Opinion: A vote of no confidence in the Board of Library Trustees

Two of the Board of Library Trustees are tone deaf to the concerns of the community and should be replaced.

Jim Novosel’s recent opinion piece in Berkeleyside has a tone of injured innocence. He writes without any apparent awareness that too many community members, as well as library employees, have been too frustrated, for way too long by the BOLT’s refusal to listen to, or to act to ameliorate any of the library’s recent cascade of problems. To halt this ongoing decline at the library, advocates have been driven to the City Council who originally appointed these non-functioning trustees.

During one BOLT meeting that typifies this cumulative frustration, the SEIU Union leadership presented a letter of no confidence in a library manager signed by 56 out of a total of 113 library employees. Some employees could not sign because they feared retaliation. The no-confidence letter was about a manager whom the signatories believed was insisting on library practices that were unprofessional, who was targeting whistle blowers and who had transformed the library’s working environment into one of conflict rather than co-operation. The trustees sat stony-faced during this heart-rending testimony and then ignored and buried the document for which so many had risked their jobs. I am amazed that anyone who was present at that meeting could say that, “the charges against the BOLT are exaggerated and have little basis.” Going to the City Council is a vote of no-confidence in the BOLT.

If Jim Novosel is so filled with awe that the library “is so fully championed in Berkeley by its citizenry” why did he not listen to any of us? What we are seeing here is not merely an originally unfortunate communication style but rather an abrupt about-face suddenly triggered by outside pressure. What Novosel describes as “severe, punitive action” is simply an appropriate response to an ongoing, intractable impasse. Novosel’s proposed “conversation and a community effort” could have been a positive response to the staff’s vote of no confidence in a library manager when it was presented 11 months ago, It would also have been welcome during the past 21 months of vocal community dismay and concern; now it simply looks like a bureaucratic way of prolonging a long-standing pattern of inaction.

In rereading Julie Holcomb’s recent opinion piece in Berkeleyside, I feel compelled to address one point in particular. She says that Library Advocates is “urging a complete overhaul of the Library’s way of doing business.”   Yet, it is the BOLT that eliminated the library’s longstanding policy of putting 34 librarians in charge of decisions about both additions to and weeding from the collection. This used the collective expertise of librarians in many disciplines to continue to shape the collection they had so admirably formed. With the imposition of centralized collection management, librarians are no longer allowed to have any say, instead one appointed person and her assistant make all the decisions. They can’t possibly know as much about items in the collection or about the Berkeley community so they rely on arbitrary yardsticks such as the date an item was last checked out. One wonders how they can make wise additions beyond the best sellers they obviously favor. Do publishers’ representatives now play a role in what our librarians used to do? What sort of collection will we have in ten years of uninformed acquisitions? These limitations apply to all acquisitions such as databases and media. The magazine collections have been reduced by at least 50%. We are already losing the rich variety we recently had.

This method of library management, though touted in some library circles, has been highly controversial in the communities where it has been instituted because so many communities have been so dissatisfied with the results. It has been aimed at communities that must drastically cut costs. Berkeley voters, however, have consistently shown appreciation of our library by generously funding it. But removing the librarians from such a central function seems too much like the thin end of the wedge of de-professionalizing our library. I will feel bereft if the day comes when instead of a knowledgeable librarian to answer my questions, I must rely on poorly paid people who don’t know and may not even care.

I could also take issue with Julie Holcomb for her inaccuracies (for instance, the City Manager is supervised by the City Council) and for her irrelevancies (for instance, why bring up a one sided comment about a controversial technology in 2005?)

Holcomb seems to think that Library Advocates is opposed to technology. What we do oppose is a closed system: answerable to no one, completely impervious to community and employee concerns, and oblivious to the chaos it creates with its ill-considered changes.

I hope for two positive outcomes here. First is the appointment of a Board of Library Trustees that is both knowledgeable about and deeply committed to libraries and learning. We need board members who are also competent, open-minded and respectful of the community they serve and of the employees who create our library. Secondly, and equally crucial, is to create a structure of oversight and responsibility for our beloved library to protect it from another “dark age” of mismanagement in the future.

So I support the City Council’s Fresh Start Resolution, which can pave the way to the healing our library.

Charlotte Shoemaker is a Berkeley taxpayer and an avid patron of the public library.