Support the news
The Boston Public Library board of trustees will vote on an interim library president and name an interim board chairman Thursday, following the resignation of President Amy Ryan and Chair Jeffrey Rudman earlier this month. The shakeup comes after an unwelcome turn in the spotlight for one of Boston's most venerable institutions.
All of this made us want to head over to the landmark building in Copley Square to see the rare and remarkable items that make the Boston Public Library as much a museum as it is a library — one of only two public library's to own such a research collection.
'A Palace For The People'
Enter the Boston Public Library and you immediately notice the bustle. There's a stream of visitors walking through metal detectors. Someone stops at the front desk to donate books.
And you can't help but be struck by the library's grand feel. There's a gold-toned marble staircase right in front of you. The designer called the place a "palace for the people."
"McKim, Charles Follen McKim, our architect, was a master in marble. We call him almost a painter in stone," says library outreach coordinator Meg Weeks, who gives public tours.
There are masterpieces on permanent display, including a gallery featuring John Singer Sargent's "Triumph of Religion" murals.
"The entire scope of the mural took him 29 years to complete. It was painted entirely in England," Weeks says.
Stop to gaze at the murals and you hear the strains of music coming from the small gallery nearby. It's housing an exhibit about Boston's Handel and Haydn Society.
'We Really Need To Restore People's Faith'
It's hard to imagine, given the chock-full stacks of books in one room after another at the library, but 94 percent of the entire collection is tucked away. That's about 22 million items stored behind the scenes. Those items are accessible to the public only by special request.
We meet Laura Irmscher, the library's chief of collections strategy, inside the Special Collections Lobby on the third floor of the McKim building — a small, dark, two-story room lined with glass-enclosed book cases.
"The material in the cases on this first floor are many of our medieval manuscripts," Irmscher explains. "And on the floor above us, the mezzanine, that's the John Adams library. It's the entire collection that John Adams accumulated while he was alive. It's his personal books that he made notations in."
This is where visitors check in — by appointment only-- to see the BPL's special collections. There are first printings of works by Shakespeare, original scores by Mozart written in his own hand, and Playbill programs from Boston theatrical productions through the decades. The most valuable piece of all? George Washington's Congressional Medal — the first one ever awarded.
To get into the room, you have to show a photo ID and Massachusetts library card, and complete a registration form.
The collection includes two items that are suddenly famous again — the Rembrandt and Dürer prints that went "missing." Staff scoured the place, hoping the masterworks were still somewhere inside. It turned out they were. A conservation officer found them tucked randomly on a shelf. They'd been misfiled, and no one knows why or by whom.
The incident has brought to light a major problem in an institution that has been trying to keep up with organizing and digitizing its holdings.
"The challenge has really been having a single inventory of everything in one place and then also ensuring that we make that fully available online in a digital format to the public," explains David Leonard, the library's director of administration and technology.
"We do have records of almost everything, but they're not all in one place or easily accessible," Leonard says. "We really need to restore people's faith that we do know what we're doing and we do have a plan to address any of the gaps."
Visitors can see the treasures in the locked Special Collections Reading Room. A handful of people are quietly doing research at the long wooden tables. One of them is a woman with a buzz cut and lots of piercings, Meg Studer. She came in from New York City to research Boston trade in the 1800s.
"These are wharfage books, so they're basically the account books of every ship that's docked, what it's unloading and what it's taking on," Studer says as she shows us the nearly two-century-old, hand-written book.
Not far away, BPL's Laura Irmscher gently opens a latched black solander box. The stacked boxes store many of the library's prints, now including the two that were misplaced. They're valued at more than $600,000 together. Since they were recovered, they've been bar-coded and catalogued and literally kept under lock and key.
"The first is the Rembrandt self-portrait. There's a protective tissue over that I'm taking off," Irmscher demonstrates. "The print underneath is Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer. And this is an engraving from 1504."
'There's A Lot Of Work To Be Done'
In the wake of the disappearance and ultimate recovery of the Dürer and Rembrandt prints, Boston Public Library is stepping up its effort to digitize its collections — a process it started 10 years ago. The entire print collection — 320,000 items — is being inventoried and bar coded starting this summer. Library heads hope to finish by the end of the year.
When asked why that didn't happen until now, Director of Library Services Michael Colford explains that for decades, the focus of the Boston Public Library was "to just collect."
The institution wasn't so good at recording and cataloging. Making matters worse, it didn't take advantage of federal grant money available in the early 1980s to help libraries digitize. Now, it's being more selective in its acquisitions and spending millions of dollars organizing them.
"The president of the library determined that we should decide that anything we did acquire would immediately be catalogued so we could find it, and then conserved, and considered for digitization, which is another way for us to keep track of our materials," Colford says.
In the meantime, you'd think library administrators would be gleeful that the works by Rembrandt and Dürer were recovered and never made it outside of the building. They are — for the most part.
Asked if she and her colleagues are sleeping better, Irmscher responds, "Yes and no. There's certainly relief, but there's a lot of work to be done."
This segment aired on June 17, 2015.
Support the news