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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