Branches' needs spur a pruning at library's top

Trustee says a new president will focus on neighborhoods

Email|Print| Text size + By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / November 7, 2007

The Boston Public Library is well known for its collection of Colonial documents and its landmark location in Copley Square, but leaders fear that John Adams's books and historic maps are not enough. The Board of Trustees also wants to nurture better library services in the city's neighborhoods, a fresh direction that led to the board's decision to oust president Bernard A. Margolis after 10 years at the helm.

Jeffrey B. Rudman, president of the nine-member board, said in an interview yesterday that there is a sense among the trustees that the library system has not evolved as the city has grown more diverse and as society has grown more technologically savvy.

In addition, the library has placed much of its emphasis in recent years on renovating and restoring its main branch at Copley Square, which some library supporters argue has come at the expense of improvements at its 27 branches.

"This library is going to focus on its branches as it has never, ever focused on its branches before," Rudman said. "The goal is to move the energy to the branches for working people, and for poor people. And that means everything, from elderly to kids."

"We're going to Fields Corner, we're going to Mattapan, and we're going to focus on these branches," he added. "That is where the trustees want to take this library."

The Globe reported Sunday that the trustees plan to vote Nov. 13 not to renew Margolis's contract when it expires at the end of June. Rudman said yesterday that they plan to begin a national search to replace Margolis.

"We're going to find the best available athlete in the draft," Rudman said.

Margolis has declined to comment, but a group of supporters has started a public letter-writing campaign, trying to persuade trustees to reconsider his contract. Some suggest that removing Margolis would discourage large benefactors from donating the money needed to infuse new resources into the branches.

"If there is a way to reconsider this decision, I certainly hope you will seek it out," said a letter to the trustees from novelist Gregory Maguire, who donated $25,000 to the library last year.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who has appointed all nine trustees, has had a fractious relationship with Margolis, and some observers believe that underlies the move not to renew the president's contract. The two initially clashed on Margolis's first day on the job in March 1997, when Menino wanted software installed on library work stations to block pornographic websites and Margolis argued that free-speech issues would be compromised. They have since disagreed over funding, technology improvements, and expansions at branch libraries. Menino has not commented on removal of Margolis. Administration officials acknowledge there was tension, but say that did not contribute to the trustees' decision.

"There wasn't a balance between what was going on in the branches and the main library," said Alice Hennessey, the mayor's liaison with the libraries. "It's time to concentrate on the branches."

Rudman declined to answer questions about why Margolis would be unfit to take the library in a new direction. "I think Bernie Margolis has done just a wonderful job," he said. "These jobs are not lifetime tenure jobs. In the nature of things, change is good."

Margolis's supporters credit him with dealing with budget cuts and a limited staff in an age when bookstore chains have grown, Internet usage has soared, and municipal budgets have been slashed.

Circulation in the Boston library system has increased 16 percent between 2001 and 2006, with a reduction of 55 library staff positions over the same period.

But critics say Boston has neglected its branches, which are designed to serve the bulk of the city's population.

"The branch libraries here are much more thinly staffed than in a lot of other metropolitan libraries, and they have a much lower level of community connection and visible programming," said Margaret Bush, who teaches a course on public libraries at Simmons College in Boston.

While the Boston system still ranks near the top of state and national rankings in per capita budget, branch density, and the number of books per residents, it ranks 59th out of 77 urban library systems in terms of circulation, according to a 2006 Boston Public Library Foundation study.

In June, a groundbreaking ceremony was held for a new branch library in Mattapan, the city's second in at least 20 years.

Library officials want to build a new branch in Chinatown, and they are looking into consolidating two small East Boston libraries into one larger building. There are discussions about adding kiosks at several locations, such as Downtown Crossing.

Trustees also are planning a branch library at Jeremiah Burke High School, a move Margolis resisted.

Matt Viser can be reached at

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