The Trustees of the Public Library of the City of Boston Meeting
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
Rabb Lecture Hall
Presentation by Amy E. Ryan, President
The Trustees, staff and I all know and appreciate the importance of the library in your lives. People care deeply about the Boston Public Library.
We are in this together. The vision and our discussion today is a continuation of a public process started a few years ago with the neighborhood services initiative, continuing with recent community meetings and the many public comments. This is the next step in a complex decision making process.
This afternoon, I will continue our discussion of a vision for the BPL that builds on our strengths, and pushes us forward. This vision complements the Trustees Compass Committee that is in the process of developing a set of principles for excellence that will be the subject of our annual meeting in May.
In developing this discussion, I have turned to the top experts in the field—our own staff to imagine the BPL as the best it can be.
I will also present to the Trustees for their discussion a set of measurements and other factors so we have a clear basis to make the necessary decisions as to how we align our staffing and funding to realize our vision.
Following my remarks, Chief Financial Officer Sean Nelson will provide a financial overview.
We are at a crossroads. This is a moment in time when we have the opportunity to re-shape the BPL for ourselves and for our children and their children. We all know that the world of information continuously transforms itself.
Libraries have never been more important or useful than they are today. Libraries help people make sense of the world. Up until about 1990, libraries essentially offered the same services for over a century. Within the last 20 years the rapid growth of change has been exponential.
It is an exciting time to be a librarian. When I started as a reference librarian, we used to help people search for one answer through manuals, encyclopedias, directories; now we are information navigators helping to sort through millions of hits from the internet.
Twenty years ago public libraries were installing their first public computers. Now the BPL offers 440 public computers, wireless access at all locations and our web site gets 5 million visits in a year. During the course of just this meeting, more than 2,400 visits to bpl.org will take place. If we counted the number of times people downloaded books, media and movies, it would rank 6th in circulation.
Many young adults today have used computers since kindergarten and first year college students have never used a card catalog. We know that the Massachusetts Curriculum Framework calls for computer and information literacy for students today. We owe it to the people of Boston to re-imagine the BPL into one that truly provides tomorrow’s services today. Essential to that commitment is enhancing our core services: hours, books, story times and programs, computers, research services at Copley and preservation of cultural treasures.
The Boston Public Library is well positioned to build on its strengths and move forward. Investment in the BPL since 1848 through to today is clear and tangible.
- World renowned collection.
- An architecturally distinguished Copley Library.
- Popular Mattapan Library (a true example of a 21st century library).
- Leader in digitization.
- Committed to early literacy and school success.
- And for over 160 years, a dedicated staff that values excellence and innovation.
Now we must go further. We can’t take a car designed in the 1970s onto today’s information superhighway. Now is the time to challenge ourselves to re-imagine the BPL for a successful future.
Our vision is that the Boston Public Library touches every Bostonian and is transformative in providing system-wide services in three ways: (1) in buildings, (2) online and (3) in the community.
I will start with buildings. This is about ensuring every BPL location offers the books, media, services, and programs that respond to our public—with convenient, expanded hours, and the right number of staff in the right places to assist people of all ages and from all walks of life—in a welcoming and well designed physical environment. The Copley Square Central Library will remain an intellectual cornerstone serving researchers and lifelong learners, and a guardian of our cultural treasures. We will consolidate service points but safeguard our services.
The Boston Public Libraries are staying in the neighborhoods—still the library you love and have loved since childhood. Only they could be better. But right now, we are struggling to provide the right level of staffing—we are stretched to the point where we have had to close for lunches and dinners due to inadequate staffing, positions remain vacant such as children’s librarians, front line staff and others. The status quo is not working—for the staff or the public.
We can excel if we re-align our services. Our goals for both Copley and the branches are to:
- Repurpose staff time to increase programming and classes and to form partnerships that have a direct, positive impact on the public.
