Friday, September 24, 2010

New Lecture Series: Priceless: New Approaches to Historic Preservation in the 21st Century

Great series historic preservation lectures to begin today; about to head off to the first of them.

Diane Lederman of the Republican provided a schedule of events, as well as this introduction:
AMHERST - A talk by the designer of the World Trade Center Site Memorial will highlight a series of lectures this fall at the University of Massachusetts on current architectural issues.

Called “Priceless: New Approaches to Historic Preservation in the 21st Century,” the series is free and open to the public. All talks begin at 4 p.m.

The new series ties into a new preservation initiative at the university, said Max Page, the director of historic preservation initiatives for the College of Humanities and Fine Arts.

The university is now offering a Master of Science in Design and Historic Preservation.

The series is intended for everyone. “Preservation is the way most people interact with the past,” Page said. (read the rest)

Here is the text of the announcement from UMass:

Priceless: New Approaches to Historic Preservation in the 21st Century

A Lecture Series of the new Historic Preservation Initiative in the Architecture + Design Program and the College of Humanities and Fine Arts

All lectures (except for Jim Wald and Michael Arad) take place at 4 pm in Herter Hall, Room 231 on the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus.

September 24 Liz Ševčenko, “Sites of Conscience: Historic Preservation for Human Rights”

Liz Ševčenko is founding Director of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, a network of historic sites that foster public dialogue on pressing human rights and social justice issues. She works with initiatives in more than forty countries to design programs and practices that reflect on past struggles and inspire public involvement in addressing their contemporary legacies.

September 30 Michael Arad, “Reflecting Absence: Designing the National September 11th Memorial”

Michael Arad is a partner at Handel Architects LLP. His design for the World Trade Center Site Memorial, "Reflecting Absence," was chosen by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation in January 2004. Prior to winning the Memorial competition, Mr. Arad worked as an architect for the New York City Housing Authority and for Kohn Pedersen Fox, where he worked on several major projects, including Union Station Tower, a mixed-use 108-story skyscraper in Hong Kong, and Espirito Santo Plaza, a 37-story tower in Miami that won the AIA New York Chapter Design Award Citation in 2001.

Co-sponsored by the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning and the Dartmouth Club of the Pioneer Valley.

Note: This talk is in Hills North, room 105 at 4 pm.

October 1 Jim Wald, “The Politics and Practice of Preservation in Amherst”

Jim Wald is a professor at Hampshire College, Director of the Hampshire College Center for the Book, member of the Amherst Board of Selectmen, and Chair of the Historical Commission for the Town of Amherst.

Note: This will be a walking tour, leaving from the Amherst Town Hall, 4 Boltwood Avenue at 1 pm.

October 15 Daniel Bluestone, “Forming Attachments: The Building and Preservation of Belmead (1845-2010)”

Daniel Bluestone is Associate Professor and Director of the Historic Preservation Program at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Buildings, Landscapes, and Memory: Case Studies in Historic Preservation (2011), and Constructing Chicago. He has also led several award-winning efforts to preserve significant historic sites in Chicago and Charlottesville.

October 27 Gerald Frug, “The Architecture of Governance”

Gerald Frug Gerald Frug is the Louis D. Brandeis Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. He served as a Special Assistant to the Chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and as Administrator of the Health Services Administration of the City of New York. He is the author of dozens of articles and book chapters on local government, as well as of Local Government Law (2010, with Richard Ford and David Barron), City Bound: How States Stifle Urban Innovation (2008, with David Barron), and City Making: Building Communities without Building Walls (1999).

October 29 Sergio Kiernan “The Battle for Preservation in Buenos Aires”

Sergio Kiernan is the Architecture Editor of Página 12, the foremost investigative paper in Argentina, and the author of Classical and Vernacular: The Architecture of Alejandro Moreno” and SYASA 20 Years, about the restoration of the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires.

November 12 Richard Todd, “Preserving Appearances: On Artifice and Authenticity”

Richard Todd has spent many years as a magazine and book editor at The Atlantic Monthly, The New England Monthly, Worth, Civilization, and Houghton Mifflin. He has written scores of articles on a wide range of cultural themes for Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and the Columbia
Journalism Review, among others. He is a professor at Goucher College and author most recently of The Thing Itself: On the Search for Authenticity.

November 19 David Fixler, “Preserving the Modern: Case Studies from Massachusetts”

David Fixler is a principal of design and preservation at Einhorn Yaffee Prescott AE/PC in Boston, President of DOCOMOMO-US/New England, the international organization dedicated to preserving and documenting the modern movement, and author of numerous articles on the preservation of modern architecture. He recently led a team that completed a major preservation planning report for the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus.

The series is made possible with the support of the Dean of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts, the Dean of the Graduate School, the Department of Art, Architecture, and Art History, the Department of History, the Department of Political Science, the Legal Studies Program, the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning, the Dartmouth Club of Pioneer Valley, and Hancock Shaker Village.

For more information, please contact Max Page, Professor of Architecture and History, and Director of Historic Preservation Initiatives for the College of Humanities and Fine Arts, at, and visit our website at

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Tuesday Night Brief: Historical Commission Completes Hearing on Hawthorne Farm; Tables Deliberation Till Next Meeting

A few days ago, the Gazette reported on debates over demolition or reuse of an old farmhouse on property the town of Amherst had purchased for affordable housing and recreation, to which I also alluded in my last piece. The town had researched the structure and presented reports suggesting that adaptive reuse was impractical and prohibitively expensive, for which reason it was requesting demolition (which could entail moving rather than demolishing the house:  under the law, the former technically constitutes demolition, as well).
the public--and the applicant, Director of Conservation and Development David Ziomek (in white shirt) in the Town Room last night
The demolition delay meeting last night was a very long one, due to the extensive public comment from the audience: mainly abutters, but also some members and former members of the Community Preservation Act Committee, under whose auspices the town had purchased the property. The comment was overwhelmingly in favor of saving the house. Some speakers questioned the calculations and reasoning of town staff.  Given the late hour, the Commission decided to complete the public hearing and take up deliberation on the official historical significance of the structure at its next meeting on October 5.  Stay tuned.

