Forbes Library: A News Analysis
As a New Director Enters, Two Trustees Make an Exit:
A Look Behind the Scenes
By Edward Shanahan
The strange but quiet resignation in April of two elected members of the Forbes Library trustees is hard to interpret, but only slightly more bizarre than what has been boiling behind the scenes at the library for the last several years.
Not only were Richard Garvey and Allison Lockwood indefatigable users and faithful supporters of the library, but they were perhaps the best known repositories and chroniclers of Northampton’s local history.
They are also husband and wife, and thus constituted 40 percent of the membership of the library board, which bothered some of us, including me when I served with them on the board.
And, in fact, it was the dominant but divisive role that two people from a single household played on the board that seems to have lead to the final board meltdown, resulting in their abrupt departure, leaving the board short-handed until the city elections in 2005.
Read by Forbes board president Russell Carrier at its April 12 meeting, the Garvey-Lockwood letters of resignation were submitted on separate sheets of paper without explanation or elaboration, simply stating that each had resigned their elected post as of April 7.
The two other board members, Mary Harding and David Bloomberg accepted the resignations “with regret,” but only Carrier read a statement, which he had written out, to a handful of observers at the board’s regular monthly meeting.
He said he felt “great sadness” at Garvey and Lockwood’s departure, and cited their “steadfast” support for the library, their energy and fund-raising skills, which were crucial in the two-stage interior renovation of the venerable library, their work on behalf of the Calvin Coolidge memorial room and museum housed on the second floor of the library and the new Hampshire Room dedicated to local history.
Carrier was more effusive in his praise of Garvey, who it was evident he admired for his efforts on the behalf of the library over a long sweep of time. In fact, Garvey had first served on the library’s board of trustees as a young man more than 50 years ago.
“Richard did an enormous amount of work behind the scenes, “ Carrier said at one point.
Left unspoken, to my mind, was the comparably enormous amount of work done behind the scenes by an embittered Allison Lockwood, most of it directed at staff she regarded as incompetent or worse, a director who she repeatedly tried to undermine and other trustees and members of the community who she belittled and mocked both in public meetings and out of their hearing.
But, always when it came time to vote on an issue whichever way Garvey went, so did Lockwood and vice versa, although she tended to follow rather than lead on matters of substance, because often she seemed distracted or unengaged about the precise information and issues being discussed and decided at board meetings.
Lockwood had a long run on the board, serving for many years before Garvey was elected five years ago and they became a team. In fact, as a prolific local historian, Lockwood researched and authored a book about Charles Forbes and the library on the occasion of its 100th anniversary. She probably was the most voracious consumer of research material in the library’s rich archives.
Yet, it seemed unseemly to some that two people living at the same address should claim an entitlement to work and speak as one for the citizens of Northampton about what was best for the library. Were there not others in the city who cared enough about the library to seek office as a trustee and provide balance to the governing board?
So why did it all suddenly go so wrong for them and the library that they felt the need to resign in tandem, just as they had worked, and some of their harshest critics would say, plotted in tandem.
The final event, it appears, was over the selection of Janet Moulding as the new director to succeed Blaise Bisaillon, who took early retirement at the start of the year after serving for more than 25 years. But its roots went back in time, and the final rupture was only waiting to happen and burst in an ugly fashion, leaving bitter feelings in its wake.
Bisaillon’s tenure at the library was mostly steady but uneventful, until recent years when budget cuts meant fewer library hours, a growing malaise among staff members, turnover of some top administrative positions, fights with the trustees over a consultant’s recommendation for broad reorganization of library services, as well as deflecting criticisms about a staff that seemed antagonist , even hostile to the public. Bisaillon also had to wage battles with City Hall over shrinking library resources, as well as confront the challenge of presiding over fund-raising and construction work during two renovation projects.
Yet through it all Bisaillon maintained his everyday sense of humor and cheerful demeanor, even when being subtly and not so subtly harassed by trustees, especially Lockwood. In addition to his innate gentle nature, ultimately he could take pleasure in the final fruits of the renovations which created a much more pleasant environment for employees and library patrons.
Yet these renovations were carried out at great cost, including tapping deeply into the library endowment and clearing out the stacks and jettisoning thousands and thousands of books and other materials to create new space for other activities.
An aspect of the library that has never been fully confronted is how the Coolidge room came to occupy such a prominent place in the library’s overall space and the resources that it - mainly a storage area of memorabilia - requires. If there is to be a museum for the city’s most famous resident shouldn’t it be a stand-alone, self-supporting enterprise, not one piggy-backing on the public library? There is a great need for a large room for community programs, which the space now devoted to an Indian headdress, and other oddities of the Coolidge presidency could provide. No two people have been more instrumental and generous in their support for the Coolidge room and the President’s life and memory than Garvey and Lockwood. What happens now?
Meanwhile, one of the untold stories about the Forbes collection is the vast horde of books and other material from the library stacks that went to auction to raise money to purchase new books and to carve out added floor space for patron creature comforts. I often wondered who was making the decisions about which books would be sold off or otherwise jettisoned whenever I witnessed table after table groaning under the weight of volumes with Forbes Library bookplates in them waiting for bidders at the twice a month book auction at the Hotel Northampton banquet room.
Not many, or even any of these conflicts, became public because the work of the library and the open monthly meetings of the trustees never attracted many observers, except for a representative of the Friends of Forbes Library, who was usually present but only as a friend and ally, not a member of the public.
The four years I spent on the board and viewed issues from the inside were not pleasant, and I was relieved when my term of office expired. I felt I had accomplished very little for various reasons, apparently a view shared by others.
Last fall, I received an anonymous two page-single-spaced e-mail from someone who was very much up to speed on behind-the-scenes library intrigue and personality conflicts and this person wrote: “There is a distinct idea by Library Administration that because you were kind of a washout as a Trustee you dole your sour grapes via downstreet.net ...”
And so I continue to dole.
The simplest explanation for the Garvey-Lockwood departure is that they favored a candidate as Bisaillon’s successor who was not from inside, and thus not tied to the current staff. Despite Moulding’s estimable credentials and performance as associate director, she was regarded as unacceptable by the Garvey-Lockwood team because she had the support of the staff.
When it became evident they did not have the votes to secure the job for their out-of-town candidate, Garvey and Lockwood, in effect, picked up their marbles and scurried for home. They did not show up for the final interview and vote on Moulding, which many regarded as cowardly, if they really believed in their principles, and then mailed in their resignation in a totally anonymous way.
As I say that is the simplest explanation, but probably off the mark in may respects. The long pattern of scheming - both at the trustee level and among employees - is in the long run ultimately unfathomable.
And what of the role of trustee president Russell Carrier? Re-elected term after term since he came on the board in 1980, Carrier has served as president longer than any official in any elected position in the city.
Is the library in better shape today under his and Bisaillon’s joint stewardship during that long span of time? How do you measure that? The physical appearance on the inside of the library looks great. Do you also measure it by the number of books, periodicals, music discs and videos, or circulation figures, size of the endowment, number of staff, hours of operation, the opinions and attitudes of members of the community, the level of library-related activities that involve the community? By these measures, the library is both stronger and weaker than it has been in the past.
But it is an institution that urgently requires more attention and scrutiny by its citizens. A library is as vitally important to a community as its schools, or public safety and public works departments.
The enduring lesson, of course, is that in every institution and field of human endeavor there will be conflicts, tensions, people who seek to exercise disproportionate power; others who are supine and a vast public that is indifferent, and ultimately ignorant of what is transpiring in their name.
See related story, Forbes Library Has New Director, Choice by Default Wins Praise Too.