By Seth Daniel
While a great amount of attention was focused on the departure of the previous president of the Boston Public Library, a panel of highly-qualified folks have, in a much quieter way, been conducting an exhaustive public search for the new president – and the process is now progressing into the final stages.
John Palfrey, head of school at Phillips Academy in Andover and the chair of the BPL Presidential Search Committee, said this week that hundreds of hours have been spent surveying the public and staff about what they want in a library leader. With that long process complete, the search moves into a more quiet period with private candidate interviews and, eventually, a short list of finalists.
“It’s a wonderful group we have assembled and we spent the first several months on a series of listening sessions,” said Palfrey in an interview last week. “We went neighborhood to neighborhood – a couple of times in the Back Bay at the Central Library. We talked with staff. A lot of the Friends groups in particular were part of that input. We did that because we wanted to make sure everybody who wanted to be included was included. The person who takes this job is going to have to be very connected to the community. Also, a reason we took this measure twice and cut once approach is to get the job description right.”
That series of listening sessions went on for quite some time, and travelled all over the city to branches and community meetings. Palfrey said that has been a valuable process, but it has now come to an end. He hopes to have the new president in place by summer.
“The job description is now public and we are now collecting resumes and statements of interest from potential candidates,” he said. “Now we’re going to the more quiet or silent phase of the the process. We will talk with other people who are interested in the job and don’t want to be known publicly as a candidate. We will interview those people on a couple of dates in April. Our job as a search committee is to make a list of two or three candidates and submit that to the Trustees. Then, there will be a public process where the candidates present to the Trustees. The Trustees will make the choice. If all goes well, I’d like to have somebody in place some time during the summer.”
Some of the things that have been set as priorities, Palfrey said, are the branches, relationships with Boston Public Schools, the purpose of the Central Library, and being an effective manager.
Through most of the public listening sessions, Palfrey said the branches were stressed as one of the most critical pieces of the library system. He said a strong plan for those branches will be essential.
“One of the key challenges the new president will have to address is resource allocation across the city,” he said. “The library having this dynamic collection of branches is a key area. It is how many people experience the library, through the branches. It’s important to have public spaces in our communities within the libraries. Certainly, the most vocal and adamant supporters of the library during the listening sessions were the many members of the Friends groups. They have been very involved in this process and their input has been very positively received.”
Within that same discussion comes the Central Library in Copley Square, which has been in the process of renovation and repurposing over the past several years. Just recently, the new Children’s Room celebrated its first-year anniversary since re-opening and the Johnson Building continues to progress towards completion as well. At the same time, the Central Library and its collections boast some 22 million objects – including Shakespearian manuscripts and precious works of art – and is second only to the Library of Congress. So, while it increases in populist appeal, it also remains one of the most important research libraries in the world – something it has been since the 1800s.
“I would hope the Central Library is seen as a resource for the whole city and supportive of what goes on in the branches,” he said. “The renovation of the Johnson Building reaffirms the Central Library is for serious scholars and it is also for teens looking for a supportive place to learn computing or a child looking for a story time. The main library can be both. We also hope the new president sees the Central Library as a place that can draw people into the center of the City and further their exploration.”
There was also significant feedback taken into consideration regarding creating a stronger partnership with the Boston Public Schools. Many of the schools around the City don’t have school libraries and rely upon the BPL for such services, making frequent trips to the branches or promoting library cards.
“A major piece of feedback we got was to tighten the relationship between the BPL and the Boston Public Schools,” he said. “I certainly agree with that.”
Technology and its usage will also be a major piece of the formula as well. While libraries move from being stacks of paper books to electronic resource depositories and community support centers, it will be important for the next leader to understand technology and how it can serve and support the modern library. Palfrey is somewhat of an expert on the matter, having penned a book entitled, ‘Biblio Tech: Why Libraries Matter More than Ever in the Age of Google.’
“If the next person says they want the library to remain as it was since 1852, that would be an enormous mistake,” he said. “You would lose an entire generation of people and public support too…Technology is the X-factor in that. The next leader does not need to be a technology expert, but savvy and open to the possibilities technology affords – as well as the limitations of technology today.”
Likely one of the most important functions, however, will not be charisma or public presence or some other like quality. Rather, Palfrey said it would be someone who has vision and is a good manager. The previous president had resigned last summer in a controversy over what was believed to be lost or stolen paintings in the collection – works of art that were very valuable. The paintings were eventually located, but it brought up questions about the management of the collection. a“The next president will be both a leader and a manager,” he said. “We need a leader who can articulate a vision for the library and motivate people to be excited about that vision. In terms of being a manager, this is an extremely complex organization. There are more than 400 staff members, two unions and people doing a wide variety of things. The person need to be a hugely competent manager…They need to ask if we’re doing things the right way with our collection. Are the environmental conditions ok? Do we have the right people in place? Do they need to be an expert in collection management? No. Does the president need to be a good enough manager to find someone who is? Absolutely. And support them too…Leadership and management is more important here than having a personal style.”
For Palfrey, the past several months have been quite a joy, he said, noting that he has loved the BPL long before taking on the chair of the Search Committee.