IN: News & Features

A Call for Action: BMInt readers who care about the BPL are asked to stand up for it.


Ed. Note: Footnote updated

On April 14, the Boston City Council begins to take up the budget for FY 2011. Amidst the crisis of pending cuts are those for the Boston Public Library. Given these ominous prospects and leaving the concern over branch closings to others, BMInt has investigated what will happen specifically to the Music Department — whether there are to be cuts in staff and hours, curtailment of use of current collections and future acquisitions, cessation of  digitizing the card catalog, questionable  de-acquisitions, and further ill effects on the morale of department personnel.

Of course the BPL should assume its share of the budgetary crunches on local, state and national levels. But the BPL has taken an inordinate hit over the past seven years and should be somewhat spared at this juncture. The table, given to us through the courtesy of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau and analyzed by our leader, F. Lee Eiseman, shows:

First, the total City of Boston budget has increased 69% from 1995 to 2010, but that of the Boston Public Library has increased only 34% in the same period. That’s half as much.

Second, the percentage of the total City of Boston spending apportioned to the BPL was .8% in 2009 and .9% in 2010. The standard in the 1980s (and before and for some period after) was that the expenditures for the Boston Public Library not fall below 3% of the entire City expenditures. Extenuating facts are that more city departments have been formed in this period, and the funding to the library from one state source since 2001 goes directly to the library and is therefore not shown in the city’s budget figures. Nonetheless, as is evident, the library’s share of City funds is about one-quarter of what it had been.

How has the library been affected so far?* Already in place is the shift in BPL staff structure that has put four of the library’s impressive, enormous research collections under the umbrella of a new position, Manager of Special Collections. The departure a few years ago of the former heads (“Keepers”) of Rare Books and Prints meant these department no longer had managing curators, so the shift was easy; however, the heads of Fine Arts and Music are departments are still “Keepers,” if in name only. Their responsibilities are being curtailed.

An example: I am leading a visit of the collections of the Print Department on Thursday morning, April 15, for a group of about 12 “students” from Beacon Hill Seminars and have just learned that the Special Collections Manager has mandated that the items — over 30 prints, many large folio, and other materials — are be taken from the Cushman Room in the McKim Building through the Sargent Gallery, through the Exhibit room, through the Music and Arts Departments and into the Rare Book Room.

Not only is this an inconvenience and time-consuming for the staff, but it is never good to handle print materials more than necessary. In consideration for the security of the items, in an understaffed environment, how are they to be transported? All at once, or are they to be taken by two staff persons, so one can stay behind while the other fetches the rest of the items to be shown? If so, does this mean that the two-person Print Department would be locked? What if there are other visitors there at the time? These may seem petty considerations, but every curator of collections is trained to think of such contingencies, and for good reason. Also, in the Rare Book room there are staff and researchers who would not be happy to have in their midst, a large group, with a leader discoursing on the print collection.

The decision to move materials, BMInt has been told, is part of a “consolidation of service points”— verbiage meaning a consolidation of people. One can see down the road that materials would be delivered by one department staff person and overseen by someone in another. Who would oversee the use of the materials? The delivery-person, or someone who does not have the expertise to deal with any questions that arise? We fear that this is what is in store for all Special Collections departments — Fine Arts, Rare Books, Prints, and Music.

The Music Department will not only be affected by this new policy of consolidation, but in other ways as well. Its holdings are well known to the music world but only the catalog can be viewed online, and that, in incomplete form. Take the famous Brown Collection, which the Music Department calls “the heart” of its holdings. Allen Augustus Brown, an amateur musician and collector, gave his collection of 6,990 volumes in 1895 and tripled it up to his death in 1916. The collection continues to grow through purchases from trust funds, including the Allen A. Brown Fund, and now contains more than 40,000 books, scores, and manuscripts. Among Brown’s restrictions was the sage one that no material circulate.

Yet the inability to use the collection is legendary in the music world. Additional policies of the Music Department itself have made life difficult for music scholars. The department will photocopy pages, for an understandable fee, but if materials desired are in bound volumes, the researcher has to pay for photocopying the entire volume. That obviously puts a serious crimp on usefulness. It has prevented music sources from being shared with the larger music audience. It has driven potential users to friendlier, better equipped institutions, thereby fulfilling a self-perpetuating slow death of reader use and statistics that would impress the city decision-makers.

In an ideal world, the collections themselves would have been digitized by now and available to anyone with computer access. About $500,000 per year was dedicated for the 10-year project of copying the catalog cards — as noted above— but even this step is currently on hold.

In other words, access on line, limited at that, is curtailed, and access at the library’s Music Department itself is curtailed through consolidation and reductions in staff and hours of operation. A lose-lose situation.

What can be done? The Library needs much more advocacy. Fund-raising groups can be extremely valuable. The Associates continues to raise funds annually, as does the Boston Public Library Foundation.

Then there’s building a constituency. About 12 years into my 16 years as a board member of the Associates of the Boston Public Library, I initiated an Advisory Committee to offer advice on ways to publicize holdings of the Music Department and suggestions for fund-raising benefits. Its members at the time were Doug Briscoe, Weekend Classical Music Host, WGBH; Mark De Voto, professor of music emeritus, Tufts University; Craig Smith, conductor, Emmanuel Music; David R. Elliott, president, WHRB; Eric Jackson, host, Jazz with Eric, WGBH; Janice Del Sesto, director, Boston Lyric Opera; Peter Wolf, musician; John Harbison, composer; Fenton Hollander, president, Water Music, Inc. and Regattabar; Robert D. Levin, professor of music, Harvard University and pianist; Daniel Pinkham, composer and organist; Kenneth Schaphorst, Chair, Jazz and Improv Departments, New England Conservatory; Michael Steinberg, classical music critic; Yehudi Wyner, professor of music, Brandeis University; and James Yannatos, music dept. Harvard University and conductor, Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra.

