The Nice Queen
Amid furor over branch closures, the Boston Public Library’s president is imposing her vision for the future—and, just maybe, a new model for how to get things done in this town.
As protests go, this one is downright amiable. On an unseasonably warm Sunday in March, 40 people have gathered on the steps of the Boston Public Library’s McKim Building in Copley Square for a read-in — a bookish riff on the sit-in — to demonstrate their displeasure with a plan to close several of the BPL’s neighborhood branches. The crowd ranges in age from infants in strollers to sexagenarians. Some chat among themselves, a few hold Sharpied “Save Our Libraries” signs, but most just sit and read their paperbacks. Their leader, a bespectacled Harvard postdoc named Brandon Abbs, speaks with a trickle of reporters and passersby, including a slim, silver-haired woman wearing black chinos and Asics, a black cardigan tied around her shoulders.
That would be Amy Ryan,the 59-year-old president of the Boston Public Library and, theoretically at least, the authority the crowd has gathered to oppose — The Man. But Ryan doesn’t look like The Man. She looks like a mom, one who doesn’t seem to recognize that she’s the object of these people’s ire.
“Isn’t this an honor? Isn’t this wonderful?” she repeats over and over, gazing at the protesters. “People really, really love their libraries.”
Ryan is tall and athletic, with blue eyes and a friendly face unadorned by makeup. She favors Ann Taylor–esque suits, tweed jackets, and Nancy Pelosi–approved colored pearls.
She is also nice. Really, really nice. Hers is more than a run-of-the-mill pleasantness, though. It’s a specific sort of affability known, at least where she comes from, as Minnesota Nice: courteous, mild-mannered, disinclined to confrontation.
This spring, after less than 18 months on the job, Ryan found herself in the middle of a particularly not-nice budget battle, one blanketed by a thick layer of local politics. As part of an effort to eliminate a $3.3 million budget shortfall, Ryan and the BPL’s board of trustees had floated a plan to close some of the library’s branches. The announcement was followed by a month’s worth of contentious public meetings, in which hundreds of patrons, always distressed and often fuming, offered testimony against such a measure.
Part of the angst owed to the vagueness of the BPL’s proposal: Library officials didn’t list the potentially affected branches, and the number of possible closures reached as high as 10. Some worried that the process would pit neighborhood against neighborhood, and various Friends of the Library groups raced to collect petitions and prove that their own branches were more beloved, in better shape, and generally more necessary than others. In March, the Globe worried that “the genteel refuge of the Boston Public Library [was] threatening to become the site of a classic Boston brawl.”
In the end, trustees approved a plan to close four of 26 neighborhood branches. What was most remarkable about the episode wasn’t that Ryan, the architect of the plan, got her way; it was that, despite the ugly scenes and public outcry, she seemed to emerge from the fight with nary a scratch.
While some have suggested Ryan is naive, in over her head — a pleasant midwesterner adrift in rough-and-tumble Boston — she has escaped the sorts of ad hominem attacks that so often factor into local political scuffles. Even ardent critics like Marleen Nienhuis, the president of the Friends of the South End Library group who recently called for the entire BPL board to resign, don’t have a bad word to say about her. “Amy Ryan seems like a very, very nice person,” Nienhuis says.
Viewed one way, Ryan’s arrival — and survival — in Boston isn’t that surprising. Born in Sandusky, Ohio, to a pair of Boston natives, she is the youngest of four siblings in a close-knit family. (Her sister Lydia visited recently from Wisconsin; inveterate walkers, they traversed the Freedom Trail twice in one day.) Her father’s work for a lumber company sent the family hopscotching across the country, from Boston to Washington state to Ohio, before they eventually settled 10 miles outside St. Paul in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. Her childhood was uncomplicated and happy, filled with skiing, swimming, and, of course, reading. “We used to go on a regular basis to a Carnegie library,” Ryan recalls, “and my mother used to trade our copies of the New Yorker for overdue fines so we never had to pay.”
The reading habit stuck. After majoring in German at Mankato State, Ryan went on to earn a master’s in library science from the University of Minnesota. (Her thesis subject? The role of libraries in tough economic times. Librarians, wrote a 24-year-old Ryan, must “resolve the dilemma of providing more service with less money.”) She spent the next 29 years at the Minneapolis Public Library, rising from librarian to the director of community partnerships and development, in charge of all capital improvements and fundraising. In 2005 she became the head of the suburban Hennepin County Library, and went on to oversee its merger with the Minneapolis system — a move intended to bolster the financially ailing city library.
