The Interview: Boston Public Library President David Leonard

Boston Public Library president David Leonard may not have much time to read, but he sure knows how to tell a good story.

Photo by Aram Boghosian/Boston Public Library

David Leonard doesn’t fit the stereotype of the typical library guy: In the six years since taking the helm of the BPL, the former IT consultant has never shushed anyone, and he recently did away with fines for late books. In fact, to hear Leonard tell it, he never imagined he’d even work in a library, let alone run one of the biggest systems in the country while simultaneously finishing his PhD in library and information science at Simmons University. To get the 411 about the future of one of Boston’s most important institutions, we sat down with the Dublin, Ireland, native on the eve of the reopening of the BPL’s massive, recently restored special collection of rare books and manuscripts, which returns to the Copley Square branch this month after four years in storage.

What would you have said if I had told the teenage you that someday you’d be the head of the Boston Public Library?

I would have said, “You’re crazy. How could that possibly come to pass?” As a teenager in Dublin, I was pretty good at math, planning to go to college and maybe do computer science. So today’s reality seems very foreign to the 16- or 17-year-old me growing up in the 1980s.

What’s your favorite thing in the BPL’s special collections?

That’s like asking someone to choose their favorite child. But we recently rediscovered something by John Winthrop, one of the first governors of Massachusetts. It’s his handwritten copy of the Freeman’s Oath [an oath of loyalty taken by members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s]. So there was already dialogue going on about what it means to be a citizen of the U.S. before the U.S. even existed. It’s fascinating to come across things that were cataloged, but never paid attention to.

What are some of the rarest or most valuable things?

The Shakespearean collection is pretty strong. It’s one of the most prominent in the world and includes several first, second, and third folios of his original published works. It’s amazing to have those back on site and ready to be accessed and displayed this fall. Some of my personal favorites also include items from the Bowditch Collection, one of the first collections given to the library around 1858. That includes first editions of Sir Isaac Newton, Galileo, really all the underpinnings of science in the modern era.

Anything you’d like to see the library acquire?

I think we have some gaps in particular collections, but we’re very much in the early stages of re-embarking on an acquisition strategy. The prints collection is incredibly broad. For a long period of the latter part of the 20th century, we did deep collecting of Boston artists, and that’s an area that I’d really like to see us get back to.

Speaking of that, you have murals by John Singer Sargent, bronze sculptures by Daniel Chester French, etc. Do you think of the library as an art museum as well?

In some ways, you have to. I mean, you’ve just described some of the artwork and the amazing architecture of the McKim Building itself. I’ve certainly begun to think of the building as part of the collection. We have the same conservation and preservation responsibilities for that as we do with the objects that live within the building. We’re gearing up for a capital campaign to complete the restoration of the McKim Building that was never finished in the 1990s and 2000s. We’ve obviously been working very hard on the reopening of the special collections and the manuscripts department. But that’s what’s next on deck.

Leonard in the BPL’s ornate Board of Trustees room. / Photo by Lane Turner/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

Do you have a favorite work of art in the library?

You know, the Pierre Puvis de Chavannes murals around the grand staircase are incredibly significant because they’re not only monumental, but they represent what might be bringing you to the library. There’s one that depicts philosophy, and given my own background, that kind of has a special place in my heart. It also represents one of the other crises we had to deal with six or seven years ago, when that mural was beginning to detach from the wall due to water leakage. And with our colleagues at the Gardner Museum, and some incredible conservators, they were able to essentially invent new restoration techniques so that it was fully restored.

What is the thing that most people would be surprised to know about the BPL?

I think it’s the sheer breadth you referenced. We have some of the same responsibilities as a classical museum, but our curators always collected these objects so that they could be used, so that they could play an educational role, and be there for research, not simply on display or put in storage. As a public library, we have a maybe slightly different responsibility than our other colleagues in the field. I think it’s also true that whether you walk into one of our 25 neighborhood branches or the Central Library or visit our collections online, you can have an amazing experience. We’re trying to focus on meeting the needs of today’s population, whether they’re a social worker, a media literacy specialist, a nutrition literacy specialist…really new ways of thinking about the needs of the population.

Have you visited all 25 of the neighborhood branches?

Oh, God, yeah. And I do that at least a couple of times a year.

How do you serve as president of such an institution and get your PhD in library and information science at the same time?

It’s difficult to juggle, but what’s kept me going is that the subject areas I’ve picked in my program are germane to what my daily job is. It would be impossible to do something entirely separate, so my research topic relates to the area of civic engagement with public libraries.

What do your fellow students at Simmons think of you?

[Laughs.] Certainly, when I was doing classwork during the early couple of years, I raised some eyebrows. But I like to think of myself as fairly approachable, so we’ve had some fun with it.

Are you an avid reader?

When I have the time; that’s something that certainly suffered from my graduate program.

Any guilty literary pleasures?

