BPL’s special collections dilemma
The swift-moving narrative on management of the Boston Public Library is likely to take another turn this week, as a consultant’s report suggests inadequate staffing and funding may be the primary causes of the problems plaguing the facility’s special collections.
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s focus so far has been on the need for management changes. He pressured library president Amy Ryan to resign during the high drama that accompanied the loss of two valuable prints by Albrecht Durer and Rembrandt, which were subsequently found misfiled 80 feet from their storage place. At the height of the lost-and-found saga, Walsh’s chief of staff, Daniel Koh, said he and the mayor were concerned “things are not being taken as seriously as they should be.”
The Boston Globe reports today that a draft of a consultant’s report indicates the library’s 320,000 prints and drawings have been neglected for years and are in need of additional space, reorganization, and a full inventory. The draft report said “benign neglect is no longer acceptable” when it comes to the special collections.
“The Print Department cannot be expected to function effectively without better oversight, specialized departmental leadership, additional staff, and adequate space for both storage and access,” said the report, written by Martha Mahard, a Simmons College professor. Mahard was hired a year ago by Ryan.
An earlier report released on May 1 suggested the BPL may have too many employees based on a review of staffing at peer libraries. But the report, written by Chrysalis Management, noted that peer comparisons are difficult because no other library has the vast special collections that the BPL oversees.
The Chrysalis report said the bulk of the special collections consist of “invisible” items that can only be viewed with the aid of specialized librarians. “The library incurs significant costs to store and manage these items year after year with very little possibility of public use,” the report said. “Additionally, because no consolidated inventory list exists for all BPL holdings, the quantity, type, value, and condition are based largely on dated estimates.”
As the BPL debate shifts from who’s running the place to how much funding it receives, it will be interesting to see if Walsh is willing to invest more funds in collections that few members of the public ever see.
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