People who worked with Ryan in Minnesota recall her intelligence and listening skills, her work ethic, her scrupulous preparation, and — wait for it — her niceness. While Ryan likes to say, “People really love their libraries,” her own mission was “to make sure the libraries love the people back,” recalls Kathleen Lamb, a Minneapolis attorney who served on the Minneapolis Public Library board of trustees for a dozen years. “The morning before a library reopened to the public [after renovations], she would go around with what she called ‘fairy dust.’ She was either making sure a bouquet of flowers was on the librarian’s desk or making sure that the right little stuffed animals were in the children’s section.”
Neighborhood branch supporters in Boston have a less charitable view of Ryan’s history; they call her a career consolidator, noting that three branches of the Minneapolis system closed in 2006 because of its budget crises. (Ryan says the branches were shuttered after she left Minneapolis to take the county job. Furthermore, she insisted that the closed branches reopen when she oversaw the merger — which they did.)
Critics worry that, as an affable newcomer, Ryan is distinctly ill equipped to maneuver within Boston’s politically charged system. In an arrangement unusual among this country’s big-city public libraries, the mayor directly appoints all nine BPL trustees. And because Ryan was hired by those trustees, some fear she is simply a cog in Mayor Menino’s machine, that she will be more interested in pleasing the boss than serving the best interests of the library.
The budget isn’t the only looming problem. There’s a conspicuous disconnect between the main Copley library, touted as one of the great research institutions in the country, and many of its branches. There’s also the matter of the BPL’s vaunted collections, whose treasures, ranging from a leaf from a 556-year-old Gutenberg Bible to John Adams’s personal library, have become a burden requiring millions of dollars’ worth of annual maintenance.
All of which leads one to wonder: Why on earth would anyone so seemingly content leave behind three decades of work, a lifetime of friends, and a place where she could cross-country ski to her heart’s content — and where the term “fairy dust” could be used with a straight face — to come, well, here?
There’s something important to understand about Amy Ryan, say those who know her: Her pleasantness shouldn’t be confused with a lack of intestinal fortitude — or drive. She reads lots of Austen, yes, but she’s also a big Lehane fan. “Just because she’s respectful and polite does not mean she’s not strong,” says John Gibbs, a Minneapolis Comcast executive who serves on the Hennepin County Library board.
“I don’t want a story line that’s ‘Hey, Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore,’” says Jeffrey Rudman, chairman of the BPL’s board of trustees and one of the people instrumental in bringing Ryan to Boston. “Yes, she is unfailingly courteous, but I really don’t tie that to a place,” he continues. “Let’s talk about a woman who has an all-seeing eye and a very penetrating judgment.”
Ryan says she was drawn to Boston by the BPL’s nearly unparalleled resources and collections, its history as the first public library in the country, and her family’s connection to the city. It was a dream job offer: At the time, her husband, Steven Kaufman, a college English instructor, was semi-retired; three of their four children were raised and out of the house; and their youngest, Chloe, was at Simmons College.
But Rudman says there is more to it than that. Ryan thought, he says, that “those of us who believe Boston is the Athens of America have been floating on a kind of sea of narcissism, that this place needed to change, and that she was the change agent.”
Ryan, of course, puts it more diplomatically: “My guiding light is really to ask, ‘How do we provide the best library services for Boston? How do we really make it soar?’”
It’s also worth noting that Ryan accepted the job in August 2008, before the financial tsunami hit. Her first day on the job was October 1 — two weeks after Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy and the first day of the Month When Everything Officially Went to Hell. The library’s finances held steady for years before Ryan’s arrival, and it’s unlikely she, or anyone, could have foreseen the financial situation the library now faces, with a budget that’s declined from $48 million for 2009 to $39 million for 2011.
In the end, Ryan’s arrival in Boston seems due less to pure ambition than to a sort of intrinsic, professional competence that naturally leads to ever-larger challenges. The BPL would provide the ultimate test.
