The Boise Public Library is turning the page to a new chapter.
On the last day of November, Jessica Dorr took the helm of the library system to guide it into the future after a tumultuous period. She comes to Boise from Seattle where she most recently served as Deputy Director for Global Libraries at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. After working with libraries in a different role at the foundation, she is now stepping up to lead Boise’s public library system through the pandemic and beyond.
Dorr joins the library at a challenging time. She stepped into her job weeks after Boise once again closed in-person browsing due to surging COVID-19 cases. She is the first person to hold the job permanently in the year since the retirement of former Library Director Kevin Booe. It’s also been more than a year since work on Boise’s roughly $100 million main library project stopped and Boiseans voted overwhelmingly for a ballot initiative requiring voter approval for any main library project going forward.
Interviews with current and former Boise Public Library employees conducted by BoiseDev revealed high levels of frustration in recent years from some employees with workplace culture, distrust of the administration, and stress from working through unusual operations due to COVID-19. The library also has a pending sex discrimination case under investigation by the Idaho Human Rights Commission brought by a former staffer and the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho.
In a December interview, Dorr consistently praised staff for their dedication through the pandemic to serving the public and their essential work to pivot quickly to remote ways to engage. She also outlined her hope that the Boise Public Library remains a strong fixture of the community moving ahead, pandemic or not.
“I am a member of a profession that values equal access, intellectual freedom, innovation and creating a safe and welcoming space for everyone…,” she said. “I want the library to be a strong partner in the city with nonprofit, private sector and educational organizations. I want myself and the library to be seen as deeply invested in contributing to a city that allows everyone who lives here to participate, contribute and dream equally.”
Two years ago, many people thought Boise would be well on its way to finishing former Mayor Dave Bieter’s proposed main library by now. But, alas.
What started in June 2018 as a triumphant reveal of the plans for a new main library designed by world-famous architect Moshe Safdie turned into a bitter community debate about public input, tax dollars, and priorities over the course of 2019. Many residents questioned the city’s need to spend on such a high dollar project as housing affordability was becoming more of an issue, the modern design and plans to relocate the 1940s era building housing The Cabin to make way for the project.
Now that the ballot initiative passed and the library’s strategic plan has expired, Dorr and the Library’s Board of Trustees are preparing to start a whole new planning process to gather input from the community and build a plan for the future.
Dorr said the immediate focus for the library is to get through the pandemic and continue to serve the public, but she wants a process in 2021 allowing the community to give their thoughts on the next evolution of the Boise Public Library.
“To me, (it’s about) the community engagement that’s focused on the user and what we want people in the library to feel, to experience, to create, to engage,” she said. “To me, it’s starting with an open discussion aimed at, quite frankly, identifying the hopes and dreams of our community. How do people want to live, learn and play together? What are the values that they bring to the future they want to see reflected?”
Margo Healy, chair of the Library Board of Trustees, said she felt the vote for the ballot initiative wasn’t a vote against a new main library, but instead a request for a better public input process. While she said a new downtown library is needed due to the condition of the current building, the goal is to hear from the community about what they want. And if that results in a desire for more branches instead of a new downtown library, the board will work to execute that request.
“We want a new downtown facility,” she said. “That building is not adequate, but we want to fully engage with the community to figure out what the community wants and will support and go forward with. Along with that, we want to make sure they have all of the information we have to make the best possible choice.”
Inside the Boise Public Library.
How we produced this story
For the past several years, BoiseDev and reporter Margaret Carmel closely tracked the changes at the Boise Public Library. With a new director coming on board, we wanted to look at reports from sources and readers about issues of morale, as well as a discrimination case. We requested public records, talked to more than a dozen employees, reached out to additional employees, engaged with the City of Boise’s communications staff, and interviewed the new director. We granted some employees the ability to speak for the record without us publishing their names so they could speak freely and not jeopardize current or future employment. The story you see here is a result of this months-long process.
Library staffers report low morale
For this story, BoiseDev spoke with nearly a dozen current and former employees. We agreed not to include their names in this story to protect their status as current employees or future work opportunities. The majority expressed deep distress at the work environment of the library and a desire for a culture change.
In one email from a staffer after Dorr’s selection was announced obtained in a public records request, they hoped the new director would bring change to “what has always been a somewhat broken organization.”
Many of the library’s employees are part-time and make some of the lowest wages in the City of Boise. Wage data on city employees obtained by BoiseDev in the summer of 2020 show many Library Assistants making less than $30,000 a year. In some cases, library assistants working part-time made less than $15,000 annually.
A few of those interviewed described stress from working in libraries previously open to public browsing during the pandemic and learning of the deaths of patrons they knew personally. Others said there have been conflicts about who was permitted to remote work and who wasn’t, which five staffers interviewed by BoiseDev felt came down to favoritism and personal choice of supervisors.
When asked about the issues raised by staff members, Dorr said her immediate focus in her first few weeks on the job has been the library’s response to COVID-19. Morale and “organizational health” were listed first on the topics Dorr would be discussing with Interim Library Director Kristine Miller, according to a document outlining Dorr’s plans in the first few months of her work obtained in a public records request.
