Wednesday, November 14, 2007

BPL Having a Rough Week

Whoever's in charge of PR at the Boston Public Library is undoubtedly having a not-very-fun week at work.

On Monday night, Boston's CBS affiliate broadcast this report (video available at the link) on violence in and around the BPL's main branch at Copley Square. They note that for the past three years, police calls to the area have averaged 270 annually, and the story features some police reports of items being stolen inside the library, people fighting or refusing to leave, &c. "The library prides itself on being a true public building open to all. It's a sad sign of the times, but more and more homeless people are finding it to be their last refuge during the day," correspondent Joe Shortsleeves said in the broadcast ... The mission of a treasured landmark is getting lost."

Kathy LaFrazia, the director of St. Francis House - one of the only daytime homeless shelters in Boston - said "These are people that doors are shut to them constantly, and they stay few minutes at a McDonalds but they are moved along, moved along. People get desperate, people get angry." Of course people need a place to go during the day, where they can be warm and safe and left alone. Should that place be the Boston Public Library? In most cases, probably not. There's a much larger issue here that does not involve adding more security at the BPL, or excluding people, but providing adequate space for people who need it.

This story clearly wasn't handled well by the BPL (whether that's their fault or the t.v. station's is unclear). No library official appears on camera in the piece, only a man identified as "an employee," who commented "It's a big concern. Loitering and people hanging out. Run of the mill disruptive behavior sometimes." Mayor Menino told Shortsleeves that the issue has never before been brought to his attention (which, if true, is absolutely unbelievable).

The timing of the story was most interesting, as it came just hours before the library's board of trustees met and voted 7-2 not to renew the contract of BPL president Bernie Margolis. Margolis is not going to go quietly; in a front-page Globe interview today he lambastes Menino for interfering with library operations and not providing adequate funding for library operations. He accused the mayor of running Boston as an "authoritarian state," telling the paper "I didn't think this was Venezuela."

Menino responded by saying "I'm not getting involved in 'he said, she said,'" but his chief of staff, Judith Kurland, fired right back at Margolis. "It's hubris and entitlement, thinking that he owns the job. Nobody owns the job," she told the paper.

Margolis accused the mayor's administration of neglecting services at the city's branch libraries, including a rejecting of a plan to have the branches open on Saturdays in an attempt to help combat youth violence. At a meeting about the proposal earlier this year, Margolis says, the mayor "'dismissed it in the 'the most casual, offhanded way,' saying, 'Oh, those kids just want to be at the beach.'" Ironically, aides to the mayor have made the same charge against Margolis, that he's been "fixated" on the Copley Square facility while neglecting the branches.

I can't speak to the branch libraries, but if the current state of the Copley Square branch is what ten years of "fixation" has resulted in, I'm really worried about the state of things. I barely even use the BPL anymore because service and facilities are so poor - photocopiers are rarely working, the books I request from the closed stacks often cannot be found, and the place really is pretty grungy. Margolis says Menino didn't like that he went around telling people that the library doesn't have enough money, but anyone who walks through the doors ought to be able to see that's the case.

The Globe story reports that while library use has been up in recent years, the budget has increased just .26% per year since 2000, and full-time staff positions have been cut from 603 in 2002 to 483 in 2007.

Anybody who's crazy enough to take Margolis' job is obviously going to have some major issues to deal with, and they're definitely going to have to be tough enough to stand up to Menino's administration in an effective way and push for increased funding at attention at all levels. The BPL's collections and facilities are a crumbling treasure, and something must be done soon, before it's too late.

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