I’ve been trying to explain the situation in Woburn to folks who are outside the Massachusetts library world and it’s getting tough to do so succinctly, but here’s an attempt at pulling together what’s happening. tl;dr: 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.
This is quite a story, and I want to stress a few things before we get started:
1) I do not represent the views or speak as a representative of my employer here or in any other context online, aside from the necessary stuff like having my CV and LinkedIn up to date. If you take issue with the contents of this post, I am solely responsible for them. Please DO NOT contact my employer right now; they are busily contending with anti-student ICE shenanigans and safely reopening the campus for the fall. Send me an email at callan.bignoli AT gmail DOT com
2) The sources I refer to throughout are people that I do not wish to identify here for fear that they’ll be retaliated against, as I already was during the weekend of July 4 (more on that later).
3) I am not deliberately spreading dis- or misinformation. Everything I am reporting here I have heard from multiple reliable sources. But it is also all second hand knowledge, and therefore I am prefacing all of this by saying the following post is made up of credible allegations. That being said, I acknowledge that I misstated information regarding the circulation desk at Dedham Public Library in a recent letter to the editor of the Woburn Daily Times. The desk there was not destroyed, but was allegedly unexpectedly moved to a different location in the library, making it difficult for staff to do their work. Multiple sources say that parts of the circulation desk in Woburn were also removed, some found in the dumpster. This was an unintended misunderstanding on my part.
Before coming to Woburn, Bonnie Roalsen, a 2007 LibraryJournal Mover & Shaker, was director at another Boston-area library, Dedham. I don’t know all of the details, but staff report many issues with her managerial style, particularly around miscommunication. There was also an investigation about her conducted by the town which still may be ongoing. If you look through the Dedham Trustees minutes from Ms. Roalsen’s time as director (the end of 2016 to Spring 2019), you’ll immediately see eyebrow-raising things like staff being silenced at meetings and the police being called on staff members. More on those trustees later.
As is often the way of the library world, that didn’t prevent Ms. Roalsen from getting the Woburn job. According to staff from Dedham and Woburn, once she got there, she created a new assistant director-level job for a fellow named John Walsh who went to library school with her and worked with her in Dedham. This was instead of a head of the understaffed reference department, which only has two people in a city of over 40,000 (at similarly sized nearby libraries, this number is more like 6-10; on the whole, Woburn is woefully understaffed compared to peer libraries). I’m bringing this up because what Ms. Roalsen and, presumably, Mr. Walsh call an innovative focus on technology and digital services appears to be impacting the value, or lack thereof, they place on staff.
Folks at Dedham and Woburn have both said Ms. Roalsen and Mr. Walsh want to replace staff with machines, and it seems plausible–after all, nothing says “I want to replace my staff with robots” quite like “having bad relationships with staff, furloughing them, then giving a talk at Computers in Libraries about replacing staff with robots” –but that’s not the only thing they’re replacing them with. Fast forward to the last few months.
The Woburn Public Library, along with countless others throughout the state and nation, sensibly closed its doors to both the public and staff as COVID-19 took its first pass at Massachusetts in March. Unlike their neighboring libraries, though, for some amount of time during the building closure, they’ve been using volunteers to do home delivery of books and many other tasks while claiming there is no work for library staff to do.
The following screenshots show library staff attempting to help from home, being told there was nothing to do, and being removed from contributing to the library’s Facebook page.
One volunteer group that worked with the library is Social Capital, Inc., a well-known org in Woburn that helps provide opportunities for at-risk youth. According to multiple sources close to the situation, they previously had a long-standing positive relationship with the library, but retracted the volunteers they had sent to the library when they found out they were working in lieu of staff instead of in support of them. In other words, when they found out they were doing this work instead of staff employed by the library, they said no thanks.
Speaking of long-standing community partnerships, sources say that library administration put enough pressure on the Library’s 24-year-old Friends group for them to begin the process of dissolution in June. Considering the impacts of this, it’s a cruel attack on the city’s residents, particularly its children. The loss of support for museum passes, the Teddy Bear Picnic, Woburn Reads, and other Friends-sponsored events leaves a hole in the community that robots seem pretty unlikely to fill. (I’ll note that the trustees have said that the museum pass program will continue but now funded by city money. This seems like a poor allocation of resources, given the amount of financial turmoil the trustees point to elsewhere.)
