Opinion: Council should allow Judy Hunt to serve on the library board

Julie Holcomb of the Board of Library Trustees urges the City Council to approve the appointment of Judy Hunt. She also says an independent board is critical for the library.

Berkeley Public Library. Photo: Nancy Rubin

It’s clear that there are profound differences of opinion between the City Council and the sitting Board of Library Trustees about very basic issues: the role of the Board, the role of the director, and remedies for longstanding problems at the Library.

But none of this has anything to do with Judy Hunt, whom the BOLT recommends to replace Trustee Winston Burton, who termed out this month. She is a second-generation Berkeleyan with deep roots in the community. Her record of professional achievement and community service is outstanding. The Council declares their desire for a “Fresh Start” with a newly constituted board but says they will not approve this new member with no history in the controversies. She should not be denied this opportunity to serve.

The City Manager reports to the City Council, but the City Council does not supervise or direct her work. The current and past trustees of the Berkeley Public Library have maintained that their relationship with the director of library services is similar to the relationship between the City Council and the City Manager. This Council, on the other hand, has embraced the position that “either current BOLT members have to change course and take charge or be replaced,” aligning themselves with the Library Advocate group, which is “urging a complete overhaul of the Library’s way of doing business.” They target not only trustees, but also the current (and outstanding) director, Heidi Dolamore, and the position of director itself. They object to the “hierarchical, top-down” management structure of the library, which is the established and appropriate structure of all public institutions, including the city of Berkeley and all of its departments.

This structure has become particularly problematic for some library employees, as library directors over the last decade or so have introduced changes to improve service to the public to reflect changing technologies and user preferences. These employees and their supporters have responded with vitriolic public campaigns to oppose reasonable changes and the directors who proposed them. In 2005, a new library director proposed the introduction of self-checkout, which required the placement of RFID chips in books, unleashing at least a year of upheaval, followed by the departure of the director.

The propaganda of the opponents claimed “this nightmarish proposal” would make the library unsafe for children, and “Director Griffin is sinking her talons into your civil liberties…This technology, which John Ashcroft would love, will enable a book to be tracked without your knowledge.” (Untrue.) They also accused the director of “pursuing a policy of ultra-aggressive weeding”, complaining that “staff who know those subjects best are being “reorganized” with duties “reassigned.” Sound familiar? This was twelve years ago, and the opposition to institutional change continues.

On their Facebook page, Library Advocate of Berkeley (the people holding rallies against the Trustees) demand that the Trustees and administration “stop implementing controversial changes in the workplace.” Just last summer, a BPL librarian, a person whom I hold in high personal regard, told me the library “should never have put internet in the branches.” I think most Berkeley residents would disagree, as I do.

Does the public really want capitulation to these opponents of change? I believe the larger Berkeley community wishes the BOLT to continue to support a fiscally responsible, forward-thinking vision of continually improving service to the public. They see the internet in the libraries as a public good. They appreciate having an online catalog they can access from home to find and request books and other materials from all BPL branches, and also other libraries, to be delivered for pickup at their neighborhood branch. They like downloading books, music and movies for free from the Berkeley Public Library. They are glad librarians have time to provide varied programming for all ages and interests, and they want an up-to-date collection of materials driven by community interests and needs, along with librarian selections.

I believe it’s in the public interest to defend the independence of the Board of Library Trustees. For me, this is a question of good governance, and whether the public interest should be thwarted by an organized special interest.

It’s also a question of fairness. In public statements, Kriss Worthington and Jesse Arreguín make clear their intention to reject the recommendation (of all trustees except Sophie Hahn) to appoint Judy Hunt to the BOLT. Even though they disagree with the current board, and intend to overturn 78 years of City Council respect for the independence of the BOLT by ousting sitting trustees, they should not deny this opportunity to a highly qualified woman of color, who has done nothing to deserve this disrespectful treatment.

Julie Holcomb is a letterpress printer and Trustee of the Berkeley Public Library.