Boston’s Margolis Appointed New York State Librarian

Boston’s Margolis Appointed New York State Librarian

The Board of Regents of the New York State Education Department announced October 21 that Bernard A. Margolis has been appointed New York state librarian. The embattled former president of Boston Public Library will assume his new responsibilities in January 2009 in the prestigious post once held by Melvil Dewey, father of modern American librarianship.

A longtime member of the American Library Association’s governing Council, Margolis instantly received a flood of praise and congratulations on the Council’s electronic discussion list. “We welcome you with open arms,” said Barbara Stripling, director of library services for the New York City Department of Education. “As a school librarian, I am so pleased that we will have a state librarian who understands how all types of libraries work together to provide seamless and complementary services,” she added. “We look forward to your leadership!”

Underlying almost all of the messages was the undertone that the appointment constitutes vindication of Margolis in his struggle with Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who ousted Margolis last year after an 11-year run, complaining that he paid too much attention to the main library at the expense of neighborhood branches. A public battle ensued, and Margolis departed without fanfare this June 30.

“The library community has been behind me 110%,” Margolis told American Libraries. “I think everyone understands the situation is unusual, not by any means the norm for anyone, but I think we all realize that when we give leadership to institutions that are part of the political environment, that sometimes crazy things can happen. But it has been amazing, the cards, the e-mail, the flowers, the candy. It’s very heartwarming and endearing, colleagues new and old giving me their best wishes.”

Asked how he planned to handle his new post in the midst of the nation’s financial meltdown, Margolis said, “I have been around long enough to have seen lots of financial challenges for institutions that I have led, and it seems to me that is an amazing opportunity to stress how important libraries are, particularly in these tough times.” He noted that millions of people are using libraries to improve their skills, find new jobs, retool, and find less expensive ways to be entertained. “This need will increase,” Margolis observed, “and librarians need to use this demand to leverage their piece of the funding pie.” New York “has an amazing history of support for libraries at every level,” he added, “and while I think that we will be challenged, the board of regents has been very firm in indicating how important libraries are. There’s a strategic plan, there are other initiatives underway that I think will help make it clear that libraries are an essential portion of a state’s strategy to deal with the economic issues that we’re facing.”

As for his battle with Mayor Menino? “I wish the library well,” Margolis said. “As America’s first library Boston Public has a very special responsibility, so I hope that Amy Ryan as the new president and the staff get the resources they need to do the job and I hope that they are persistent and thoughtful in that process and I wish everyone the very best.” He also admitted that he did feel some sense of vindication by the new appointment and characterized the current Boston city administration “is anti-intellectual at its core.” But “that’s part of the world we live in,” he added. “Sometimes people are afraid of anything intellectual, and libraries have been dealing with that for centuries.”

Margolis also acknowledged that much of the praise lavished on him by colleagues was due to having taken a stand and making it clear to the mayor “that I wasn’t going to do anything that would sacrifice the principles that were important to me personally and professionally. So when I saw the library not only being underfunded but, in a way, discriminated against, I felt I needed to speak out, I needed to be vocal about that, and I think I’ve paid the price, probably more than the price. But I think that’s important because it reflects upon every single librarian and every single library.” By taking his case to the media, Margolis added, “I spoke out” and used the opportunity “to talk about why are libraries important, and why should they not be well funded, or at a minimum appropriately funded?”

New York State Education Commissioner Richard Mills said in a press release, “We live in an age of information, and libraries play a critical role in providing us with access to that information. They are vital to our economy and our communities. They promote literacy and lifelong learning. And in these trying economic times, they are vital to people seeking information about jobs. I am thrilled that the regents have appointed a dynamic and innovative person like Mr. Margolis to serve in the critically important position of state librarian.”

Posted on October 27, 2008. Discuss.