Around the same time came the announcement of the furlough of 17 of the library’s non-administrative employees, despite a documented increase of the library’s FY21 budget. The following is a screenshot of the library’s union lawyer explaining exactly what was proposed by the city:
According to the union and library staff, none of the city’s other departments are being targeted for layoffs or furloughs. The thing I want to draw attention to in the above, though, is the idea that this furlough needs to happen “until such time as there is more work available at the library.” Here’s what’s going on at fellow Minuteman Library Network libraries in the area:
In a widely distributed email, the executive director of Minuteman, Phil McNulty, said, “I just think that collectively we are not in any shape to meet this demand level without deploying very extensive pickup hours… I think we can make a very compelling case that there is very strong patron demand and that we can meet it – if we have the staffing levels and organization to do so. As to that organization, it is becoming clear that page is the fundamentally most important job in the library now and we are all going to have to be pages and that circulation is our world this summer and we will all have to be circulation librarians.”
Everyone I know working in libraries around Boston is telling me about days where they can’t keep up with circulation traffic, phones ringing off the hook, and email and chat reference questions piling up by the dozens. When they aren’t all being circulation staff, they’re still offering hours of programming and activities for all ages from home each week. Saying there’s not enough work to do at the library right now is, simply put, a lie. It’s also frankly insulting to our colleagues who are scrambling, with slashed budgets and furloughs they tried as hard as they could to avoid, to keep up with patron demand.
As the union and city continue to find a path forward, an advocacy group on Facebook, Support Woburn Librarians, has drawn over 1,700 members both from the city and beyond, including many library workers like me who are standing in solidarity with Woburn’s staff. Numerous Woburn residents have been trying to get in touch with Ms. Roalsen, who is not returning phone calls and emails. The trustees decided to not meet for their scheduled July 7 board meeting or in August, and a kerfuffle around the June meeting’s Zoom password not being made publicly available prevented members of the community from attending. Instead, Ms. Roalsen and a handful of Woburn trustees have taken to accusing the members of the Facebook group of engaging in a “deliberate campaign of misinformation,” being “unhinged from any reality,” and “threatening” and “slandering” in the Woburn Daily Times.
“I saw that Ms. Roalsen and Ms. Seitz (library trustee) both said in editorials that many of the public’s concerns are based on misinformation, and I would welcome any responses or information they can provide,” reads one letter to the mayor, director, and trustees shared in the Support Woburn Librarians group. “Unfortunately, those same editorials fail to identify or respond to any specific pieces of misinformation beyond some controversy around the circulation desk. The op-eds are mostly vague generalities and empty rhetoric while the more egregious questions and concerns are left unaddressed. Until the community members get the answers they seek, they have a right to keep asking important questions and voicing their concerns, and the library administration, board of trustees and city officials have a responsibility to address them.”
A letter jointly written by a number of library workers in the area specifically focused on Ms. Roalsen’s insistence that “many skills of library staff do not translate to the digital world of the pandemic:”
Library employees in neighboring towns like Winchester and Burlington were providing remote reference help, Zoom storytimes, book clubs, and activities for tweens and teens. These libraries had no trouble translating to the digital world. We have questions for Ms. Roalsen to “set straight.” Why do you hold your employees in such low esteem? Why, unlike fellow directors, did you decide they were incapable of doing work in the “digital world” without giving them any chance? And why are you not standing up for them now?
The availability of subscription products from for-profit, private companies that many libraries also subscribe to is not all that library patrons expect and deserve for their community. Providing streaming video or ebooks is not “groundbreaking” when most fellow Minuteman libraries have been on that “cutting edge” for a decade. Ms. Roalsen is again using a narrative of “innovation” to shift focus away from leaving her staff unemployed during a pandemic.Concerned library workers in the Woburn area
One would think that with a newly created assistant director for technology position and what looks like an organizational dedication to providing innovative new services, the staff would have the resources and empowerment to be trained and ready for whatever this “digital world of the pandemic” has in store. As a person who helped a staff of 100 beef up their tech skills in the years before we found ourselves in this current moment, I can tell you it’s possible to get just about every library worker prepped, ready, and comfortable for the “digital world.” Am I saying 100% of them will be pumping out professional videos and web guides? Of course not, and it’s never going to be like that anywhere. But I would have worked with them to figure it out, using a list like this one plugged in LibraryJournal of tasks for public library workers to do from home. And now, with libraries in Massachusetts reopened for curbside pickup, there is no excuse.
Not only do we have accusations of spreading misinformation and no lines of communication with the decision makers, and not only do we have a library director who’s selling her own staff short, we also have the work and voices of advocates being threatened. Just after we created a Change.org petition in support of the library’s workers, we found out that Ms. Roalsen requested all of her staff’s email address passwords be changed, locking them all out of their inboxes and contact lists. While there may not be a connection, it comes off like more union-busting behavior, cutting off staff from their main means of communication with each other, the city, and the union.