“Those are not issues I have been able to address in the two weeks I have been here,” Dorr said in December. “I’m not saying they’re not important and, as a leader I want to be known as understanding and supportive of staff and making sure people feel supported of their work so they can have an impact for the community, but at this time I can’t give you any specifics because I just don’t have them.”
Many staffers also expressed frustration with expectations to create programming and not given guidance for how to complete it or easily promote what they put together. This was especially an issue during the pandemic, when several of those interviewed by BoiseDev described a convoluted process for trying to develop virtual programming and slow approval for ideas they were excited about.
Not everyone was unhappy, however. A small minority of employees interviewed by BoiseDev were mostly pleased with their work environment and jobs in general. However, they still experienced stress from working through the pandemic and some tension due to public discussions of the main library project in 2019.
Workers described high numbers of employees leaving the organization in recent months due to a variety of factors, including health concerns due to COVID-19 and workplace culture. The library also spent several months on a hiring freeze due to the pandemic, leaving the remaining employees carrying a heavier load as their colleagues left.
The Boise Public Library had 156 employees in October 2017, and only 121 as of November 19, 2020, according to employment numbers obtained through a public records request.
Some staffers object to Dorr’s selection
Mayor Lauren McLean does not hire the library director. Instead, the Library Board of Trustees makes the decision based on city code.
Two staffers resigned directly because of Dorr’s selection because they were concerned about how she would handle concerns staff have, especially as it related to the ongoing sex discrimination case under investigation by the Idaho Human Rights Commission.
The case, brought by former employee Jax Perez, alleges they were retaliated against for opposing unlawful discrimination against them following two incidents in June 2019. In the first, according to the complaint filed by Perez and the ACLU, Perez used their personal Facebook page to post a link to a program they developed for teens where a local drag queen would be talking about makeup and the annual Pride Month. They went back and forth with some commenters who left messages Perez said were “transphobic” and tagged an administrator asking for some of the commenters to be removed from the group.
They were given a memo by their supervisor later that month calling their commentary inappropriate, according to the complaint.
Days later, Perez said a patron tossed Pride buttons the library had set out for patrons and called them a “vice” and he did not want his kids exposed to them. In response, Perez told the patron they are a member of the LGBTQ community themselves and are “sorry you feel that way.”
The complaint said Perez received a warning letter in July saying they should not have “made known” to the patron they were a member of the LGBTQ community and for their Facebook post. Perez submitted an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint with the City of Boise, which upheld the disciplinary letter. Perez appealed the decision to the city attorney’s office, which also upheld the decision.
Dorr declined to comment on the case due to it being pending legislation.
‘Canned responses’ from Dorr on personnel questions
In a November interview a few days before their last shift working at the Hillcrest Branch, Perez said they felt pressured to stay in the closet to continue working at the library and the culture was detrimental to its employees. They said working in libraries as a lifetime career was something they once hoped to do, but the work environment and the circumstances leading to the case led them to quit.
Perez and several other employees interviewed by Boise said they preferred Heather McNabb, another applicant, for the position because of how she answered questions about supporting staff. BoiseDev requested the survey results sent to staff about who they preferred after all three library director finalists were interviewed, but the city denied the request on grounds the survey results were a personnel record.
“If McNabb had been chosen I probably would have felt safe enough to stay and try and keep working from the inside to change the extremely problematic and toxic culture because I would have felt there was a chance I would have been seen, let alone supported, by someone in such a high position at the library,” Perez said. “Presently and when I was working there I didn’t feel that way at all.”
Atticus Kirkham, a former library employee who is nonbinary, also had many of the same complaints about the work culture at the library as Perez. They also filed their resignation after Dorr was selected. Kirkham said when Perez, a member of the interview panel for the library director search, asked about the issues raised in their case, Dorr did not give an answer that made nonbinary and other LGBTQ employees feel like she was an advocate for them.
“We were getting canned responses,” Kirkham said. “When Jax asked the other two candidates about the ongoing case and what they would do to prevent something like that from happening again, Dorr just shrugged the question off and said ‘well I need to ensure it is an issue. In contrast to the other candidates, it made staff very uneasy.”
McNabb’s answers to staff about their concerns were not an endearing quality to Healy, the board chair of the Library Board of Trustees. Healy said out of all of the finalists, Dorr gave the most “mature” responses to staff questions about the ACLU case and morale issues in general.
“Heather’s response was an issue for me personally,” Healy said in a December interview. “…The library director must be an advocate for the library staff, but they need to have full knowledge of the situation before they respond to those sorts of questions. Jessica and (the other finalist) both demonstrated sensitivity and thoughtfulness, but did not comment beyond the amount of information they had.”
Healy said because of city code, board members could not confer before voting on who they would hire to be the new library director, so Dorr’s unanimous selection was a surprise. Despite the split in staff opinion’s on Dorr, Healy said she thinks the new director will be a strong leader for the library.
“If they can allow the opportunity, they are going to be pleased with her leadership style,” Healy said. “She listened more than she speaks. She’s got a great sense of humor and she doesn’t see limits on the possibilities. She cares deeply about the staff. I think she’ll win them over. I really do.”