That challenge became particularly difficult late last year, after Ryan learned the extent of the library’s financial problems. While some trustees say the system is “overbranched,” Ryan won’t use that word. (Indeed, the claim is the subject of debate: Boston has 22,000 residents per branch. San Francisco, meanwhile, comes in at about 28,000 people per branch, while the New York system is at 38,000.) Still, in light of the budget woes, Ryan approached first Rudman, then Menino, with a recommendation to close up to 10 branches. By doing so, she reasoned, more resources and attention could be devoted to the remaining ones.
Menino did not embrace the plan at first, Rudman says, but he quickly came around. Over the course of a few months, Ryan and other library administrators drew up almost 20 criteria for assessing branches, related to circulation and usage numbers, plus each branch’s relative proximity to other branches, schools, and public transportation. Both Ryan and Rudman take pride in this method, an example of what they call the fact-based, transparent mission of the process.
Yet critics like Brandon Abbs, who planned the read-in on the Copley steps, complain that the fiscal crisis is merely a convenient excuse for closures the city wanted anyway: an easy, if drastic, means by which to avoid dealing with properties that have fallen into disrepair; a situation, Abbs says, that could have been avoided had the BPL undertaken some basic strategic planning. “There’s never been a detailed, comprehensive plan to look at the branches, decide what needs to happen, and decide how to fund them,” says Don Haber, a Jamaica Plain resident who has been attending library meetings for six years, unsuccessfully pushing to make the 99-year-old J.P. branch completely handicapped-accessible. “It’s not rocket science. Other library systems have reviews every two years.”
Furthermore, such critics point out the irony implicit in the branch closures. In 2007, in ousting Ryan’s predecessor, Bernard Margolis, Menino accused library administrators of lavishing too much attention on the Copley crown jewel at the expense of the branches. Now, with a new library president, Menino decides to eliminate the very branches he once held so dear?
The trustees first proposed the closure option in January, even though they and library executives first discussed the 2011 budget a full two months earlier. “It’s hard for me to believe no one recognized this problem sooner,” Abbs says. If there had been more warning, he notes, there could have been more efforts to raise money or otherwise creatively solve the budget problem. As it was, it seemed nothing could be done, and despite thousands of petition signatures and hundreds of anguished public comments, the vote to close four branches passed nearly unanimously in April. (Trustee Paul La Camera, the general manager of public radio station WBUR, abstained after other trustees rejected his proposal to keep the Orient Heights branch open.)
The outcome seemed to be exactly the one Ryan had sketched out months before, a testament to her skills as an administrator (and as a political player) when she has a clear objective. “If the goals are agreed upon, then she just keeps chasing them, politely but with a laser focus,” says Gibbs.
According to Rudman, Menino likes Ryan for precisely these qualities. And the pair’s strong relationship has already benefited the library: Menino’s decision to kick in a last-minute $300,000 to the BPL’s 2011 budget (which brought city funding back up to 2010 levels) was a direct result of his goodwill toward Ryan, Rudman says.
Such pragmatic considerations, however, haven’t done much to assuage opponents of the closures, a group that includes a number of city councilors. Local author Steve Almond, for example, summed up many people’s feelings when he wrote the following in support of the branches:
[Libraries] are here to remind us what it means to be human, that we are part of something larger, a community of hearts, a history of possible mercies. If we allow them to perish, we’re not just depriving our children of spiritual awakenings…we are telling our children that reading, as an act of moral imagination, doesn’t matter, that awakening our hearts to the great human project of mercy doesn’t matter.
It’s a lovely sentiment, to be sure, and one that resonates deeply with this town’s scores of bibliophiles and intellectuals. But while books may offer a moral awakening critical to our children’s development, the buildings that house those books require upkeep and staff payrolls and wheelchair-accessible ramps. During the public meetings at which the branch closures were discussed, Ryan and Rudman often had to remind listeners of their legal obligation to present a balanced budget to the city, despite the heart-wrenching decisions involved.
Amid all those wrenched hearts, in a city where egos and personalities routinely clash and become mired in intractable struggles, Ryan is figuring out a new way to operate. By being cheerful, polite, and practical, she’s trying to create a new library — one that will do more with less, and will rely heavily on online components — with a drive every bit as intense as the scrappiest pol’s.
One day in mid-April, shortly after the trustees have approved her recommendation for branch closures, Ryan is sitting in her office overlooking the Copley skyway. She’s discussing her signature personality trait; how it’s not just a matter of politeness, a desire to avoid conflict, but that it’s often easier, too. “And it’s smart,” she adds. “It works.”