And, circling back to the Dedham Board of Library Trustees, they weren’t too happy with my involvement in the business up in Woburn, so they sent this to the brand-new president of my employer on or around July 4:
I am currently on the Board of Library Trustees in Dedham, an elected position I have held for the past seven years. I am writing to you today because I am extremely distressed by Olin College’s decision to insert themselves in matters related to the Dedham Public Library, as represented by their Library Director, Callan Bignoli. Ms. Bignoli, not only serves as the Library Director of Olin College but, as you might be aware, is the head of #LIBREV(olution) a protect and pay library workers group. Ms. Bignoli has been using her platform as Library Director for Olin College to push out through social media outlets, discussion groups, Change.org petitions and letters, fabricated accusations regarding Dedham Public Library’s former director, now the Woburn Public Library Director. In addition, Ms. Bignoli has ignited a smear campaign against the Woburn Director and also the Dedham Library Trustees by encouraging and then amplifying these accusations that have been officially proven untrue. It is unclear to me why Olin College, through their Library Director, is taking this action.
In March, 2020, the Dedham Public Library Trustees fought to ensure their employees would be paid their full salary when the library’s doors closed due to the COVID19 pandemic. When they returned to the library to work one day a week on June 15, 2020, they continued to be paid fully. Not all libraries or municipalities have been as fortunate as ours and furloughs have taken place. However, it is abundantly clear that most people in this country have been effected financially by this pandemic. For Olin College, through their Library Director, to harass and bully public libraries that find themselves unable to sustain their budget is disgraceful. As an elected official, I understand I have little recourse, but I urge you, as you are represented through your Library Director, to stop engaging in this less than professional manner.Nameless (to me, at least) member of the Dedham Board of Library Trustees
That was a great time! Luckily, my boss could see through the gaslighting here as my personal web presence has nothing to do with my position at Olin. I also can’t help but point out the absurdity of calling me a harasser and bully of libraries that can’t sustain their budget when the Woburn Public Library received a budgetary increase, yet is still pursuing these furloughs. But I was nowhere near standing alone. This week, the Minuteman Library Network’s executive board issued a stern warning to the Woburn trustees, mayor, and Ms. Roalsen explaining their concerns about the library’s administrative behavior and future as a network member:
The majority or the entirety of Woburn’s non-management staff is in the process of being furloughed or laid off as of July 17, 2020 for reasons other than lack of budgeted funds. It is the considered opinion of the Board of Directors of the Minuteman Library Network that these staff members are knowledgeable, capable and dedicated librarians and library assistants…Letter from the Minuteman Library Network Board of Directors
The Board of Directors will bring before the Minuteman Membership as a whole the question of whether the Woburn Public Library is continuing to act as a viable member eligible for continued membership.
Before long, the Woburn trustees were denouncing the MLN Board, a group of nearly a dozen library directors and administrators who represent some of the busiest and most well-loved libraries in New England, for spreading misinformation:
So that’s where we’re at! The union was supposed to meet with the city again today, but that was postponed. I’ll leave you with the words of another member of the advocacy group, urging us to now focus on the irresponsibility and negligence of the mayor, director, and trustees regarding the questions and requests for information from community members:
By characterizing concerned community members as “unhinged,” [the trustees and director] are showing the lack of respect they have for the community they are supposed to serve. By characterizing the staff as incapable of adjusting or disgruntled, they are really revealing the director’s lack of leadership and inability to connect with caring people who have served the Woburn community long before she showed up. By continually describing community discourse as a campaign of misinformation, the Trustees are actually revealing the lack of transparency and back-channel dealings that have been in since the current director was hired; not to mention a coordinated plan to gaslight the citizens of Woburn and turn attention away from the real issue.Member of the Support Woburn Librarians Facebook group
I don’t know about you, but I’m a whole heck of a lot more concerned about this failure of democracy than I am about cancel culture. As we’re seeing protestors jailed and injured for exercising their rights and we’re watching the impacts of doublespeak when it comes from the highest office in the country unfold in the form of stoked racial violence and unnecessary sickness and death, we need to be on high alert when we see the word “misinformation” tossed around when citizens are merely asking questions. We also need to remember that our elected officials have an obligation to their constituents and need to hold them to it. That includes listening, and not calling them disgruntled and unhinged when they’re just looking for answers.
Want to take action? You can…
- Sign this petition to the Mayor and Board of Trustees.
- Library Director Bonnie Roalsen at email@example.com
- Mayor Scott Galvin at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Board of Library Trustees: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
- Join the Support Woburn Librarians Facebook group to learn more & show solidarity.
- Tweet about the situation, share this blog post, and tag #Woburn and #ProtectLibraryWorkers.