woburned part 2: people don’t actually want “the neoliberal library”

(NOTE: This post does not in any way represent the views of my employer or any professional organization I am a part of. The information here was based on conversations I had with multiple current and former staff members, members of the Support Woburn Librarians Facebook group, and articles in the Woburn Patch. It is presented here with my best faith attempt to describe things accurately and with appropriate context. There is a small amount of editorializing because this is a personal blog.)

Back in July, I wrote a post on here called “Woburned” with the following tl;dr disclaimer: “A library director with a questionable past is trying to union-bust and furlough 17 of her employees not for budgetary reasons but because, in her words, ‘many skills of library staff do not translate to the digital world of the pandemic’ and an increasing number of people both in the city and in the wider library community are begging to differ.”

That director, Bonnie Roalsen, announced her resignation today, claiming the library had been “reduce[d]… to a political tool.” It is true that Woburn mayor Scott Galvin has begun to seize an awful lot of power over the library in the last month, but it may have been his best option for cleaning the mess up there. The gridlock of trustees who placed their loyalty to Roalsen above concerns from citizens and refused to comply with Galvin’s attempts to discontinue her contract–not to mention racked up countless open meeting law violations and acted with bald-faced hostility to fellow board members in multiple public meetings–might have left him with few alternatives. Still, it’s a solution that I and others are hoping is temporary. To wit, Galvin wasn’t exactly an ally to library supporters over the summer; he not only criticized the Support Woburn Librarians Facebook advocacy group for being “hysterical” but also chastised sympathetic administrators of nearby libraries for getting involved in the city’s business.

So what brought us to this moment, and why now? It has been months since staff were suddenly denied access to email, replaced with volunteers in the spring, and forbidden from running library programming (or doing any work from home at all). The volley of Open Meeting Law complaints kept coming one after the other through the summer and the fall, but it seems like the final straw was the disastrous trustees’ meeting on January 19. Members of the Support Woburn Librarians group had begun asking questions about the library’s decision to hire a public relations firm in October, filing an Open Meeting Law complaint as it appeared this happened without a quorum. When two dissenting members of the board questioned this at the January 19 meeting, they were aggressively shot down. Ex-chair Jan Rabbitt told them she didn’t ask them to vote on certain decisions because she “just knew” they’d say no. This caught the mayor’s attention in a way we hadn’t yet seen. He called it “unconscionable and unacceptable” and within two weeks, he had begun working on preventing lifetime appointments for Woburn trustees and forced Rabbitt’s resignation.

Things escalated quickly; it’s been a little less than a month since that meeting went off the rails. But this saga started back in the spring, and though Roalsen and Meehan attempt to paint a very different picture in their resignation letters (available at the end of this article), we didn’t arrive at this moment because of the “political takeover…that goes against our core values as Americans,” or because of an expectation to only “serve middle-class white mothers of seven-year-olds.” We’re here because even though the library’s FY21 budget was increased, Roalsen allegedly attempted to eliminate 17 of 25 jobs in the library during a pandemic and over 7,000 people said “NO.” We’re here because Roalsen and Meehan insisted there was no work for staff members to do while the volunteer organization that was called in to help provide book pickup services figured out they were supplanting union jobs and refused to continue. We’re here because 2,000 concerned citizens have aired nine months of complaints about everything from ADA non-compliance to substandard services for children to lacking acknowledgments of cultural heritage months to the dissolution of fundraising bodies like the Friends of the Woburn Public Library.

Put another way, we’re here because Woburn residents did not want what Roalsen & Co. were selling. They wanted the qualified staff – their trusted neighbors and community members – to be able to do the jobs they were hired for. Meehan calls this “defiant ignorance of the future, coupled with naked political agendas and cronyism.” Roalsen says it’s “a modern building without modern ideas [that’s] just four walls and rooms full of shelves.” Both appear to rely on an undercurrent of technochauvinism, invoking the spectre of automation and the “challenges and opportunities of post-pandemic America” as justification for their attempts to disempower (and dismiss) their staff.

A quick web search of Roalsen leads to a number of past presentations at Computers in Libraries and Internet Librarian in which she paints herself as a harbinger of the future of our profession. I suppose that’s so if the future of libraries is Sunday hours sponsored by Raytheon, storytimes put on by gig laborers, and four walls and rooms full of shelves with no staff members around to talk to you or help you with all the new shiny tech. Refusing that vision isn’t “defiant ignorance of the future” – it’s a rejection of one person’s ill-advised neoliberal doctrine, which is itself defiant ignorance of what the community wants (and what lies at the core of librarianship, no matter how hard you namedrop Ben Franklin). And can you blame the people of Woburn for wanting something else?