Opinion: Time is up for Berkeley Library trustees

Because of mistrust, the Board of Library Trustees should resign or be replaced.

By Margaret Goodman

Margaret Goodman is a retired librarian who moved from Denver to Berkeley in the spring of 2015. The Berkeley Public Library was one reason she picked Berkeley over nearby Albany or El Cerrito.

As a retired librarian, I believe the time has come for a total transformation of the Board of Library Trustees (BOLT). There have been too many problems lasting far too long. We need dramatic action on the part of the city to give us an entirely new library board with a new attitude and a new approach.

The majority of the trustees have had several years at the helm of the Berkeley Public Library. Under their leadership, our library has moved away from responsiveness to its users and employees. The once-collegial happy workplace is now apparently a toxic workplace as revealed by the recent March 2nd Berkeleyside article “Staffers at Berkeley Library describe atmosphere of discomfort and distrust.” Unfortunately, this is more than an unhappy employee story. The controversies at our library revolve around profound issues of the vision, mission, and direction of our beloved public institution.

The BOLT has become part of the problem and I join others like Charles Austin, Willie Phillips, and Pat Mullan, who have called for the trustees to resign or be removed so we can have a fresh slate to identify the problems and fix them. We want to point out that the newest trustee, City Councilwoman Sophie Hahn, has been showing the kind of new approaches and open mindset that all future trustees the City Council finds should exhibit, and we urge her to continue as a liaison between the BOLT and the council.

It happens that there are a sizeable number of retired librarians who have been speaking out against the recent changes in the direction our library is taking. Far from being Luddites who want to return to the old days, these retired librarians were early adopters of technology and change coming into the profession when computers were entering the library workplace. That is the generation that promoted “computerizing” the card catalog and using tech to handle the information explosion. Library schools were teaching the importance of community. Primary emphasis was put on the importance of watching, listening to, and initiating dialog with both library users and non-users. “Outreach” and creating in depth “community analysis reports” became standard procedure in the fundamental mission to make sure the library was meeting the needs of its community.

The retired librarians say things have gotten out of balance at the library but it is not impossible to get back on track. Regrettably, the long-standing trustees are too invested in continuing the current harmful status quo to even consider questioning the results and they don’t have the skills to conduct an evaluation of centralized management and other technical and professional practices instituted at the Berkeley Public Library.

The trustees are fond of saying “we follow best practices.” I know what best practices are. You do too. They are the efficient, valuable, successful practices that support the library mission. BOLT told us they are following “best practice” by adopting the “transformed library model” at our library. What BOLT calls “best practices” are actually undermining the basic mission of the library–intellectual freedom, self-education, and recreation. BOLT has taken the attitude that the library will never “go back” on how it does business. That is not the way to lead us out of the mess we find ourselves in at our library. All options need to be on the table. Tell the city council to ask library trustees to resign or face recall.