Boston Public Library President David Leonard Ph.D. ’25 Discusses How Libraries Create Meaning and Belonging
SLIS doctoral student David Leonard presides over one of the greatest libraries in the country. He spoke with us about his longstanding fascination with libraries and the significant role that libraries play for their communities.
How did you become interested in libraries?
I grew up in Dublin, Ireland and I would often go to the public library for school-related projects. I came to appreciate the role of both public and university libraries when I was in college – not just for academic research, but for personal reasons. At the time, I was coming out as a young gay man and was looking for materials at the University College Dublin Library [i.e., the James Joyce Library]. The library was a safe space and helped me as I began my journey of self-discovery.
In the United States, I worked in the private sector for about 12 years. I wanted to find a more meaningful career. There was a job opening for Chief Technology Officer at the Boston Public Library that sparked my interest. I applied and got the job, and since then I have been at the Boston Public Library.
Earlier in my academic training, I was studying philosophy, and I do notice some synergy between this discipline and libraries. Within the field of philosophy, I am very interested in phenomenology, which is the study of experience and how we come to know things and know that they are true and reflect reality. The information-seeking behavior at the core of library and information science is also related to the quest for how we know something and how we know that it is true.
What is a typical day like for the President of the Boston Public Library (BPL)?
Every day is different, and my focus may shift from hour to hour. For example, this weekend a pipe burst in the central library's basement, and it was all hands on deck with our facilities team. I am in charge of a diverse range of operational oversight, which can be stressful but also can also be gratifying once I help solve a problem.
Other times, I may be planning an interview with esteemed guests. Currently, I am preparing to interview some guest speakers for a public panel on climate change and climate justice. So, in the course of one day, I can go from mundane matters to abstract and intellectual concerns.
I'm also involved in major renovation projects. One of the highlights of my career was the renovation of the Copley Square building (2015-2016), which my predecessor Amy Ryan initiated. This was not just about improving the space, but became a symbol for the transformation of public library service in the twenty-first century. Being part of a team doing this work was an immense privilege, and probably a once in a lifetime experience.
What are some of the most unique aspects of the BPL?
The BPL wants to be as relevant in the twenty-first century as it was when our charter was enacted in 1848. We are intimately connected to history and with addressing timely, contemporary concerns.
The BPL is the first publicly funded library in the United States. We hold about 23 million objects in our collections, which is the third largest library collection in the United States [after the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library system]. We were the first library to have a dedicated children's space and to have a branch library. We are also a founding member of the Association of Research Libraries, so we straddle the worlds of academic and public in a way that keeps us on our toes.
In the era of online research and remote work, how does the library as a physical, architectural place, remain relevant?
The growth of online usage is undeniable. But it is equally true, especially in a post-pandemic era, that human beings crave a physical space. We desire that quintessential "third space" to which we can go. The library provides a free, communal, and civic space that we can all enjoy. The Copley Square building is also an aesthetic delight, with numerous murals painted by John Singer Sargent and other fine artists.
We are also in a renaissance period of interest in libraries, and we are fortunate to have received funding from the city of Boston to renovate many of our branches. Our hope is that each branch becomes a local hub that contributes to the regional diversity of the greater Boston area.
In our current moment, intellectual freedom is threatened by political divisions, the suppression of ideas, and book bans. How is the Boston Public Library responding to these issues?
Carved in stone over the front of the BPL's McKim is the phrase "Free to All," which really captures the essence of what a public library embodies. We have kept that motto at the front of our minds during all of our renovations to branch libraries throughout the city.
Recently, we have seen protests at some of our public programs, but it is essential that institutions such as libraries maintain the principles of intellectual freedom and the pursuit of knowledge. Our goal is to ensure that no one group or no one position interferes with anyone else's pursuit of knowledge or intellectual interests.
Why did you decide to pursue a doctoral degree at Simmons?
I want to better understand the history and the discipline of library and information science. As a leader of an institution like the BPL, there are many benefits of having a concrete credential. Doctoral studies can also give me the opportunity to take a more academic approach to my interest area of public libraries and civic engagement.
I chose Simmons not only because of its location but also because I have had the pleasure of working with numerous SLIS graduates who were extremely well-trained. The BPL and Simmons have an enduring and productive relationship – we were privileged to welcome Simmons' president, Lynn Perry Wooten, as the latest addition to our Board of Trustees. I feel so privileged to be a part of this partnership.
What do you find most rewarding about your work?
Certainly, our role in supporting innovative research and scholarship is always rewarding. But at the end of the day, it all comes down to how we are serving patrons in their lives and their own time of need. This may be anything from watching a young child excited after learning about gemstones and geology, to someone who had experienced homelessness reporting to one of our librarians that now they have keys to a new apartment.
I often refer to BPL as a 175-year old startup. To me, that implies that we must always challenge ourselves to innovate; to push the institution forward so we can continue to serve the changing needs of all our patrons – now and in the future.