryan and library board of trustees chairman Jeffrey B. Rudman resigned their positions.
The case of the not-actually-missing art, and a city-commissioned audit begun before the incident, made obvious the need for a complete overhaul of the library’s inferior inventory and storage systems. But the crisis also served as a checkpoint: a pivotal time for the library to shake off the dust and re-evaluate its role in an age increasingly driven by technology. It’s too soon to know whether the BPL is making enough progress toward developing a cohesive vision for the digital future, but there are encouraging signs that the nation’s oldest urban library is headed in that direction — one that embraces innovation and better connects the system’s impressive range of offerings and resources with a wider swath of city residents.
A 15-member search committee appointed by Mayor Martin J. Walsh to hunt for Ryan’s replacement has held seven public “listening sessions” and solicited opinions from the library’s 450 employees. It expects to recommend finalists to the board of trustees in May, according to library spokeswoman Melina Schuler. No timeline for candidates’ interviews has been set, but the library says those meetings will be open to the public. Ryan’s potential successors include top managers of other libraries, college presidents, and executives at cultural organizations. Notably, being a librarian is not a requirement. The search committee’s willingness to consider someone outside the usual channels is a good sign that the BPL is open to more than incremental change.
Committee chair John Palfrey — head of school at Phillips Academy in Andover — said last week that the BPL’s next president should be “both a leader and a manager.” The job description calls for someone who can “develop strong partnerships with public and private organizations throughout the city, and serve as the leading advocate for the Boston Public Library and its branches.”
Palfrey said the next president also must be keenly aware of the evolving and varied ways people are using libraries. For example, many patrons no longer read or check out traditional books, CDs, and periodicals — the BPL reached one million digital downloads in December. In the last fiscal year, there were nearly 375,000 wireless log-ons throughout the system, plus another 500,000 log-ons to library computers. The trick will be to encourage participation that incorporates the BPL’s virtual and physical assets, making each stronger in the process.
Crucially, Palfrey stressed the importance of fund-raising, an area where the BPL has lagged in comparison with many other nonprofits. He cited the example of New York’s vast public library system, which is widely considered a model of robust private fund-raising. The annual budget for Boston’s main library and its 24 branches is about $43 million, but it relies on the city for 80 percent of that total. For the system to grow and innovate, it has to raise more outside money from private and institutional donors.
That’s where the eight members of BPL’s volunteer board of trustees — all of them prominent community and business leaders — can play an important role. With the recent appointments of chair Bob Gallery, president of Bank of America Massachusetts, and Cronin & Leonard law firm partner Cheryl Cronin, there is reason to hope the board will become more engaged in fund-raising and oversight than it has been. Walsh has the opportunity to emphasize that when he appoints someone to fill the ninth and final seat on the board.
Meantime, changes have been taking place across the BPL system under the watch of interim president David Leonard. Renovation of the second floor of the Johnson building at the Central Library in Copley Square was finished in February, and the final phase of the $78 million project should be completed this summer. Among the enhancements: new and creative spaces for young children and teens. Work also is underway at the Jamaica Plain branch, a $10 million investment that will expand the space there by 20 percent. In addition, the library is trying out new programs that break with BPL convention, such as winter yoga sessions that attracted hundreds of people. The goal, Schuler said, is to have the BPL viewed “almost like a community center.”
It will take dogged follow-through and bold thinking to build on this momentum, led by the to-be-named president. Given the library’s recent past and the array of challenges it faces, choosing the right person for the job — guided by the search committee’s advice and public input — is critical. The BPL can’t afford to lose its way again.