Every library has a great story to tell, but I keep going back to the work that Providence Public Library (PPL) in Rhode Island is doing under the leadership of executive director Jack Martin. Martin and his team at PPL have managed to transform their library, showcase its importance as a leader for lifelong learning, and also help cement its position as a huge supporter of creativity in its community.
How’s everything going with THINK AGAIN? Can you give readers an overview of the project?
When I arrived at PPL in 2014, one of the first major projects was strategic planning. What resulted was THINK AGAIN: Transforming the Providence Public Library. The plan focused on shifting the library’s role in education to a more delivery focused model where adults, teens, and children take classes at the library (or at a partner institution).
When the new wing was first built in 1953, the design did not include education or learning spaces. With this project, we are creating a 3,000-square-foot education lab on the ground floor as well as classroom and learning spaces throughout the 84,000-square-foot renovation footprint. We are also trying to improve wayfinding, and one of the more dramatic changes we are implementing is cutting a three-story atrium up through all the floors and installing a grand staircase.
We are doubling the size of our old children’s room, creating a teen loft, and we are creating a museum-quality special collections suite that features a reading room, temperature- and humidity-controlled stack storage, as well as a gallery space. Our goal is to complete the project by December 2019 and hold a soft opening in early spring 2020.
I see there’s also a strong focus on pulling in artists to the library through programs such as the Creative Fellowship. Can you talk a bit about this?
PPL is a mashup of a public library and history museum. Also, Providence is known as the Creative Capital, and with organizations like the Rhode Island School of Design and AS220 (a community arts center), we can’t help but reach out to those communities.
Our Creative Fellow program began 4 years ago when we launched our first annual exhibition and program series. Essentially we reach out into the creative community with a request for proposal based on a particular art form to identify potential candidates, then we review applications. The artist/designer/poet or whoever then receives a stipend and support funds for supplies to mine our collections for nearly a year to create new work inspired by our collections.
The Evolving Librarian
These days, librarians are doing their best to be everything to everyone. With Melissa Brisbin, associate director at the Livingston Public Library in New Jersey, we see this version of a modern librarian in action. Throughout her career, she has done it all—circulation, reader’s advisory, technology, and now management.
How is the transition into your new role coming along?
I was very lucky to have a month of training with our former assistant director, which was extremely beneficial. She shared so much knowledge and history of the library with me, and if I did not have the chance to have those conversations, I would be at a loss. In my new role, I will be managing and tackling building issues, which is a very new aspect of my day-to-day responsibilities.
What has it been like to change jobs and roles over the years, and what have you learned along the way?
I have worn many hats in public libraries, but I feel my evolution and roles within libraries have made sense. I began as a library assistant and then quickly enrolled in library school. While attending Drexel University, my director encouraged me to take as many tech-based classes as possible, and that is exactly what I did. Having some background in technology allowed me to lead the automation department, create a makerspace, and later become systems administrator and the emerging technologies librarian.
I credit my successful library path to working for excellent directors and coworkers. I am inspired by the work that they do, their vision of the public library, and how they lead by example. I feel I have a true understanding of workflows across departments as I have worked my way up and held various roles. There is no doubt my background in technology has been extremely valuable. I also credit much of my success to networking and being involved in various library organizations.
What is some of the best advice you’ve received when it comes to leadership?
The best advice I have received in the past is a culmination of tips from wise librarians and forward thinkers. Never email angry. Listen. Motivate. Sometimes, not everyone is going to like you, but don’t take it personally. Stay positive. Think outside the box, and look outside Library Land for vision. Weigh decisions, and look at various points of view. Get out of the office, and visit staff members. Ask for help. Be honest, and admit your own mistakes. Network, network, network. Be involved. Don’t be afraid of change. Know that you most likely need to communicate the reason for change several times. Be transparent. Celebrate staff members’ accomplishments.