Good news and bad news for the Boston Public Library

Good news and bad news for the Boston Public Library
The Boston Public Library -- shown in a vintage postcard from its collection -- has come under criticism for the treatment of some of its valuable holdings. (Boston Public Library / Tichnor Brothers Collection)

The Boston Public Library gained an unusually high profile when it filed a police report in late April: Two artworks worth more than $600,000 had been stolen. The artworks -- a valuable engraving by Albrecht Durer and an etching by Rembrandt -- could be viewed by patrons by appointment in a rare books room and had been stored in a locked room. They had gone missing weeks before the police were notified.

The good news is that the $600,000 worth of art wasn't stolen. It was in the public library after all -- it had simply been misfiled. The artworks were found June 4 about 80 feet away from where they belonged.


The bad news is that an audit of the library has raised questions and concerns. The Boston Globe has obtained a draft of the report, slated to be released this week, and writes that it shows the library's "320,000 prints and drawings have been neglected for years and are in dire need of space, a massive reorganization and a complete inventory."

The draft report, by consultant Martha Mahard, says: "The Print Department cannot be expected to function effectively without better oversight, specialized departmental leadership, additional staff, and adequate space for both storage and access," adding that "the overall arrangement of the print stack defies logic."

Boston Public Library President Amy Ryan announced that she would resign after the uproar over the missing artwork. Her last day will be July 3.

Ryan began her tenure in 2008, during the throes of federal, state and local funding cuts due to the recession. Since then, the library's annual budget has dropped by about $3.1 million, from $39.7 million to $36.6 million. "We were engaged, I would say, in survival," Ryan told the Boston Globe.

The Boston Public Library was established in 1848. It moved to its current building on Copley Square -- designed as a "palace for the people" -- in 1895. An addition by architect Philip Johnson, which now holds the circulating collection, was added in 1972.

The library has 23 million items. Almost three million of them are in Special Collections -- the department that encompasses the missing artwork and rare books, manuscripts, prints, photographs and more. Its holdings include several of William Shakespeare's first-edition folios, original music scores by Mozart and Prokofiev, and the entire personal library of John Adams. 

But the library's special collections are in trouble. Stuart Walker, the library's chief book conservator who retired in 2013, tells the Boston Globe that dramatic shifts in relative humidity are a serious problem. "The conditions have gone from bad to worse," Walker said, adding that mold grows on many rare books in summer.

Historian David McCullough, a former trustee of the library, told the Boston Globe: "I've never felt that there was adequate funding for adequate care of it all." He has set up a fund that helps to support care of the library's holdings. "I got very much involved in trying to rescue the national treasures that had ended up being allowed to deteriorate at an unconscionably fast rate."

"The people trying to do the job are superb. There is nothing wrong in my view with their attitude or ability or their devotion to their jobs," McCullough added. "They haven't got enough people."

The next leader of the Boston Public Library will have that challenge to address. But at least they're not down a Rembrandt and a Durer.

Twitter: @paperhaus