* * *

Here, the backgrounder from the recent Gazette:

Amherst Historical Commission to weigh demolition of 1850s farmhouse on East Pleasant Street

Staff Writer

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

AMHERST - A Greek Revival farmhouse that has been a fixture along East Pleasant Street for more than 150 years could be torn down in the coming weeks.

The Historical Commission Tuesday will hold a demolition delay hearing on the request to remove the 1850s farmhouse, as well as two barns, from the streetscape at 235 East Pleasant St.

The hearing begins at 7:30 p.m. at Town Hall.

Because Amherst acquired the property from the Hawthorne family this year, the town's own Conservation and Development Office has filed the request for the demolition permit.

Town Manager Larry Shaffer said tours of the home indicate there is little salvageable and that the sooner the home is demolished, the sooner the town can begin preparations for constructing what he calls new "workforce housing" on the site. This would be aimed at people whose earnings are below the area median salaries.

There is no timetable for building this housing, though, as the town needs to find an agency with which to partner.

The town purchased the property primarily because of its proximity to the Wildwood School, which makes it an ideal place for constructing new playing fields. A secondary consideration was the possibility of affordable or low-income housing.

Shaffer said it is unrealistic to use the home just as a rental. "The town didn't buy the property to be landlords," Shaffer said.

His concern is the maintenance cost, and the longer the farmhouse remains standing, the more it will deteriorate, causing blight and becoming an attractive place for squatters.

Until new housing and the playing fields are built, the property will remain vacant.

"When the farmhouse is demolished, it will be an attractive site," Shaffer said. "We want to be responsible property owners."

Historical Preservation Stories: coming attractions

As I considered the issues showing up on the Amherst Historical Commission's docket and began to prepare my preservation class for the fall semester, it seemed to me that the question of demolitions of historic structures would furnish material for several brief posts as well as a longer, more synthetic one.

The immediate impetus was the destruction, this past spring, of a notable mid-nineteenth century house in the center of town, for creation of a private parking lot.

 The demolition was, to my mind, and in the opinion of many, senseless, from the standpoints of both preservation practice and sounding town planning.  That said, not only did the building not suit the plans of the property owners: its condition was only fair to poor, and no one had been able to develop an economically viable use for it.  This epitomizes the dilemmas that preservationists and planners face. The image of a dramatic battle pitting heroic and idealistic preservationists against mercenary developers and philistine property-owners is a caricature or a fantasy.  In very few cases are the issues so clear—and even when they are, the choices are not.  Usually, in fact, the choices are difficult, and many end up as proverbial "judgment calls," in which one's verdict hangs not just on subjective preferences, but on contingent factors such as finances, the need to prioritize or triage, and so forth.  Just the other day, when describing one such example to an acquaintance, she replied with a sigh, "Yes, reminds me of the days when I worked for the National Register of Historic Places, and we'd say to one another, 'so, what's your painful choice of the week?'"

I'm now more convinced than ever of the need for such a longer piece because, as chance would have it, the Historical Commission joined the list of town bodies that have been making the news in recent months.  Demolition delays imposed on a wooden trolley-car barn and an extensive ornamental fence have generated some controversy.  In the meantime, plans for creation of a local historic district—which would provide stronger but more subtle tools than just demolition delay—move slowly forward. And just this week, we took up the issue of whether an old farm property purchased by the town for purposes of open space/recreation and affordable housing should entail repurposing or demolition of the farmhouse (a brief note on the latter in a moment).

At any rate, more on all this soon. I've got to finish preparing for an outdoor class session in our historic 1730 West Cemetery and the later Wildwood park cemetery.
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9-11 in Amherst and the Upper Pioneer Valley

North Amherst Farmhouse:  quiet commemoration on the anniversary weekend

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Marla Miller on Betsy Ross on C-SPAN 2

Speaking of the flag, and related issues:  One of the occasional advantages of being a night owl is the satisfaction of finding that rare late-night television program worth watching (they are rare indeed, so the pleasure is all the greater). In this case, it's  our University of Massachusetts colleague Marla Miller speaking on her new book about Betsy Ross at (where else?) the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia on C-SPAN 2 (broadcast of an event from April 28).

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Labor Day Postscript

Just after I posted my little Labor Day piece, The Nation came out with a series of articles that fortuitously complemented the ones I cited, so I simply mention them here:

• John Nichols (echoing Paul Krugman), the "Right Response to Unemployment is More Stimulus Spending"

• Johsua Clover, "Busted: Stories of the Financial Crisis" ("The one thing that a thousand books written from within the financial crisis won't contemplate is the possibility of an unhappy ending for capitalism.")

• Katha Pollitt, "It's Better Over There" ("In Germany, a strong social safety net keeps people from plunging into the abyss. Why are we so averse to having that security in the United States?")

