When the trustees of the Boston Public Library meet next week, they will decline to renew the contract of BPL president Bernie Margolis, in effect firing the man who has preserved and expanded the strengths of the nation’s oldest public library in the face of strained and diminishing financial resources.
During his 10 years on the job, Margolis has led the BPL energetically and effectively into the 21st century: children’s services at branch libraries have been strengthened, Boston became the nation’s leader in urban digital access, and the long-neglected treasures that make the central library world-famous finally began to enjoy a modicum of the sort of curatorial care they deserved.
Why would the library’s trustees give the boot to a leader who has proved to be a triple-threat talent, accommodating tradition, tackling present-day issues, and positioning a service-oriented institution for the future?
The answer is simple: Mayor Menino doesn’t like Margolis and apparently never has. In fact, it is something of a miracle that Margolis has survived this long. That he was allowed to build his splendid legacy is largely due to the efforts of former Boston Globe publisher and now ex–BPL trustee William Taylor, as well as still-current trustees William Bulger, the former Senate and UMass president, and Angelo Scaccia, a state representative from Hyde Park.
But, alas, all good things must come to an end. Taylor and Bulger no longer wield the clout they once did, and Scaccia has worn his close relationship with Menino to the bone in service of the greater good of the BPL. If Margolis deserves heartfelt thanks for his splendid service, then Taylor, Bulger, and Scaccia likewise deserve approbation as models of disinterested public stewards.
As the trustees mount their nationwide search to fill Margolis’s shoes, it will be interesting to see how they conduct themselves: will they be capable of exercising the independent judgment their roles require, or will they, as they did in dismissing Margolis, prove to be little more than agents of Menino’s will?
Displaying independent judgment in the Menino administration is dangerous, indeed. Menino is a master at close-quarter political combat and, despite appearances to the contrary, is also skilled at taking long views. His record of getting what he wants is testament to that.
Menino’s style is to keep things structurally and organizationally as they are, while paying lip service when necessary to the need for change. He resists shaking things up at the Boston Redevelopment Authority and at the police and fire departments, trading the need for big changes and the new challenges they might bring for short-term and near-absolute control. Only in the schools has he varied, slightly, his game plan.
Now that Margolis’s firing is about to be made official, the city is being treated to a campaign of disinformation suggesting that, while Margolis was good for the historic central library in Copley Square, his track record in the branches was lacking. This is rubbish, so out of line with reality that it approaches a big-lie strategy: tell a whopper with enough conviction and frequency and you can get the public to believe it. It will probably work. Also wrested out of context are recycled versions of Margolis’s unwillingness to install Internet filters — except for children — on library computers. Free speech may be uncomfortable at times, but it should never be so in a library. It is the branch libraries, though, that are now center stage.
When it came to expanding library hours and services in the neighborhoods, Margolis has had to fight City Hall every step of the way, and usually lost or had to settle for much less than requested or required. In a tight fiscal environment, that is the way of the world. But to suggest that Margolis favored the historic Copley Square library at the expense of the neighborhoods is just not true. Look at where the painful cuts in staffing have occurred and you’ll see that Copley Square suffered so that the branches could soldier on.
When Margolis suggested consolidating redundant branches in order to provide better service in a more cost-effective way, City Hall thundered elitism: more rubbish. Keep your eye on East Boston. Now that former Senate president Robert Travaligni, who hails from that neighborhood, has left the State House, one of its two branches will likely be closed, and operations consolidated.
One of the tricks to keeping political score is not to listen to what public officials say, but to watch what they do. In this regard, Margolis was remarkably consistent. He said what he meant and he tried to act accordingly. A more politically acute individual might get away with that. But even Margolis’s most ardent supporters will admit that policy, not politics, is his strong point. Couple this with his constitutional inability to kiss the mayoral rump — perhaps the most important requisite for survival in the Menino years — and you can begin to understand why Margolis’s gold-plated library card is not being renewed.
Margolis, the library, and Boston deserve better. The letter-writing campaign that has been mounted on Maroglis’s behalf will most likely have no immediate effect. The mayor spent years appointing sufficiently pliant souls to the BPL’s board of trustees to achieve his end, and it is unlikely that his appointees will not do what the mayor requires. That sad bit of reality aside, it is important for the trustees to remember that their first loyalty — their only responsibility — should be to the library itself. It is their job to insulate the library from the vagaries of political life. Let us hope that in the future they are up to the task. Boston is watching.