- Change library hours across the system to include more evenings, Saturdays and to increase staffing at peak times like after school hours.
- Create a pool of staff who are program experts linked to services rather than locations for specialized programming like early literacy, computer skills, and book discussions.
- Increase the number of computers so people don’t have to wait in line to fill out job applications, scholarship forms, write their resumes, view pictures of their grandkids, and on and on.
Our libraries are cultural anchors and learning institutions, and we must ensure that if the sign says Boston Public Library, we have committed the resources for families, adults and kids to find it open, well stocked with books and computers, with stimulating programs and the right level of staffing.
We also serve the public online. The Boston Public Library is the gateway to knowledge and information. We are in the process of transforming services online which means redeploying resources to provide more computers; a higher level of access to online resources; and public training for people of all ages.
The BPL has to be a leader in bridging the digital divide for people of all ages. But we are lagging behind—outdated technology, not enough computers, and insufficient tech support. Our web services are closer to an abridged encyclopedia than to a full volume. We can excel if our resources follow demand. Our goals are to:
- Provide state-of-the-art technology.
- Provide training for the public.
- Develop a robust web site that serves an interactive, lively online community with book discussion, public discourse forums and user contributed content.
- Support researchers and lifelong learners with enhanced access to unique collections.
- Continue to be a leader in digitizing our cultural treasures.
- Improve access to information wherever our users are—at home, work, school, and on the go via cell phone or handheld device.
We know many people here today are online users but we also know many, many users who aren’t here today just use the library online—younger users, teachers, college students, researchers, busy parents, and people with limited mobility. Our challenge is to realign our resources to respond to the growing and ever more important demand and to bridge the digital divide.
In the Community
Along with serving people in buildings and online, a third way and perhaps the greatest potential for transformation for library staff is to be in the community, meeting people where they are.
We need to redefine the boundaries of library services. Redraw them outside the walls of our buildings through community outreach. Our current staffing model does not allow us the flexibility to visit childcares, senior centers, or community events. We have passed up partnerships due to lack of staffing to support the innovative ideas.
We can excel if we make the right choices. Our goals are to leverage our tax supported services to bring in corporate sponsors and grants that could come easily to an institution of this caliber and to connect with people beyond our walls…go to schools, into the neighborhoods, get out and about and introduce BPL to people who may not be traditional library users. This is a leap in services that will only be realized when we change our conventional staffing patterns.
This is just the beginning of building a truly 21st century library as we join with the community to forge ahead. We know this will take time. We can deliver on this vision, given our resources, if we choose to align our funding and staffing in a new way.
Now there is a sense of urgency because of the financial challenges. Budget reductions for the upcoming fiscal year will take a serious human toll. This is the second year in a row where funding has necessitated layoffs. It is especially painful to have to take severe measures because of the dedication and commitment of our employees.
But we owe it to our employees to build a financially sustainable and stable workplace. And we owe it to the citizens of Boston to deliver a stronger, better public library. That will mean re-imagining the way we deliver services—changing the way we conduct business, and consolidating our service points at Copley and in the branches. Closing some buildings is part of this discussion as is reviewing the hours options.
Some of the choices will be hard, but I am convinced that we will be positioned for the future if we align our resources for the library of tomorrow—serving the public in buildings, online and in the community.
Now I would like to talk about a methodology that measures our services, operations and proximities to other libraries. Before I do, though, we all know that every branch has an individual story, and part of the reason we are considering many data sources is that not one or two types of data tell a true story.
Please note in the PowerPoint presentation, which follows that these will be the numbers we review at www.bpl.org/budget.
Remember, we will also look to members of the public, friends and others to complete the whole picture.
The PowerPoint presentation by Chief Financial Officer Sean Nelson shows what we anticipate our financial picture to be. We will review the story behind the numbers to help us move forward on our decisions—public comments, other assets in the neighborhoods, potential partnerships and how we can continue to deliver services that aren’t building bound.