Here in Amherst, a local resident on the Town Meeting listserve cited the words of Robert Kennedy on our social crisis in 1968. He may well have pulled the excerpt from piece by Michael Moore and others who circulated it that weekend, but here's a longer passage, with a link to the full text from the Kennedy Library:
And if we seem powerless to stop this growing division between Americans, who at least confront one another, there are millions more living in the hidden places, whose names and faces are completely unknown - but I have seen these other Americans - I have seen children in Mississippi starving, their bodies so crippled from hunger and their minds have been so destroyed for their whole life that they will have no future. I have seen children in Mississippi - here in the United States - with a gross national product of $800 billion dollars - I have seen children in the Delta area of Mississippi with distended stomachs, whose faces are covered with sores from starvation, and we haven't developed a policy so we can get enough food so that they can live, so that their children, so that their lives are not destroyed, I don't think that's acceptable in the United States of America and I think we need a change.
I have seen Indians living on their bare and meager reservations, with no jobs, with an unemployment rate of 80 percent, and with so little hope for the future, so little hope for the future that for young people, for young men and women in their teens, the greatest cause of death amongst them is suicide. . . . .
I don't think that's acceptable and I think the United States of America - I think the American people, I think we can do much, much better. And I run for the presidency because of that, I run for the presidency because I have seen proud men in the hills of Appalachia, who wish only to work in dignity, but they cannot, for the mines are closed and their jobs are gone and no one - neither industry, nor labor, nor government - has cared enough to help.
I think we here in this country, with the unselfish spirit that exists in the United States of America, I think we can do better here also.
I have seen the people of the black ghetto, listening to ever greater promises of equality and of justice, as they sit in the same decaying schools and huddled in the same filthy rooms - without heat - warding off the cold and warding off the rats.
If we believe that we, as Americans, are bound together by a common concern for each other, then an urgent national priority is upon us. We must begin to end the disgrace of this other America.
And this is one of the great tasks of leadership for us, as individuals and citizens this year. But even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction - purpose and dignity - that afflicts us all. Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product - if we judge the United States of America by that - that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.
In the meantime, we heard that percentage of Americans living in poverty (one in seven people, or some 44 million individuals) is now the highest in fifteen years.  The critical social and political thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries may not have had all the answers for all time, but at least they understood that there was a problem.

Monday, September 6, 2010

What's Left? Squeezing the Workers Out of Labor Day

Leave it to the increasingly irrelevant New York Times. I am not sure which is more impressive:  the ability to produce a strikingly vapid and incoherent editorial that will be acclaimed as profound wisdom, or simply to pack such an amazing amount of stupidity and insensitivity into such a small space.

In "Labor Day, Now and Then," the Olympian and anonymous editors gravely and avuncularly explain that a lot has changed since the origins of the holiday in 1882.  The words of AFL founder Peter McGuire, about honoring those "who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold" ring hollow:
There is not so much delving and carving these days, and nature doesn’t seem quite as rude as it once did. Labor Day has expanded well beyond the realms of organized labor, and what was once a “workingmen’s” holiday is now a respite for nearly everyone with a Monday job.
So: nature is tamed (read: frontier closed, and we mourn an environment exploited and despoiled), workers don't labor at anything too strenuous (read: we have deindustrialized but have not yet come to terms with the social inequities of the new service and information economy), and we all work at regimented jobs and are burnt out (read: Marxists actually did predict the proletarianization of the work force: almost no one is any longer an independent producer, and alienation reigns).

No mention of social problems. No mention of unemployment. No discussion of why union membership is declining and hostility to organized labor is growing.  No mention of quality of life issues. For that, you'd need to turn elsewhere altogether, for example, to Thomas Geoghan's Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?: How the European Model Can Help You Get a Life:
European social democracy – particularly Germany’s – offers some tantalizing solutions to our overworked age. In comparison to the U.S., the Germans live in a socialist idyll. They have six weeks of federally mandated vacation, free university tuition, nursing care, and childcare.
(The issues surrounding productivity are complex, but the basic contrast in benefits and quality of life is striking.) But no, the Times intones:
That is perhaps quite enough to think about on this Labor Day, this line in the beach sand between summer and whatever comes after summer but before true autumn. If Labor Day feels like a comma in the year and not a semicolon — like Thanksgiving or Christmas — it’s probably all to the good. We need a holiday that needs no preparation, which is a true holiday indeed.
Thanksgiving and Christmas involve complex meals and preparation. Hey, this is a barbecue holiday—cool.  The message: Don't worry, be happy. Let's eat (as long as we don't have to spend too much time cooking). Uplifting indeed.

Over on the other side of the sheet, where the signed pieces appear, things are better (is that what they mean by plausible deniability?).  Nobel laureate and economist Paul Krugman, pounding out a theme he has been drumming for some time, warned against repeating the mistakes of the Great Depression:  the economy remains sluggish not because the stimulus package was too big and ineffectual but because it was too small. In 1937, he reminds us, President Roosevelt disastrously heeded public opinion and the advice of narrow-minded policymakers and "pulled back fiscal stimulus too soon." The economy stalled—and his party lost seats.  Only World War II saved us, because it in effect forced the federal government to borrow "an amount equal to roughly twice the value of G.D.P. in 1940 — the equivalent of roughly $30 trillion today":
Had anyone proposed spending even a fraction that much before the war, people would have said the same things they’re saying today. They would have warned about crushing debt and runaway inflation. They would also have said, rightly, that the Depression was in large part caused by excess debt — and then have declared that it was impossible to fix this problem by issuing even more debt.

But guess what? Deficit spending created an economic boom — and the boom laid the foundation for long-run prosperity. Overall debt in the economy — public plus private — actually fell as a percentage of G.D.P., thanks to economic growth and, yes, some inflation, which reduced the real value of outstanding debts. And after the war, thanks to the improved financial position of the private sector, the economy was able to thrive without continuing deficits.