On their advice, we held a series of events around the music of Victor Young, a large and prominent collection at the BPL. Five films of his music were shown in successive weeks, and we had a panel discussion with the Phoenix classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz, MIT Professor Martin Marks, and the former jazz critic of the Boston Globe, called “So, What’s the Score?” The benefit, Forever Young, netted $4,558 specifically for the Music Department. The Associates held its next Music Department benefit with the Handel & Haydn Society a short while ago; it netted $91.25.

Unfortunately, since I left the board, there have been no further meetings of this committee, despite several saying they would welcome one, and, as is evident to those who know the Boston musical community, some have died or retired. This board should be updated and reactivated.

The Boston Public Library Foundation is doing a superb job with nationally recognized programs for children and the library. This year, the foundation is almost doubling its gift, from $400,000 in 2009 to $700,000 in FY 2010. But the money is restricted to its special programs over and above the programs run by the library or its operating expenses.

And again, the Research Library is the forgotten child. The one group supporting the main library is the Associates. Its mission has evolved from supplying funds to Special Collections departments to funding conservation, preservation, and restoration. But funds here too cannot be used for operating expenses.

What are the possible solutions?

Michael Ross, president of the Boston City Council, said today that the Board of Trustees should take a much large role in fund-raising. “The BPL is tailor-made for philanthropy.”

(The Council has sent a strong letter to Amy Ryan, President of the BPL, warning that they will not allow closing branches without a good look at the budget. But that letter nowhere mentions the central, the research, library. Therein lies a very big problem. The branches have a very vocal advocacy, as they should. But it should not be to the detriment of the research library and its Special Collections.)

But why should the Library be dependent on raising private funds, and not the schools? or the Boston Police Department? or the Fire Department? What percentage of Boston’s taxpayers have to use the fire or police departments, say, compared to the percentage who use the library?

Not surprising, the most thoughtful idea comes from Boston’s long-time watchdog agency, the Boston Municipal Research Bureau — how to help ease the city’s budget problems is to trim budgets effectively.

“We’ve always argued that the city should have an operational audit every year of a major department by outside experts, which would generate significant justification [for the city to adopt measures so that the particular department would] operate more efficiently. Also not telling any department who’s next would create department’s interest to operate more effectively,” Tyler explained, adding, “The administration has never taken us up on this. Within the administration they have begun to make changes, consolidation of departments with similar services, but there has never been an outside assessment.”

In the meantime, the City should not be allowed to cut the budget of the Boston Public Library even further.

There is still time to register concern. “The budget is not finalized until the City Council votes on it,” Ross said.  His telephone is 617-635-4225.

Bettina A. Norton, executive editor of Boston Musical Intelligencer, in the 1980s started the Library Lobby to increase the line item for for BPL under Library of Last Recourse (a successful effort, it raised the line item from around $250,000 to over 2.3 million in that year): she subsequently ran the Examining Committee for the Library and its published report in 1984.

Note: Samuel Tyler, then and still executive director of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, provided invaluable information, as always.

*Gina Perille, the Boston Public Library spokesperson, has promised to respond with historical statistical information on the usage of the Music Research Collection, both in terms of average daily visits and average numbers of reference questions over the last 20 years. She also agreed to enlighten BMInt readers on how the recent consolidations will affect BPL Music Research users’ experiences.

You asked for information on the average amount of in-person reference questions that the Boston Public Library music department receives. I have data on that as far back as 1993 and can tell you that, on average, the music department handles 49 reference questions in person each week.   On average, the music department handles 40 email and telephone reference questions each week. [The total is 89 reference questions per week]

In terms of foot-traffic in the music department, there are not separate counters in the music department. Foot traffic or as we refer to it, “gate count,” is measured on the first floor of the Central Library in Copley Square – one set of gates is in the lobby Johnson Building and the other set of gates is in the lobby of the McKim Building.

You also asked about what changes Boston Public Library customers might see or experience if the BPL Board-recommended budget proceeds. This I will be able to answer after the library has its own internal discussions. Part of our organizational process includes discussing and negotiating changes with both our unions prior to rolling out any sort of service plan. In order to continue honoring our agreements with our unions, I have to refrain from commenting until those conversations happen. I will put a note in my calendar to follow up with you as soon as all the changes are agreed upon. I can safely anticipate this will occur prior to July.


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Toni,

    Additional information is coming down about proposed changes to the Library. The Newspaper Room will be eliminated. Newspapers will be distributed at the Periodical desk. The Microtext collection will be distributed to various combined subject departments and the Microtext Department will basically cease to exist.

    Comment by Henry Scannell — April 15, 2010 at 4:32 pm

  2. This article has not generated many comments here, but a colleague emailed me that it was picked up by Universal Hub, which HAS registered a number of comments. Some additional facts there are downright disturbing.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton, executive editor — April 16, 2010 at 11:59 am

  3. Then there are the Library’s sound collections. I have it on pretty good authority that they’re planning on divesting themselves of tens of thousands of shelf items. What shall become of these? Will they be offered to other takers? Or would the Library just rather not publicize this particular de-acquisition? And will the Music Collection be otherwise eviscerated as well?

    No Newspaper Room? How sad! That has always been a great place to roam the world.

    Comment by clarkjohnsen — April 21, 2010 at 12:19 pm

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