By Diane Magras
Like the books on their shelves, public libraries are full of character: suave and charming, warm and exciting, brilliant and quirky. Sometimes the specific type of character is due to a single librarian, but more often the library itself and the staff and patrons together make libraries what they are.
To the Maine Humanities Council, libraries are some of our dearest friends, and they’re at the core of our work. Since 1985, libraries across the state have hosted our scholar-facilitated Let’s Talk About It reading and discussion series, and more recently have held our theater of ideas performances, foreign policy speaker series, and community-wide discussions.
And those are places where a library’s character comes in.
The McArthur Public Library in Biddeford has a distinct character, one forever linked with a sense of community on many levels. It’s the oldest tax-supported library in Maine, founded in October 1863. Housed in an impressive brick building with a clock tower and additions from 1965, 1995, and 2010, the McArthur is a community pool of knowledge. One of the first public libraries to join the Minerva library consortium in 2000 and later the Maine Infonet, the McArthur is now connected with 60 other libraries statewide, as well as with the libraries of the University of Maine System, Colby, Bates, and Bowdoin Colleges. This provides a tremendous borrowing advantage. One full-time and three part-time circulation staff at the McArthur have consistently processed around 34,000 interlibrary loan items per year for the past few years. (At McArthur itself, average circulation runs around 130,000 to its patrons.)
“In the future, it’s inevitable that all Maine libraries will be connected,” Sally Leahey, recently retired Assistant Director, told me when I spoke with her recently about her time at the McArthur.
Connection: that’s a very important word at the McArthur. Sally and its other librarians have gone to an extreme to connect with other libraries. And to connect with the community, in a zany way: the whole staff has camped out on the library’s roof, duct-taped each other to the library’s wall, and dyed their hair blue. These antics attracted patrons, gained attention, prompted children to read for 8,000 hours over the summer, but did something more: they reached the community by being within the community.
That may begin with antics, but also goes beyond them. “So many McArthur staff are involved with the wider community and see their roles as just as important beyond the walls of the library,” Circulation Supervisor Jackie McCann said.“We participate in everything from Donut Club to Bacon Street Festival to various Heart of Biddeford events. We have staff who are running programs in Biddeford Primary School, Middle School, and High School; reading to daycare groups; participating in Community Partnerships for Protecting Children. Our outreach has even taken the form of adopting a local park, planting, weeding, and raking to help keep our corner of the community looking its best. This makes everything we do in the library even that much more effective, as we really know and participate in our community.”
It’s an appreciative and passionate community, one that Jeff Cabral, Library Director, noticed as such when he first joined the staff in 2011 when “the history of a mill town in the midst of a renaissance really struck a chord with me.”
Jeff sees his role at McArthur as preserving and building its legacy, both the brick library itself, the collections, as well as its role within the community. Support from the City of Biddeford reflects an appreciation of this perspective and has allowed the McArthur to keep its investments safe or, as one City Councilor remarked, not “burning the furniture to heat the house.”
“In my mind,” Jeff said, “the strength of public libraries has always been found in their staff, their collections, and the community they serve.”
The staff clearly values each other, too. Children’s Librarian Deanna Gouzie confessed being in awe of the McArthur before she first began working there. These days, awe has changed into a deep appreciation of the library’s camaraderie. “The humor, the imagination and the positivity is infectious,” she said, “and creates a welcoming place for employees, but most importantly for our patrons.”
And if you talk with the staff at the McArthur for any length of time, the concept of community is always foremost, and focus often goes back to the patrons. Young Adult Librarian Brooke Faulkner remarked on this, the library’s “consistent habit of putting the people served by the library first. Whether we are talking about library policies, programs, or collection, even if we debate about the specifics as a staff, it always comes back to the question of how our patrons can best be served and how we can most freely make materials and resources accessible to people.”
The McArthur’s quest toward remarkable service to its patrons had involved partnerships with the Maine Humanities Council. In 2007, Sally Leahey introduced the MHC’s Let’s Talk About It library discussion group through the series “Detective Fiction in the 20th Century: A Notion of Evil” (this during the same year that McArthur’s book group for adults began).
Since then, the McArthur has been one of the MHC’s loyal library partners, holding early literacy programming, theater of ideas performances, and regular Let’s Talk About It series. Sally Leahey herself has been at the heart of much of that, including serving as a judge for the MHC’s Letters About Literature contest.
One of the attributes that the MHC notices regularly about the McArthur is its commitment to a high standard of programming, community service, and partnership.
The McArthur Public Library is a wonderful gift for its community, and the MHC is grateful to have the opportunity to work with it.
What Else Makes the McArthur Special?
Brooke Faulkner, Young Adult Librarian: “We’ve introduced a recreation collection that is available for our patrons to borrow — from portable DVD players, to snowshoes, to fishing poles. Our archivist has worked tirelessly to make more and more of our local history collection available online. I’m [also] so proud of the work that has been done by members of the teen book group, The Book Ninjas, who have written reviews for School Library Journal and served as a nominating group for titles to the Young Adult Library Services Association’s annual Teen Top Ten book list.”
Renee Desroberts, Reference and Archives Librarian: “I have always been proud of our library’s sense of vision, and willingness to support staff and services that they know will be useful and important to the public. I know I would probably still be working out of state had they not been willing to hire an archives professional and, more importantly, to make my position a full-time job so I can actually make a living doing something I love. What a wonderful gift.”
Ashlee Norwood, Children’s Library Assistant: “Being in the kids’ room, I am biased to say I’m proud of the kids room. Almost every summer our numbers go up. Not just for Summer Reading, but individual programs. This makes me proud, not just because we are bringing in more people, but because we are listening to our community and constantly changing and adjusting to make the library experience a good one every time. We are a happy group of people, and I think the one thing that makes us all the happiest is when patrons leave with a giant smile on their face.”
Melanie Taylor Coombs, Adult Services Librarian: “As the newcomer to McArthur, I can honestly say it is the most welcoming staff I have ever worked with. People genuinely care about each other and about the library. That feeling comes through to the public. This is more than a service organization — it is truly part of the community. Even though they serve well over one hundred thousand people a year, everyone who enters gets friendly, personal service.”
Deanna Gouzie, Children’s Librarian: “I think what makes it so amazing is the collective culture. Everyone on staff genuinely likes each other; we are a very close-knit group. We listen to each other, we brainstorm and problem solve together. Because we have this connectedness, we have created an environment in which we are all free to openly share ideas, which leads to more creativity and innovation. This translates into better services for our patrons.”
Jeff Cabral, Director: “It makes my job easier when I have such experienced staff at McArthur; they are a creative, educated, and talented group, and the shared history goes back many years.”
This article was originally published in the Fall 2014 Newsletter.