The economic moral is clear: when the economy is deeply depressed, the usual rules don’t apply. Austerity is self-defeating: when everyone tries to pay down debt at the same time, the result is depression and deflation, and debt problems grow even worse. And conversely, it is possible — indeed, necessary — for the nation as a whole to spend its way out of debt: a temporary surge of deficit spending, on a sufficient scale, can cure problems brought on by past excesses.
The challenge, in other words, is more political than economic.

And in "That '70s Feeling," Jefferson Cowie, a professor of labor history at Cornell (see his new book, and the summary from Salon, below), takes up the cudgels to argue for paying serious attention to the effects of labor policy on the ground. In a sort of political economy mashup, he refers to the recent meltdown of Jet Blue flight attendant Steven Slater and notes:
The press immediately drew parallels between Mr. Slater’s outburst and two iconic moments of 1970s popular culture: Howard Beale’s “I’m mad as hell” rant from the 1976 film “Network” and Johnny Paycheck’s 1977 anthem of alienation, “Take This Job and Shove It.”
The '70s, he said, began on a note of militancy.  However, "Most workers" (cf. the piece on German labor, cited above) "weren't angry over wages, though, but rather the quality of their jobs."  Even then, the other two icons of cultural protest, like Slater's fit, were psychological gestures rather than political actions.  Today, wages have stagnated, and no one seems to care about either pay or labor conditions.

And, precisely because (as the Times observes, while totally missing the point) labor issues are no longer about a proletarian class and wage labor in the classic sense, we should take them seriously:
The overt class conflict of the late ’70s ended a while ago. Workers have learned to internalize and mask powerlessness, but the internal frustration and struggle remain. Any questions about quality of work life, the animating issue of 1970s unrest, have long since disappeared — despite the flat-lining of wages in the decades since. Today the concerns of the working class have less space in our civic imagination than at any time since the Industrial Revolution.

Occasionally a rebel shatters the silence. Like Steven Slater, though, they get more publicity than political traction. Many things about America have changed since the late ’70s, but the soundtrack of working-class life, sadly, remains the same.
What's left?  Not much.  Three very different but sad comments on our state of affairs this Labor Day.

I have written earlier about the contingencies and tragedies that led America to celebrate the worker on a day other than the one dedicated to that purpose almost everywhere else in the world. That said, there is something appealing about the sequence of warm-weather holidays on which we mark our historical experience and fly the flag. Other countries would have known how to exploit this rhythm symbolically and practically.

"Commas" and "semicolons"? Why think small, on the level of the sentence, as the Times does? Why not bookends? Our cultural if not geophysical summer is bounded by tributes to those who forged, built, and defended the country:  Memorial Day at one end and Labor Day at the other (with July 4th in between).  Imagine the potential if we took those two holidays—which in effect fall outside our school year—as opportunities for a different sort of education and inculcation of civic spirit as we enjoy the pleasures of freedom and security, nature and community, and the respite from work. 

Talk about lost opportunities. In more than one sense.
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Select Board Remains Calm and Collegial but Courts Controversy Over Commemorative Flags for 9-11 Anniversary

Although the Select Board has been maintaining its reputation as a calm, collegial, and prudent organ of town government, we at least dipped our collective toes into the tide of controversy at a special meeting on Thursday night.

In the wake of the Town Manager’s decision to retire, we echoed uniformly enthusiastic citizen comment in praise of Assistant Town Manager John Musante, though postponing any formal decision regarding the succession until our next regularly scheduled meeting, so as to allow for maximum public input (1, 2). Consensus and satisfaction reigned. The controversy involved the (apparently eternal) question of whether and how to mark the anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

"Amherst Select Board rejects resident Larry Kelley's request to fly commemorative American flags on Sept. 11," read the article title.

The talkbacks on the newspaper web page contained the predictable overwhelmingly hostile comment in often venomous terms. One may think what one will of the decision, but it is certainly regrettable that some people believe Amherst declines to fly the American flag, which it certainly does not. The flag, as was pointed out at the meeting (and in at least one newspaper article) flies every day in front of Town Hall and at fire and police stations. The debate turned only on the display of additional commemorative flags on the date in question.

true, the UN flag flies in Amherst (at left), but not in place of the US flag (at right)
beneath the US flag flies the Vietnam POW-MIA flag
 Here’s what happened.

On Monday, resident Larry Kelley, as he had promised, brought forward his annual request that commemorative American flags be flown on September 11 (video here). Because he did so during public comment rather than in the framework of a formal agenda item announced in advance, Chair Stephanie O’Keeffe explained that, under the Open Meeting Law, we could only hear but not take action on the request. The unexpected announcement of the Town Manager’s retirement later that evening then necessitated a special meeting, which, I suggested, could provide an opportunity to address the flag request, as well.

The history of the flag issue is a long and needlessly contentious or embarrassing one. As those who follow Amherst politics will know, it began with a combination of unfortunate timing and intemperate remarks. On September 10, 2001, a Select Board discussion of a request for public display of special commemorative American flags beyond the nominally authorized dates prompted some public comment highly critical of both the flag and the country. Although only a few individuals made the  remarks in question and the town policy had nothing to do with an event that had not yet happened, the resultant press coverage was a PR disaster for the town. In 2002 and 2003, the Select Board voted to fly additional flags on the anniversary of the attacks. Thereafter, opinions about the appropriate means of public commemoration diverged.

In 2007, Town Meeting rejected Mr, Kelley’s warrant article requesting the annual display of the additional flags on the anniversary date. In 2008, faced with another request from Mr. Kelley, the Select Board opted for a compromise that observers variously viewed as either Solomonic or moronic: because only one third of Town Meeting members had voted for the warrant article, it was decided that we would henceforth fly the commemorative flags on September 11 only every third year.

Chair Stephanie O’Keeffe began Thursday’s meeting by reviewing the above history of flag policy and controversy.