Oh, I love science fiction. I’m just as happy to pick up something from the Star Wars or Star Trek era and escape from reality completely. Science fiction is where I go for an escapist read.

Most overdue book in the BPL’s history? Anything that just went missing?

[Laughs.] Occasionally, we’ll get calls from people who have discovered something as they were moving houses or cleaning out a family member’s home, and it has BPL stamped on it from decades ago. But, you know, we did away with fines over a year ago, so people can either bring back the original or bring back a substitute. We’re just happy they’re reading.

As a reporter in the pre-Internet days, I used to use the library’s information hotline a lot. What’s the most used resource today?

That differs from time to time. We were particularly happy to see our collection on anti-racist writings very, very heavily borrowed in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. So we actually received a grant from the foundation to buy more copies, particularly of the electronic books in that area. It also, by the way, ties into the special collection of rare books because we have quite a set of abolitionist materials, including the complete run of William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator. It’s also all online, but there’s sometimes nothing like being able to see or possibly touch the physical original.

Character trait that most suits you to being a librarian?

Well, until I finish my degree, I’m not technically an “official” librarian. But for my role here? I think it’s the ability to pivot from one thing to the next. This is as much an operational and strategy job as it is a people and fundraising job. So the ability to switch contexts is essential.

What’s your favorite library outside of Boston?

The Long Room at Trinity College in Dublin has a special place. There’s also Chester Beatty and Marsh’s Library, two other great Dublin libraries. But I also think of the U.S. libraries I’ve had the opportunity to visit. Seattle was really the first of the modern central libraries to go through a major reimagination and reinvention, followed by several others. One I’m most interested in visiting when I can is in Austin, Texas, which is getting great kudos from the profession.

Looking through a 10th-century collection of homilies with Harvard professor Jeffrey Hamburger and Vivian Spiro, chair emeritus of the Associates of the Boston Public Library. / Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

Have you ever had to shush a patron in the library?

[Laughs.] I’ve certainly asked someone to keep their voice down, but we don’t generally do the old-school shushing, as long as someone’s not interfering with people’s enjoyment of the library.

Do you have your library card on you at all times?

Actually, I do.

Should everybody else?

I believe so. I mean, it’s kind of the gateway to knowledge and entertainment. You don’t need a library card to visit the space, but if you want to check out a book or borrow something online, which people do now more than they do in print, that’s what a library card is for. And it’s free.

Thoughts on e-readers versus books?

Whatever the individual’s preference, whether you’re on the beach, or on a plane, or tucked away in your living room, at home, at school, or wherever—a different tool may fit a different situation. Personally, I still love the idea of physically turning a page and having a memory of how deep into the physical number of pages you are. So I think in the long run, this is an industry that will see a balance between materials published electronically and materials published on paper.

How many miles of shelves are there in the library?

Too many to count. I do know that for our Rare Books and Manuscripts department, we had 7 miles of shelving installed. That’s to accommodate roughly 234,000 books and approximately a million manuscripts.

Are there any writers that you know of who penned a novel at the BPL?

Probably the most famous example is Dennis Lehane, who actually served as a trustee for a while, as did Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Strangest thing you’ve ever seen take place at the library?

Strange, in a good way, is probably one of the really expensive weddings. It’s amazing how much people will put into that event to make it really special, even within a building that’s already special to begin with. But we also recently took the step of offering a series of affordable weddings. It’s a short, one-hour ceremony, and I think there’s a small fee, but we wanted to make sure that this is a space that’s accessible, not only to those who can afford a heavy investment—which, good for them—but also to anyone who can’t.

What’s the most underappreciated thing about the BPL or the most innovative programming that you’d like people to know about?

I think our work with the homeless and those who are housing insecure is something to be really proud of. There are so many individuals who find themselves in that situation, often through no fault of their own, and while we’re not a housing support agency, we can get people in touch with resources elsewhere in the city. I also think the work we’re starting to do around nutrition literacy is important for someone who doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from or those who are not eating healthfully. We have the Nutrition Lab at our newly renovated Roxbury branch and some other programs that go beyond what people traditionally think of from a library.

Which of the stereotypes about librarians have you found are true?

There’s an ongoing debate right now as to whether our staff has more cats or dogs as pets. So just stay tuned on that one.

Photo via Sean Gladwell/Getty Images

By the Numbers

Page Turners
Some figures behind the vast trove of treasures in the BPL’s special collections. 

Price, in dollars, that the BPL paid in 1873 for a 12,108-volume collection of English drama, including Shakespeare rarities (about $840,000 today).

Age, in years, of its oldest book, Homiliary and Saints’ Lives.

Number of refrigerated freight trucks required to transport the library’s 233,803 rare books to storage during renovations.

Number of original printings of the Declaration of Independence in storage.

Height, in inches, of its smallest book, Toy Soldiers. —Spencer Buell