Friday, July 30, 2010

Looming Library Crisis in Amherst

As the proverbial wisdom has it, it takes longer to write a good short piece than a long one. Unfortunately, in attempting to cover a breaking story, one is often in a hurry.  And long ones at least have the advantage of being better able to incorporate  complexity and nuance.  The reactions of several friends (all of different political persuasions, I might add) indicated that portions of a post on the breaking news about a crisis at the Jones Library yesterday had been misunderstood.

Evidently, I tried to cover too much ground in too short a space, which, among other things, seems to have blurred for them the distinction between my views and views of others that I was summarizing. And trying to inject a note of humorous relief, e.g. by drawing the title from an innocuous  recent satirical piece that used the word, “three-headed shitstorm,” led some to think I was calling names, which I most assuredly was not. It was simply that the slang term, “shitstorm,” seemed applicable to the topic:
• “A course of action that would appear to lead to a good outcome, but when undertaken, leads to a situation that is utterly out of control beyond human comprehension”
• A screw-up of epic proportions
• “An extremely bad situation”
Obviously, the last thing I want to do is to complicate that already “extremely bad situation,” so I am perfectly happy to take down the original post and replace it with one with a less flamboyant title, if that allows me to make my points more clearly here.

They are few and simple:

(1) The heart of the piece was news of a crisis at the Jones Library:
Town officials and the press tonight received a devastating 22-page report from trustee Chris Hoffmann, detailing—painfully and painstakingly—his concerns over improprieties in the performance review of Director Bonnie Isman, and in the general behavior of the three trustees on the Evaluation Committee: Carol Gray, Pat Holland, and Sarah McKee.

Here are some highlights of the most egregious charges:

• failure to follow proper procedures in dealing with both the Director and the other trustees in the course of the review process
• attempting to coerce employees into giving negative evaluations of the Director
• misrepresenting what employees actually said in the interviews
• more generally, interfering in labor relations issues that are the preserve of Town Hall and not the trustees
• as a result, incurring two formal complaints from the Library employees' labor union
• finally, and most ominously, a heavy-handed attempt to force to the Director—whom peers regard as one of the best in the Commonwealth—to retire precipitously at the end of this year
Because the document was sent to the Jones Library Trustees, the Town Manager, the Town Clerk, the Assistant Town Manager and Finance Director, and the Select Board, it immediately became part of the public record. It was in addition sent to representatives of the press. Its content will be in all the papers soon. My post was advance reporting of important news, plain and simple.

(2) I moreover made no personal accusations against any of the trustees. My only collision with the individuals in question occurred well over a year ago, in the context of a dispute between the Historical Commission and the trustee leadership over Community Preservation Act (CPA) appropriations. The Historical Commission stands by its account of those events, which are a matter of public record. It is also water under the bridge, because we moved on. Indeed, I have worked amicably with the Trustee leadership in several capacities before and  even since that time. This spring, for example, both the Historical Commission and Select Board gladly and successfully supported additional CPA appropriations for the Library. That, too, is a matter of public record.

I referred to the incident in question, along with others, only in order to make a larger point: (a) Even as the trustees have laudably tried to serve as tireless boosters of the Library, they have also found themselves embroiled in controversies that detracted from their core mission and tarnished their reputation with a growing portion of the public. (b) Those controversies often involved conflicts over jurisdiction with other Town bodies or with other individuals and groups within the Library and thus furnish some of the essential background to the current controversy. That was a simple description of the history.

If my reading of those events was a distraction from the important issue at hand, then I am happy to omit it and refer readers directly to the relevant press reports (below).

(3) I concluded that it was dismaying to see a beloved institution torn apart and its dedicated Director treated in what seems a very shabby manner.

I stand by that, too.

I will simply add: few things would make me happier than for my fears to be proven wrong.

Press coverage of the Library:

• Bonnie Isman utilized as expert respondent in Marylaine Block, The Thriving Library:  Successful Strategies for Challenging Times (Medford, NJ:  Information Today, 2007)
• Bonnie Isman cited in Roger Mummert, "In the Valley of the Literate," New York Times, 16 Nov. 2007
• Diane Lederman, "Historical funds OK for library," Springfield Republican, 1 April 2009
• Diane Lederman "Library budget tops plan limit," Springfield Republican, 10 June 2009
• Diane Lederman, "Amherst's Jones Library Trustees to seek state waiver on funding level," Springfield Republican, 25 June 2009
• Scott Merzbach, "Library trustees eye investment shuffle," Amherst Bulletin, 17 July 2009
• Diane Lederman, "Jones Library backing sought," Springfield Republican, 22 July 2009
• Scott Merzbach, "Town Meeting OKs reduced schools' budgets," Amherst Bulletin, 26 June 2009
• Scott Merzbach,  "Suggestions sought for bequest:  Jones Library, Friends invite ideas," Amherst Bulletin, 29 April 2010
• Nick Grabbe and Scott Merzbach, "Jones seeks comments on library issues," Amherst Bulletin, 2 July 2010

[updated links]

1 comment:

LarryK4 said...

Now if you were a distinguished member of the old guard gatekeeper media who live by the motto "Never apologize, never explain," you would never have taken down your original post.

Actually, what the prints folks usually use for an excuse is that it was "hot copy."

Thank God for the internet age (or is that Al Gore we should thank?)