Library director turns a new page

Economy offers huge challenge

Amy Ryan, president of the Boston Public Library, wrote her master's thesis on the role of libraries in economic downturns. Amy Ryan, president of the Boston Public Library, wrote her master's thesis on the role of libraries in economic downturns. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Nancy Cook
Globe Correspondent / March 29, 2009
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When Amy Ryan took over as the new president of the Boston Public Library in October 2008, she knew she faced some big tasks, like boosting the offerings of the library's 26 neighborhood branches; keeping librarians, support staff, and trustees happy; and making peace with City Hall following the tumultuous ousting of her predecessor, Bernard Margolis. She did not know about the budget crisis and tough decisions that would soon descend.

"It's a big change and the bravest thing I've done in my professional career," says Ryan, 58, of her new job. Ryan moved here from Minnesota, where she had raised four children and worked for decades, starting as a business librarian and eventually becoming the Hennepin County library director. Tall and lean with a silver bob haircut, she has a Minnesota accent and a friendly, willful demeanor - inserting people's first names into conversations much the way politicians do.

But no amount of Minnesota nice could have prepared Ryan for the economic trials that the global recession swiftly brought to Boston. Before she and her husband even found a permanent place to settle on Beacon Hill, the economy tanked. The city's budget deficit ballooned. Mayor Thomas Menino said that the Boston Public Library would need to shed $4 million from its $48 million budget for the next fiscal year, while, at the same time the number of people relying on the public library system was skyrocketing. The number of Bostonians signing up for library cards has increased by roughly 20,000 between July 2008 and February 2009, according to library statistics.

"She has come into a real problem," says longtime library trustee Donna DePrisco. "She has to go over the entire staff and branches with a fine-toothed comb and weed out the waste."

Despite these challenges, trustees and librarians praise Ryan's leadership style, which they describe as transparent, calm, and diplomatic.

"Her warmth shows through in everything she does. I've watched her learn the names of the custodians in the branches," says Jeffrey Rudman, chairman of the Board of Trustees. "She has been utterly transparent with City Hall and the trustees. She has a relationship with the mayor that's hard to beat." Trustees such as Rudman avoid comparing Ryan's relationship with the mayor with that of her predecessor, who openly criticized Mayor Menino. Instead, Rudman says that he thinks it's important for the library leadership to work with those in power.

"She is a cabinet head. We've greatly benefited by the fact that Menino knows she doesn't throw curveballs," he says.

When Ryan first arrived, she mapped out a Boston education that included walking to 10 of the library's 26 branches on various Saturday afternoons, with plans to visit all 26.

Even with the good will and early accolades, Ryan will face tough decisions. Personnel costs make up 65 percent of the library's budget, so she and the librarians' union have been negotiating a wage freeze to last through September 2010. Even if union members approve it, the library still may have to lay off 44 staffers this spring and leave vacant 20 open positions.

"It has affected the services we provide," says Liz Smith, a librarian at the Hyde Park branch and president of the Communication Workers Association, Local 1333. "You can't provide the same level of service when you don't have people there on a regular basis. That's especially important at the branches in the neighborhoods where you see the same people."

As Ryan looks to trim costs, she says she has also tried to communicate openly with her staff. She sends out a weekly newsletter, circulates memos she receives from City Hall with both good and bad news, and solicits ideas about cutting costs. She says she's received about 1,000 suggestions that range from turning off more lights to opening up a gift shop. She is also halting construction projects, reexamining contracts, moving the Kirstein Business Branch from the financial district into the Copley branch, and rethinking tasks like how the library catalogs books.

Ryan is also big on partnerships between the library and outside organizations such as Bank of America, the University of Massachusetts at Boston, and the Boston Children's Museum that bring performances into libraries or that offer writing or reading workshops. Some of these are not new ideas - her predecessor already had in place a homework assistance program.

Original or not, Ryan says that these types of programs are significant to her. She wrote her master's thesis years ago on the role of libraries in economic downturns, and that topic is particularly relevant now as people looking for new jobs or to go back to school head to libraries for help.

"Libraries make sense of the world," she says. "They're informational. They're a cultural anchor. They're a place for community gathering."

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