I spoke briefly in favor of hearing Mr. Kelley’s request, for three simple reasons:
1) We should make every effort to address citizen requests.
2) The 2008 compromise was not really satisfactory on logical or other grounds. Either the event was worth commemorating, or it was not.
3) Congress had declared and presidents had proclaimed the date "Patriot Day" in 2001, and in 2009, a "National Day of Service and Remembrance," as well.  President Obama's proclamation called the occasion, on which flags are to fly at half-staff, "an opportunity to salute the heroes of 9/11, recapture the spirit of unity and compassion that inspired our Nation following the attacks, and rededicate ourselves to sustained service to our communities."
Mr. Kelley then spoke at some length in favor of his measure, (video here) describing key historical tragedies, from the Kennedy assassination to the Munich Olympic massacre and the Oklahoma City bombing, which had influenced his world view. As a teenager, he had been dismayed to see the once peaceful world of sport become a battleground. And, despite his sympathy for the cause of Irish Catholics, he had been revolted when the IRA turned to wanton terror against civilians. The 9-11 terror attacks were for him the culmination of that murderous evolution and deserving of permanent commemoration.

• Select Board member Diana Stein noted that she was perhaps one of the few here who had had a family member in lower Manhattan on that day, still traumatized by the events. She also had a relative currently serving in the military. She was  opposed to anything that might seem celebratory and would consent only to flying flags at half-staff.

• Select Board member Aaron Hayden began by noting that he had lost two close friends on 9-11: one in one of the towers, and one in one of the aircraft. He took an entirely original approach, saying that he would fly commemorative flags neither on 9-11 nor on some of the currently designated days. Instead, he proposed (along with rationales for each): Presidents’ Day, Memorial Day, July 4, 22 September (women get the vote), 20 November (Gettysburg), and 9 December (Human Rights Day). Ms. O’Keeffe reminded him that we could address only the issue on the agenda, and not craft a whole new holiday calendar

In public comment, labor activist and union president Tina Swift, sitting amicably next to Mr. Kelley and noting that she often disagreed with him on other political issues, spoke warmly in favor of his proposal: “This flag represents us, it represents all of us, in our diversity.” 9-11 was, she said, “the American Holocaust.” The comparison is, in strict historical terms, Inappropriate, but she indicated that she meant it in a psychological sense: the most deadly and traumatic event in recent US history. John Coull likewise supported the request: it is “reasonable” and does no harm, whereas the annual debate is “wasteful” and the current “compromise borders on the silly.”

Chair Stephanie O’Keeffe then noted that she came from a patriotic family (Mr. Coull is her father); in fact, she herself flew the flag every day at her home. However, she recognized that the additional official display of the flag in the town had become a contentious issue, and so, she necessarily made a distinction between her personal views and public policy.

• Select Board member Diana Stein moved that we maintain the current policy. The motion found no second.

• Chair Stephanie O’Keeffe then moved that we mark the occasion only at milestone intervals of 5 years: thus, starting on the tenth anniversary in 2011.

Select Member Alisa Brewer spoke against the motion, saying, “I just have a really hard time saying no” to a reasonable citizen request, “when it does no harm.” I concurred. I could see no objection to flying the flag if requested to do so, and it seemed to me that if a tragedy was worth commemorating, then it was worth doing so every year. The two of us had independently found and circulated President Obama’s proclamation. Its call for public service as a form of commemoration seemed an admirable idea in itself and one around which Amherst residents of various persuasions could, one hoped, come together.

The O’Keeffe motion passed by a vote of 3-2, with Hayden, O’Keeffe, and Stein in favor. Ms. Brewer and I voted “nay” for the aforementioned reasons.

It’s a shame that the town cannot manage to come together on this issue one way or another. That said, it is encouraging that the debates that did take place—frustrating as they may have been to some on all sides—turned on rather narrow philosophical or procedural issues. There were no discourteous attacks on individuals. There was no ugly comment, from either Select Board or general public, about the flag and the country, of the sort that so embarrassed us in 2001 on the eve of the terrorist attacks. On the contrary, everyone who spoke honored the victims, just as we did on Memorial Day. And, on September 11, even though the special flags will not adorn the light poles (as they do today, on Labor Day), the large American flag will fly in front of Town Hall as it does every day.  There will be moreover a commemorative event at the main fire station, just one of several in the region.

All in all, as several citizens told us, it was still a pretty calm, rational, and respectful discussion of a controversial issue. If you're looking for real political controversy, you might try gazing across the river to Northampton, where the city council has been debating an end to funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the process generating even more comment.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Jones Library: The (Real, Final?) Wrap-Up?

Amherst, 13-27 August

As I suggested in the last post, the lengthy and supposedly climactic meeting of the Jones Library Trustees on Friday the 13th did not quite close the book on the controversy involving Director Bonnie Isman and the trustee Evaluation Committee.

I have been told that there was yet another, arguably even more confrontational meeting on Saturday, the 14th, at which residents more sympathetic to the trustee majority also for the first time made their voices clearly heard during public comment. As I was not present, I have nothing more to report, other than that the gathering evidently yielded no major decisions and certainly did not bring closure to the controversy.

The editorial in the Amherst Bulletin the following week sharply criticized trustee behavior.  Some highlights:
The Jones Library Board of Trustees has turned the evaluation of Director Bonnie Isman into an unfortunate public spectacle, alienating employees and sullying the reputation of a dedicated public servant.

Isman seems to have done an admirable job in her 30 years as library director. She is respected among library directors across the state, and has recognized the need of libraries to adapt to computer technology. She has the support of employees, eight of whom have made a public statement of no confidence in the evaluation process.

