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Menino aims to take another bite out of the BPL

Will his handpicked trustees let him?
By EDITORIAL  |  February 27, 2008


Why does Boston mayor Thomas Menino seem to have such a chip on his shoulder about the Boston Public Library?

Why does Menino seem determined to politicize the nation’s oldest large free public library, which — until now — has enjoyed 160 years of relative autonomy?

Why did Menino’s administration mount a campaign of disinformation to smear the local reputation of nationally respected BPL president Bernie Margolis prior to orchestrating his firing by a complacent board of trustees?

And why, this past week, did Menino’s chief fiscal operative launch a campaign to seize control of $54 million dollars’ worth of trust funds, which contribute six percent of the BPL’s annual operating budget, in a move that violates the spirit, if not the letter, of state law governing such trusts?

The answer, it seems, is because Menino can.

Menino is a formidable political figure. He lacks the flair of Kevin White and the cunning of Raymond Flynn. But the absence of an articulated vision has not been a quantifiable deficit. With nearly 15 full years as the city’s chief executive to his credit, he is on pace to become the longest-serving mayor in Boston history. Menino will best the record of the glamorous White, who bested the record of the legendary James Michael Curly, when he completes his fourth term in 2009. His place in history is guaranteed. What history will make of him, and those who serve in his name, however, is still an open question.

Behind closed doors, Menino is a control freak. In public, he projects nose-to-the-grindstone diligence. His is ability to actively shirk responsibility when things go wrong — and to get away with it — is a source of political wonder.

If the definition of political success is survival, then Menino is a master. He’s surfed the rip tide of shrinking resources (less money from Washington and Beacon Hill) and changing demographics (the aging of a politically active middle class and the rise of yet-to-be-aligned ethnics and immigrants) with skill. The politics of this Boston moment are the politics of lowered expectations. Mayor Menino is their king.

These factors help explain how Menino is able to do what he does. But they still beg the question: why the library?

That answer, in part, is because the library is there. Unable or unwilling to reform the troubled police and fire departments (the line between wit and will is a truly blurry one in these exceedingly complicated cases), the Menino administration — not known as a carton of eggheads — cannot resist the temptation to muck about with the BPL.

Compounding this unfortunate tendency is a sense of misapplied tenacity. Simply put, Menino did not get to where he is, or hold on for so long, by being a wimp. He climbed the greasy and unglamorous poll of local politics, rising from political foot soldier for others to mayor beholden to very few. The price of this impressive self-invention is that few around Menino are willing — or able — to save the mayor from his less-endearing tendencies.

Menino and his insular team never got over the fact that when a previous board of trustees recruited Margolis for the BPL’s top job, it retained a top professional of independent judgment.

The circumstances surrounding Margolis’s removal cannot make finding a replacement easier — that is, if the goal is to get a professional, rather than a hack or an efficient but pliant clerk.

Forcing the library to surrender the modest degree of fiscal autonomy it enjoys — Menino wants the city to dictate on a case-by-case basis how funds are spent, rather than approve lump sums for the library to use at its discretion, as has been done in the past — is not going to make the BPL presidency any more attractive.

His heavy-handedness with the library throughout the past year or so is not about improving the institution. It is about control. Menino should leave the trust funds alone. If he doesn’t, the trustees should resist his destructive meddling.

The nine members of BPL board of trustees, each appointed by the mayor, have two essential jobs: to make sure the institution is well managed and to insulate the library from undue political influence. The most vigorous defenders of an independent library have been State Representative Angelo Scaccia and former State Senate president William Bulger. So far, they have been silent on the issue. But then, that is their style. They tend to pursue a closed-door strategy, making their arguments in private rather than in public.

Friends of the library hope Scaccia and Bulger will fight this political takeover, which is being proposed under the bogus banner of good management. Too many of the recent trustees see their roles as servants of Menino rather than as stewards of the public trust, which the library represents.

There is no clash of big ideas in this confrontation. It is a rather primitive situation. The library has been — oddly enough — the only sector of the municipality (as opposed to a union) that has tried to resist Menino when it believes that principle is at stake. It’s curious that it is the battle for library independence that brings Menino’s style of governance into such sharp relief.

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  Topics: The Editorial Page , Tom Menino , Boston Public Library , Local Politics ,  More more >
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Menino aims to take another bite out of the BPL
Great picture. I am sure we will soon see lots of creative, peaceful, memorable actions throughout all the "suspects" offices,and around the town, etc. I certainly hope so. Libraries are endangered all across the country and this is in fact a "crown" jewel, precious and soverign. Let's take this to the wall. The creators of this gem believed in "Free to All" and the library is amazingly accountable with its actions and millions have benefitted over last century-plus from the city-wide support services that have carefully evolved. There is no where else for working poor, young and retired to go for a little intellectual joy, "citizen-soothing" and civic education. Get out your "chainmail armor and shield." Here it comes. Do I smell books burning and money evaporating, and patrons not trusting this venerable institution? What a stink it is.
By on 02/29/2008 at 7:57:05
Menino aims to take another bite out of the BPL
1) This is not the only example of misguided mayoral interference in the maintenance of Boston's cultural resources. At one point, several years ago, the mayor decided the grass was too dry in King's Chapel burying grounds, and--overriding informed conservatorial input to the contrary, including that of the then-coordinator for the city's Historic Burying Grounds Initiative--he insisted on a watering campaign that would make it a "green space" by Memorial Day of that year! This is bad for the colonial stones, encouraging algal and lichen growth, allowing moisture into cracks that expand and contract with changing temperatures, and increasing the likelihood of the (in some cases, newly re-set) stones' settling unevenly into the softened ground. Not only did it waste water, it was ahistorical: the original inhabitants let the herbage grow as it would, bringing in sheep as needed to keep the grass down. 2) As a user of the special collections at the BPL, I have been appalled at the light coverage of key service desks necessitated by staff cuts over the past several years. A few years ago I discovered that, to get a book that has arrived through interlibrary loan, the research desk librarian must go and find and then deliver the materials to the waiting patron (on top of all her/his other duties). There are not enough people to run the ILL program on a full time basis. I was impressed with the speed with which the service worked in spite of these constraints, The lead ILL librarian herself did the search and got the materials in time for me to convey the important points to my writing partner in France, who was preparing an article under deadline and could not see the book herself. 3) In addition, the Rare Books Room, also ably staffed by a tiny group, runs only on a M/F, 9/5 schedule. In contrast, most libraries owning important deposits as the BPL does include at least one late night and a few hours on Saturday mornings so that those who need more time with the manuscripts, or whose teaching and other work precludes their ability to get to the library during those hours, have research accessibility as well. And cataloguing for such collections must be done on an ongoing basis; staff cuts prevent such essential behind-the-scenes work as well. You would almost think this WASN'T Boston, the home of 100 schools and the Hub of the Universe of learning. The city has a responsibility to maintain its resources for others' use: this is not an appeal for the support of items used by the rich and famous. This concern springs from a desire to see those "bridge" resources that assist teachers, writers, researchers and others to interpret Boston's thick cultural values to the students, readers, new arrivants, and visitors the town attracts. I agree with the author that the dismissive, philistine attitude the mayor seems to show towards such things is dangerous and all too well hidden behind his aw-shucks mien. To deserve its reputation down the road, Boston needs to be mindful of the principles of wise curatorship of its cultural riches in the present. We are so lucky. But it will take wisdom to remain so.
By della roux on 03/01/2008 at 6:03:34

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