The Birmingham Public Library (BPL) board is embarking on a 3-year strategic plan, which includes a capital campaign to fund the repairs and renovations at their facilities, and, at the same time, conducting a search for a new director.
The strategic plan is the first step in the search process for new leadership after the board terminated Angela Fisher Hall, who served as executive director from May 2015 to June 2016.
It’s also the first step in deciding what the priorities and goals of the board will be over the next three years. Kimberly Richardson, president of the board, said one of these priorities will be the repairs and upkeep of the Central location.
Fisher Hall was in her post just over a year.
Richardson declined to comment on Fisher Hall’s termination. “As far as the termination of Fisher Hall, it’s a personnel action, and so it’s just our policy, similar to the city of Birmingham of which we are a department, that we do not comment on personnel actions. So as far as any details of her termination, I’m not able to provide that,” Richardson said.
As president, Richardson serves as a spokesperson for the board, a practice implemented several years ago in order to present a single message to the media, Richardson said. All of the other board members defer to her for comment.
The board, which is in charge of hiring, firing and reviewing the performance of the director, promoted Fisher Hall in May 2015, following the retirement of her predecessor, Renee Blalock, on August 1, 2014. Fisher Hall had served as interim director between Blalock’s retirement and her own employment as director.
In a May 2015 BPL press release announcing Fisher Hall’s appointment, the board lists Fisher Hall’s accreditations, including 20 years of administrative experience, a master’s degree in library science, four years as the BPL’s associate director, 16 years with the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and a total of 30 years in library experience.
The BPL board meeting minutes from May 28, 2015 indicate that the board found that among all the candidates interviewed to replace Blalock, “Angela Fisher Hall was identified as the most qualified candidate for the position.” The appointment was unanimously approved by all board members present.
The board meeting minutes from June 14, 2016, uploaded just as this story was going to press, indicate that a special meeting was called June 9, 2016, and that “the motion to terminate Angela Fisher Hall was based on the findings of the Ad Hoc Committee report.”
Fisher Hall could not be reached for comment.
Sandi Lee, who was previously serving as the deputy director for the BPL, is currently acting as interim director.
Richardson said the next steps are to form a director search committee and set up a 3-year strategic plan for the BPL.
According to Richardson, the board has been interviewing and surveying board members, community members and patrons of the library in order to determine priorities for the future.
“Included in that [strategic plan] would be any staffing goals that we have for the organization, including for the director’s position,” Richardson said. “So we will conduct a new executive search at some point, hopefully sooner than later. We’ll bring a new director on board and move forward with the priorities that are determined by the board in our strategic plan.”
Richardson confirmed that the search for a new director will be nationwide, but she does not yet know exactly what the process will entail. “A search committee will be appointed, and we will begin identifying if we’re going to use the same process that we did in the last executive search or if we’re going to do a different process,” she said.
In addition to outlining the search process, this strategic plan will set priorities for the BPL over the next three years. The board is working with strategic planning consultants, and Richardson said the consultants will present the information and data gathered in the interviews and surveys to the board at an upcoming retreat.
“The goals and priorities will be established based on a review of all of that information,” Richardson said. “So our facilities are definitely a very high priority and goal in terms of bringing our branches up to par and where they should be in terms of being able to serve our community.”
There are 19 BPL locations, 18 of which are owned by the city of Birmingham, not by the BPL itself, with the exception of the Eastwood location which is a leased building. “Therefore, our relationship with the city of Birmingham is that any work that’s done, any repairs, any maintenance, any improvements, has to go through [the city],” Richardson said. “That authority lies with the city and with the mayor specifically and so anything that needs to be done to any municipal building has to be done through the city.”
As Weld reported in December 2015, the escalators at the downtown branch of the library (2100 Park Place) stopped working in December 2014. Richardson commented that it is well-known in the community that the elevators and escalators have been out of order at the Central location.
There is currently no plan to repair the escalators, as the parts needed are out-of-date. However, the elevators are currently being repaired. “The good news this week is that we should have at least one elevator operational by the end of the week and hopefully the second one by the end of next week. They are in the building and working, so we are excited,” Lee said.