That is not to say that the board doesn't have concerns about Isman's performance, or that there are no areas she needs to address.

But the process that began in January has lasted much too long. There have been 50 meetings of the trustees' three-member evaluation committee, lasting more than 115 hours. How can it possibly take that long to prepare a performance review for a library director? What message is being sent as the process drags on?
. . . . [the editorial summarizes the various positions in the controversy]
On this page last week, Holland, Gray and McKee wrote that in conducting Isman's evaluation they have "learned more about what is working well with the libraries and what could use improvement."

It is time to reveal those findings to taxpayers and library patrons so that appropriate decisions can be made out in the open.

Some of the trustees seem to want authority over staffing and budget decisions. Some have tried to write job descriptions and sit in on job interviews. They have told Isman how they think money should be spent after the budget has been finalized.

Trustees should not get involved in the day-to-day operations of the library. Their role is to set policy, make serving people the priority, and hire a director, who is then responsible for staffing.

If the trustees believe there are problems that justify their intervention, they should make them public. It is time to bring the director's review process to a close.
Ms. Gray departed for study in Egypt on the 17th, the issue of her remote participation in trustee meetings unresolved, pending a decision from the Attorney General. We all wish her and her family productive endeavors and a safe stay.

You can follow her experiences on the new blog that she created.

Later that week week, an article by Scott Merzbach in the Amherst Bulletin took up the subject of her departure and any future role on the trustees, outlining the competing views. A week later, the editors even weighed in on this aspect of the controversy.  After sensibly delineating the general pros, cons, and ambiguities of the controversial revised state Open Meeting Law, they chose to take as their sole concrete example the case of Trustee Carol Gray:
The idea of remote participation by an elected board member -- the question now faced by Jones Library trustees -- is among the provisions needing clarification. In this age of video conferencing and services like Skype that allow people to talk and see each other computer to computer, provisions for remote participation on occasion seem sensible.
However, the paper endorsed the concept only under specific circumstances, noting the political as well as practical complications in the case under consideration:
In our opinion, remote participation should be for limited duration, during emergency situations when physical attendance is not possible. A board member who winters in Florida or takes a year abroad should not qualify for remote participation. In Gray's case, while we appreciate her civic interest, she cannot effectively engage with the community, whom she serves, or interact with staff, when she is away for such a long period. Given the current controversy over the trustees' evaluation of Library Director Bonnie Isman, an issue Gray is deeply involved with, remote participation becomes even more problematic.
And there the matter rested. There was, I think, not just the hope, but also the sense that things are improving or would do so. Despite or because of the unusually acrimonious tone of the most recent meetings, the points had been made, the emotional energies exhausted.

Ms. Gray’s departure perhaps fortuitously provided a sort of caesura that might allow tempers to cool and other, more mundane business to take precedence. When Trustee Hoffmann announced that the Evaluation Committee had dissolved, he was cautiously optimistic: Everyone, he said, was trying to rebuild trust and become a team again, both among the trustees and between trustees and staff. Some had already had what he described as tentative but cordial private exchanges about the controversies of recent months. He expressed the hope that the five trustees still in Amherst could become a functional board again. "If we disagree, we'll disagree about policy, not about our powers as trustees."

Indeed: One can hope, at least.

* * *


A few friends (and others) have asked me why I persist in writing about this topic.  The answer is simple:  (1) The story is Amherst news. (2)  Books and libraries are at the center of my professional activity. 

(1) This controversy, no less than those involving the School Committee, the Planning Board, and the Town Manager, has caught and held the public attention in recent months.  The Daily Hampshire Gazette, the Amherst Bulletin, and the Springfield Republican have covered the story extensively.  This month alone, it has earned the unusual distinction of being the subject of two pointed Bulletin editorials (1, 2).

When it stops being news, there will be no more need to write about it.  And believe me, I would much rather—for a variety of reasons—devote my time to writing about other things.

(2)  I am a cultural historian, one of whose research and teaching specialties is the "history of the book," meaning the study of written communication from script and print to "new media."  Since 1998, I have directed the Hampshire College Center for the Book, established through a grant from the MacArthur Foundation to the President of the College.  In that capacity, I also served as co-organizer of the series of symposia and lectures in our three-year project on "Reimagining the Library," supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (1, 2, 3).  At present, I serve on the college's Library Advisory Committee.  In the wider world of the book, I serve as Treasurer and member of the governing Board of the Massachusetts Center for the Book. We are an affiliate of the Library of Congress, and our mission statement explains, "In all of our work, we emphasize the central role libraries play in civic and cultural life."  The Chair of our Board is the Director of the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners.   I also serve as Treasurer and member of the Executive Council of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing (SHARP), the leading international organization in the field of book studies.  The hosts and sponsors of our annual conferences often include leading academic or national libraries: e.g. the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, National Library of the Netherlands; the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford; and this summer, the Finnish National Library. Next year, we meet in Washington D.C. under the sponsorship of the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution Libraries, and the Folger Shakespeare Library and Institute.

As Stalin liked to say:  "Clear, one would think."

* * *

Recent press coverage:

• Editorial:  "Time to wrap up library director's review," Amherst Bulletin, 13 August
• Scott Merzbach, "Trustee wants to hold seat despite absence:  Library board member Carol Gray plans to attend meetings via Skype," Amherst Bulletin, 20 August
• Editorial, "Open Meeting Law shifts need clarification," Amherst Bulletin, 27 August
• "Correction" [re: incorrect quotation of Trustee Chair Pat Holland regarding remote participation in meetings], Amherst Bulletin, 27 August
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Friday the 13th: Unlucky Day for Jones Library as Crisis Reaches Climax

Here, as promised, the wrap-up of the Jones Library controversy:

Meeting of the Trustees, 13 August

Well, I’ve filled out my first postcard—have you?

Friday the Thirteenth did indeed prove to be an unlucky day for the Jones Library Trustees, who held their tensest meeting yet. They were subjected to a barrage of public criticism, the majority of it from big guns in the library community. It was probably not how they expected the day to go, for they began with what they evidently considered a preemptive attack.

Addressing the 30-odd people in the audience as the session began (fifteen minutes late), Chair Pat Holland explained, for the benefit of those present for purposes of public comment, that  she would read a letter from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, just recently received. It was from the desk of Rob Maier, Director of the Board, and contained MBLC’s response to the citizen petition asking for creation of a special committee to review the practices at the Jones, particularly the Director evaluation process, and more generally, the relation between trustees, director, and staff. (For the record, I know Rob Maier because he is also the Chair of the Board of the Massachusetts Center for the Book, on which I serve. He is a model of calm demeanor and common sense.)

The letter explained, concerning the relationship between trustees and director, ”there is extensive professional literature on these roles and it is remarkably consistent”:
• There is a clear distinction between governance and management: one party sets the policies and the other carries them out.
• The board does not determine policy independent of the director, and the director does not carry out policy independent of the board (he enclosed documents on this issue).
• MBLC does not have the authority or the staff to carry out investigations of individual institutions or trustees, and his suggestion was therefore to engage a consultant (he would be happy to recommend one via the new regional system) to work with all parties in order to address “both process and content and to establish a clearer understanding of the lines of communication” among director, trustees, and staff.
• His concern about a review committee was that it would take too long both to form itself and to reach a decision. Time was of the essence, and for that reason, a single consultant was the simpler and preferable choice.
• He concluded, “I congratulate you on confronting these issues so that you can focus on services that your community uses and needs.”
The Trustee Evaluation Committee evidently considered the letter a sort of victory because it rejected the petitioners’ specific demand, and the Board Chair’s prefatory remarks hinted at a feeling of satisfaction. However, a closer reading is in order.

As librarians and library trustees should know, reading is a learned skill. The letter was not a simple victory for the trustee majority and a slap at the petitioners (though it was not the opposite, either). It was a politic way to avoid becoming embroiled in a local controversy, though it also no doubt reflected the financial and institutional realities, which conveniently provided the pragmatic rationale. It’s exactly the sort of letter that a consummate professional, maintaining the requisite tone of neutrality, is expected to write, on the assumption that everyone is skilled enough to read between the lines. Basically, the letter lays down the law: it says that the issue of division of labor between board and director/staff is well established, clear-cut, and in short, anything but mysterious. It closes, despite the sugar-coating of congratulatory language, with the order to both parties: Get your house in order. Sooner rather than later.

In any case, the reading of the letter did nothing to dampen the spirit of criticism and even rebellion among the public. Speaker after speaker rose to denounce the practices of the current board. There was no room for ambiguity here. It is significant that, at each of the public comment sessions, the statements have been uniformly critical. Voices supporting the current policy have simply failed to materialize; no one has risen to speak in favor of the actions of the Evaluation Committee. In the context of otherwise vocal and divisive Amherst politics, that in itself should be an alarm signal.

Jones employee Tina Swift, President of local SEIU 888, undaunted by the trustees’ salvo, responded with a bombshell of her own: at lunch today, the workers voted to express “no confidence” in the Evaluation Committee. Reiterating the previous charges of a biased and coercive review process, they in addition charged the triumvirate with creating “a hostile work environment” in which workers suffered stress due to “fear of reprisals for speaking up, constant verbal harassment of their director, and the general bullying tone.”
SEIU's Swift:  "a hostile work environment," "no confidence"
Chair Pat Holland politely assured Ms. Swift, "Thank you, and we will take that very seriously."

(I am sure the trustees will indeed have to do so, sooner or later. Three accusations of violations of workers' rights by a major union are nothing to be trifled with—or should not be in a town where many people consider themselves “progressives” and friends of the workers. Many of us here watch union issues very closely, the more so in a climate of rising indifference or even hostility toward organized labor.)

Next came a parade of respected professional librarians from outside the Jones.

• Willis Bridegam, the former director of Amherst College's Robert Frost Library, expressed alarm because:
—there is “a general perception that the Jones Library trustees are in a crisis situation”
—there is “lack of consensus,” as the Evaluation Committee is meeting with criticism from both the labor union and individuals
—“it is fair to suggest that the working relationship between the trustees and the Library Director is strained, to say the least”
—the trustees “do not understand the appropriate limits of their responsibilities”
— “unless the problem is addressed quickly, the problem will become worse”
— “collections, staff, and services are excellent and we want to keep them that way,” but “no library can work well” under such circumstances
Former Amherst College Library Director Bridegam:  "Jones Library trustees are in a crisis situation" and “do not understand the appropriate limits of their responsibilities”
• Retired librarian Tamson Ely, explaining that she had studied the trustee minutes in detail, declared, “I am just appalled at the tone” of the documents and the attitude they display toward director and staff.
Librarian Tamson Ely:  "I am just appalled"
Hampshire College reference librarian and President of the Jones Library Friends, Bonnie Vigeland, expressed concern at the evaluation process and praised Director Bonnie Isman for her dedication to the welfare of collections, staff, and public alike.
Jones Friends President Vigeland:  "concern" over trustee action, praise for Director Isman
• Retired longtime Hampshire College Director of Library and Information Services Gai Carpenter (who continues to serves on accreditation committees throughout the northeast) declared, “We didn’t need the issue of the evaluation of the Library Director to raise concerns about the Jones Library.” One had only to pick up the local newspaper on any given day to see reports on new controversy surrounding the trustees, she drily observed. She added that, as a member (and Clerk) of the Historical Commission, she had been surprised and taken aback to see that bits and pieces of proposals for Community Preservation Act funding were being presented by the trustees when in fact the Director was present and the task should have been part of her domain. I “have been more than a little alarmed by that,” she said, and by articles in the newspaper, regularly reporting “trustee x is doing this.” This is about “an inappropriate exercise of trustee responsibility,” she asserted.
Retired Library Director Gai Carpenter: "more than a little alarmed" by "inappropriate exercise of trustee responsibility"
Chair Pat Holland, courteous and unflappable as always, again expressed her characteristic gratitude to those present: “Thank you, what we are going to do now is move directly on to the endowment.”  Clearly, with this full agenda, it was going to be a long meeting.