Recently there have also been issues with air conditioning in multiple BPL branches. Richardson attributes this to the age of the facilities, and the HVAC units in the Springville Road and Five Points West locations have already been repaired, she said. They are currently dealing with a dead air conditioning motor at the Central branch.
A recent press release from Roy Williams, the director of public relations for the BPL, announced that the operating hours for the downtown location’s East building (Floors 2, 3, and 4) will be reduced to 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. until July 29 because of air conditioning issues.
“The difficulty is managing a system of branches that are inclusive of older buildings that have very large, and kind of out-dated HVAC systems that require constant maintenance,” Richardson said.
Weld spoke to someone with knowledge of the board, who wishes to remain anonymous, concerning the condition of the facilities at the Central branch.
The anonymous source said that he does not think the city has been invested in bettering the conditions of the main branch of the BPL. Lee disagreed, saying that while the long process through the public works department can be “somewhat frustrating,” she feels that the city is doing the best they can with the amount of facilities that they manage.
“Having so many facilities throughout the city certainly does complicate the issue,” she said. “We are just very grateful when they come with a cheerful face, and they do it as quickly as they can with the workload that they have.”
Despite the broken elevators, escalators and air conditioners, the Central branch acts as the core of the BPL system. Lee, who refers to the Central branch as “the hub,” said that “most of the services you see reflected in the branch libraries actually pretty much originate downtown.”
The Central branch houses the collection management department which handles acquisitions of books and materials as well as the online databases, Lee said. The information technology department is also housed at the Central branch.
In addition to acting as the hub for the BPL system, the Center branch also serves as headquarters for the Jefferson County Library Cooperative (JCLC). They handle the interlibrary loan system, which allows citizens to request books nationally and internationally, for the whole cooperative. The courier service that transports books from one Jefferson county library to another is also based out of the Central branch.
“If there’s a book in Warrior and [library patrons would] like it at the Avondale library, our courier system picks it up and delivers it there. And so that works for all of the libraries in the county,” Lee said.
While larger municipalities in the JCLC like Hoover and Vestavia Hills can maintain their libraries independently, the Central branch assists smaller libraries with their information technology services. “We do a lot of the technical end of it and what you might term the ‘back services’ for all of the activities that go on,” Lee said.
According to Central branch archivist Jim Baggett, the Central branch archives contain 30 million documents and 500,000 photographs that “document the history and experiences of people and communities throughout the Birmingham area and around the state.”
As one of the largest city archives in the United States, the Central branch archives attract visitors to Birmingham to conduct research, Baggett said. “There have been more than 450 books researched in the Archives, including five winners of the Pulitzer Prize. Our collections are used to research documentary films, museum exhibitions and student projects,” he said. “They are also used by people who come to research the history of their house or to restore one of Birmingham’s historic buildings.”
Baggett said that the Birmingham stories told in these documents and photographs can help people “better understand human rights struggles around the globe.”
Within the immediate downtown area, the Central branch provides computer and wifi access, which Lee said the community members use frequently and in high numbers.
Upcoming Capital Campaign
Because of their dependence on the city for funding, the BPL is “hoping to embark on a capital campaign,” said Richardson, in order to raise money for the renovation of the Central branch. According to Lee, the BPL completed “a feasibility study earlier in this year that has been looking at the community and the community support [the BPL] can expect.”
While the anonymous source mentioned earlier expressed concern about the effect of Fisher Hall’s termination on the capital campaign efforts, Richardson does not feel that the change in leadership has impeded the progress of the campaign.
“The part that we’ve been asked to do in preparation for the capital campaign has been completed in terms of the request that lies with the city of Birmingham,” Richardson said. The preparations are being led by the Library Board Foundation, a 501(c)3 charity that “fundraises to support programming, improve facilities, and purchase equipment that is beyond the library’s annual budget,” according to their website. Richardson explained that because the Library Board Foundation is leading these efforts, the preparations for the campaign have been able to move forward despite the abrupt change in leadership.
The BPL has sent in a budget request to the city of Birmingham, according to Richardson. Once the city confirms its budget for the BPL, the board and the Library Board Foundation can decide what is needed from the capital campaign. They have yet to receive a definite answer from the city, Richardson said.