Emotions flared up again when trustee Chris Hoffmann, as he had promised, brought forward a motion asking the trustees to declare their acceptance of the Code of Ethics of the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners. Trustee Kathleen Wang seconded the motion. You wouldn’t think that asking a town body to accept the code of ethics of its professional parent organization would be a controversial. But this is Amherst, where everything assumes a political character.

Trustee Carol Gray objected, and sought to table the action on several grounds: it was not on the agenda, the document contained some portions that were not from Massachusetts and needed to be carefully compared with state and local policies, and so forth.

Trustee Hoffmann, brandishing a copy of the relevant state documents, countered by explaining that he had in fact announced his intention before the meeting. His main point, he said, however, was substance. Speaking with evident emotion, he declared, “We are clearly a dysfunctional board right now,” with individuals going off and “doing their own thing.” We need to face up to our dilemma, he asserted: admit that we have a problem, seek help from a consultant to learn what we are doing wrong, and learn proper teamwork: “we need to rebuild.” For a start, then, he said he was just asking for a return to the basics in the form of an endorsement of the Code. Some trustees, he asserted, think they are special, and can follow their local bylaws or other doctrines and not obey the broader rules of the profession.

Trustee Hoffmann displaying the Code of Ethics
Ms. Gray rejected that accusation, saying, “I agree that we are a board that should act as a board,” but, as always trying to take what she refers to as the high road, she denounced Mr. Hoffmann for bad behavior: “to go the press without going first to the board is inappropriate and divisive and I hope we can get past that divisiveness.” Moreover, “to adopt a 100-page document without having the board look through it would be irresponsible.”
Trustee Gray:  Hoffmann "inappropriate" and "irresponsible." "I hope we can get past that divisiveness."
Mr. Hoffmann responded with obvious irritation by implying that this was disingenuous: Shouldn’t she have familiarized herself with the Code of Ethics—which was moreover only 1 page in length? “if you don’t think you can endorse even the simplest, most basic code of ethics, fine.”

When asked whether he would voluntarily withdraw his motion until a later date, he replied tersely, “No, I did that before” (a reference to his attempt, some five months ago, to raise a similar issue). Trustee Kathleen Wang, a thoughtful but usually quiet voice on the Board, said, “I would really recommend to the trustees that we vote on this tonight, because not voting on this . . . might give the clear impression that we are not concerned with ethics.” We “should just accept this before we even run for office.” There followed a conversation about the extent to which trustees had or had not received proper orientation for their duties.

Chair Pat Holland eventually intervened: asking us all to sign on to a code of ethics, she said, implies that we have not already adopted a code of ethics. On the contrary, she felt that everything “has been done” in conformity with a code of ethics, including the work of the evaluation committee. Mr. Hoffmann’s motion, she said, was “simply an exercise in attacking the work of the evaluation committee.” Clearly, as she argued, his move had been a political one.  What was not clear was who gained more from the confrontation.

The debate about the extent of trustee orientation flowed along for a while.  Sarah McKee acknowledged, "I am a person who did some things this past year that I have been told were inappropriate for a trustee." If so, she said, it was at times in concert with the Library Director and staff and only because no one had informed her otherwise. Mr. Hoffmann seemed heartened by this statement and, saying, "I hope we can all come together," accepted some responsibility for not having called attention to problems sooner.  "It's easy to think you have powers you don't."  Trustee McKee explained, for example, “We didn’t know that there was a hiring policy until mid-way through the year.” Only after speaking with a representative from the state did she discover that there in fact was one, and it was ten years old. Thanking the Jones staff for putting together a policy notebook, she affirmed, “it’s very helpful to know what the policies are.” Director Isman explained that orientation—including both documents and tours of the facility— for new trustees had been available although they had not necessarily availed themselves of it.

Trustee McKee:  "helpful to know what the policies are"
The conversation ebbed and flowed for a while longer in this manner. Eventually, the trustees voted, 3 in favor (Gray, Holland, McKee), 2 against (Hoffmann, Wang), to table discussion of the code of ethics until the next meeting.

Trustees Gray and Holland
The conversation then turned to the mundane monthly business.

I had to leave a 5:30 because the two hours—the nominally allotted time for the meeting—on my parking meter had run out and I had a life to attend to as I prepared to leave for an annual book-studies conference in Europe. Already at 5:00, a reporter had asked another audience member, “Do they always run this late? They’re 45 minutes behind schedule.” Her answer was a resigned, "Yes," par for the course.

Reports indicate that the trustees concluded by reporting that the Evaluation Committee had done its work and the Director's evaluation was now in the personnel file.  Discussion then turned on the extent to which confidentiality might still pertain (especially to discussion of professional competence vs. the evaluation, as such), a question that apparently required further consultation with Town Counsel.

Not quite the final chapter, then.

Library Controversy Holds Public Interest, Even in the Dog Days

From the Amherst Bulletin: