Director of Libraries, The Cambridge Public Library
The American Library Association Executive Board
Q. But what does digital mean to a library filled with paper books, long the gateway to freedom, self- discovery, independence, and democracy?
A. The library is much more expansive, and libraries have shifted. It used to be a place where people come in to borrow physical collections and to get research assistance. We still do that, but we go beyond that. We are that community space. We are that place where people leave their homes to gather, to learn, to dream. We are that place for people to come together and to meet other people who are different or similar than themselves.
By Heidi Legg
The Cambridge Public Library network includes the main branch and six active libraries in the City. They welcome over 900,000 visitors a year and circulate over 1.2 million items. Last March, TheEditorial helped them launch their new conversation series called Our Path Forward by hosting a free event called We The People with author Claire Messud, digital entrepreneur, and distinguished Microsoft engineer Miguel de Icaza, WGBH political journalist Peter Kadzis and immigration lawyer who blocked the Trump travel ban, Susan Church. The event had to hold overflow rooms and over 2,000 people watched it on WGBH’s Forum Network on Facebook. It signaled once again, the power of public libraries and what is possible at the Cambridge Main Branch and all for FREE. To be an engaged community, every participant did this for free thanks to the coordination of the Public Library. One year later, the library's Our Path Forward conversation series has hosted thousands of attendees into these conversation events. It’s pretty impressive.
The Public Library is also a touch point with the whole community. This year over 2000 children under the age of 5 are engaged in a new program called 1000 Books Before Kindergarten, the library distributed new library cards to 94.4% of kindergartners in Cambridge schools (up 50% from last year), and hundreds of new immigrants have attended classes at the libraries in English, resume writing, tax help, and job hunting.
Cambridge is a digital community with some of the most significant leaders in education, technology and biotech sitting only a few blocks away and this year the Cambridge Library joined a unique initiative of the American Library Association sponsored by Google. But what does digital mean to a library filled with paper books, long the gateway to freedom, independence, and democracy? I sat down with Dr. Maria McCauley who returned to us after a stint as the Director of Public Libraries in Santa Monica, California to discuss the future of public libraries and the power of Cambridge to be a model of the future given the abundance of resources in our community. We also discovered the main branch is about to embark on an exciting new technology STEAM space for all.
Does modern technology create a crisis for the library?
It’s an opportunity for the library. It's always been that case where there are going to be new technologies that some people choose to use. Yes, the cell phone is ubiquitous, and you'll see people using their phones in the libraries, but I always think that libraries, if they're serving their community, have an opportunity to provide a civic engagement space for discussion. Whether as an in-person gathering or even through their phones in an interactive conversation around an event, this is a place to meet around an issue that's going on in the community.
You use the words "civic" and "engagement." Are those considered the pillars of libraries?
Absolutely. Libraries are for everyone, and that is a huge pillar for us. Public libraries are for anybody and everybody in the community, whether that is in person or online. It is also a place where we want to encourage robust discussion - that civic component - again, in person or online or through the materials that people read.
How is it possible to have that kind of conversation in libraries where we sit quietly? Where are you seeing this public discussion happening?
I would challenge you a little bit on that. I think that it may appear that people are quiet when they come into the library, but we have near one million visitors in our library system throughout our seven libraries in Cambridge, and people do all kinds of things in the library. Some people do like that quiet, reflective space and we need to make sure that people retain that space. In the main library, we have a quiet reading room where it is very quiet, but we also have conversations all the time, and we have programs all the time where people come to network and get to know each other and to find out who lives in this neighborhood. It's a great way to form those bridges with other people in the community.
With our series, Our Path Forward, we facilitated so many conversations this year. We brought in experts to talk about what's happening right now, whether that's foreign policy, legal issues, the current presidential administration, and how that plays out locally. I think it's essential to have content and programs and services that speak to what the community wants and to give people that space to give people the voice to be heard around that community context.
Our inaugural event with you for the Our Path Forward series was packed and it was amazing to be here. Besides big live events, how else are citizens having civic discussions in the library?
We have started an initiative around ageism, and this is through an anonymous donation through the library foundation. We wanted to create a series that would be very meaningful concerning continuing life skills for people ages fifty-five plus where we bring in professional teaching artists. We're in the middle of our first rollout of the program, and within thirty-minutes, twenty-five people signed up for a creative drawing class. It’s not only learning from an amazing teaching artist, but it's also providing all the material, so there are no barriers to access. Another core value of libraries is the provision of library services to all, especially people who might be coming from underserved communities. Everyone is included.
We aim to remove barriers, except of course when there's more demand sometimes than what we can provide. Through this class, it's the stimulation of learning a new skill, and it's also that people are getting to know each other in the community.
How do you look at youth given they are more virtually connected than other generations?
Thank you for asking that question. In Cambridge Public Library, we are very serious about the agency of youth to make their own decisions about what they want to read, what they want to study, what they want to explore and we are very strident actually about protecting the privacy of youth and supporting youth in their own development as individuals. Again this is a core value that we work with throughout all of our youth, and everybody embraces that in the library system whether they’re at a branch library or the main library.
We have a teen group who come together and advise on the kind of programs that they would like to see, and they help to produce teen programs. One program that a lot of people might not know about that is a beautiful example of community collaboration is work we do with a nonprofit, called Innovators for Purpose. The library staff taught two of those weeks about creative modeling using different technologies: augmented reality, virtual reality, and 3D printing. This was a project that was funded in part by the Rotary Club, as well as the Friends of the Cambridge Public Library, and we were able to work with this group of teens who are a very diverse group to host Innovators for Purpose for six weeks in the summer. They were able to take the projects that they created in analog and then to see how that gets translated into digital technologies. And this was totally free.
What is your new STEAM initiative and the creation of a space for it inside the main branch?
In an innovation economy where the very nature of work is shifting and a significant percentage of job sector growth is in STEAM-related fields, the City and Library will be investing in creating learning opportunities for all residents, especially those from underrepresented populations in this rapidly evolving creative, scientific, and technological landscape. This vision aligns naturally with the Cambridge Public School Department’s strategic plan and Department of Human Services’ STEAM initiative. We are therefore collaborating on an our efforts to work towards making the Cambridge Public Library a major hub for STEAM learning in the City.
Do you feel like a community center nowadays more than a book lender?
Absolutely. I've always felt that way, and I think that goes all the way back to Carnegie. There are public libraries that Carnegie helped to fund and develop that have swimming pools. There's one actually in the Pittsburgh area that has a community swimming pool, and I met some woman who said that she was an Olympic athlete because she trained at that community swimming pool.
Would you define the original spirit of the Carnegie libraries?
I think the spirit of the public library is very much about a reflection of the community. It is a place where dreams happen. I see our role as helping people through their whole span of life to get to a place where their dreams can be achieved. One of the things that Ta-Nehisi Coates mentioned in one of his recent books is that the idea of travel and how travel opened up a whole portal for him to a whole new world. I see the parallel of that with public libraries.
Public libraries afford this portal to many different worlds. Through reading a classic work or a new work, or by coming in and meeting other people who are doing innovative things, or being supported by an entrepreneur to start a new business, libraries offer this. For those who are retired and who had never had time because they were working so hard to support their family, they can come here to learn a new life skill, like learning to paint. We are dream makers at the public library.
In this Internet world, people Google things to get information. Are you concerned that this takes people away from the library?
No, I'm not worried about it at all. I think that the nature of public libraries needs to change over time based on our users and I think that a lot of people do go onto Google and to find quick data and information and I think that's wonderful if people can get information quickly. In terms of really good information, I still think that the role of a professional librarian is to help people to go through vetted sources and find reliable information and learn how to discern what is fact. We've taught classes very recently on how to detect fake news. That is an essential role for library professionals.
Yes, I keep joking with a friend in library science that librarians are having a moment!
The library is also much more expansive, and libraries have shifted. It used to be a place where people come in to borrow physical collections and to get research assistance. We still do that, but we go beyond that. We are that community space. We are that place where people leave their homes to gather, to learn, to dream. We are that place for people to come together and to meet other people who are different or similar than themselves.
One of my favorite recent stories has somebody stopping me on the street and saying, "Maria, I want you to know that whenever I use my library card, that's when I feel the most democratic and the most patriotic." I think that that captures the spirit of what we're doing in public libraries.
Has political polarization affected libraries?
That’s an interesting question, and there is a debate about neutrality in the library profession and what that even means. In our community in Cambridge, many people based on bipartisanship have been more active and want to get more involved – whatever their views. They feel like there's more of a stake to participate.
Is this since the election?
Yes, to participate, and I think that public libraries need to be responsive to their local communities and I also believe public librarians need to speak up based on that tie to our core values, making sure that we're inclusive and that we're not leaving anybody out. We are making an extra effort that we're reaching out to people who might traditionally be underserved and to make sure that recent immigrants, especially in a sanctuary city like Cambridge, know how to access resources through the library or other social services in town.
I would say that our librarians and our library staff and the community are even more aware of the importance of being active community members and to speak out.
Do you see a synergy between a library and the virtual world?
Yes. I do. I think it is the role of the library to make sure that people have skills whether that's career skills or life skills. People talk about coding now as being a basic literacy. We want to make sure that we're helping people have access to that. We are part of a national initiative through the American Library Association where we're going to be doing even more with coding through a Google partnership, and we already host Girls Who Code at the Cambridge Public Library.
The tech industry is under heat because of bot infiltration, the possible tampering with public opinion and elections, the impact of social media affecting youth and the implications that this decade of connectivity is yet unstudied. Is there a role for libraries in that?
I think that it's our responsibility to tap into the expertise of community stakeholders and community members ¬– whether they work for a tech company or if they're a community activist – we want to make sure that we have balance and that we have an essential information literacy role. Librarians go through rigorous training around how to find reliable sources of information and that is something in which we will continue to play a role.
Librarians help source what we cannot find on Google, and they help us know what's reliable information and what's not. Is this a massive moment for libraries?
I would say that we are always in a moment if we're doing our job. It is a critical time, and libraries across the country have programs and training around fake news, but it is always our responsibility to help people to find good sources of information, and that hasn't changed over time.
Another example of the depth of work that public librarians do is around genealogy classes that are free for community members, and they're always over capacity. They're such powerful classes because not only are they teaching people how to research their family history, they're about family histories, and they're part of our history as Americans. People in those classes are exploring issues around adoption, and around family history around slavery. The library leaders who are leading this are teaching these critical research skills about different resources. As a cohort the class that is going through it together and it's this tremendous rich, in-depth personal experience for both the people in the class, as well as for the librarians. It's about how do we move forward in life? With these tools, we can get to a place of either healing or know more information or in living a more vibrant life.
Do you employ social workers in the library?
Some libraries do, and in Cambridge, we work with The Department of Health & Human Services, and they're fantastic partners. We will do referrals if there seems to be somebody who is in need.
Libraries as a convening spot, with a free Internet connection, have become the gateway to the entire community. Like a hospital, given you span all ages, you have a wider lens into Cambridge and its people than a public school. What comes with that responsibility?
I would say that we are one of the touch points in the community. People come to connect with their community in a more profound way in a variety of fashions. We have a very broad lens, and one of the challenges and opportunities for us is that we serve people from birth through the end of their life.
How are libraries funded today?
Many different models exist. Public libraries are mostly funded through their municipality, town, or county. Most public libraries have some philanthropy as well with private donors, through a friend's group or a foundation.
Grants are also available through the Institute for Museum & Library Services (IMLS,) and sometimes there is grant funding funneled through vehicles like the American Library Association or Urban Libraries Council.
Do you worry about funding under this administration?
I do not worry about funding locally. I think that people love the libraries in Cambridge and are very invested in the libraries in Cambridge. Federally, yes, I do worry about supporting entities that can do best practice models like the Institute for Museum & Library Services.
The key is that communities invest in their libraries so they may continue to morph and to grow and to keep up with both their facilities and their technical infrastructure and staff development. For libraries where that is not the case, it's harder for them to remain relevant. We're very fortunate in Cambridge.
You led the library network in Santa Monica, California. Who are the voices in the library world today talking about the promise of libraries?
I certainly think Doctor Carla Hayden, our Librarian of Congress, has been a huge celebrity in library circles as a children's librarian. We have amazing libraries throughout this country from people like Patty Wong at Santa Monica Public Library, Luis Herrera in San Francisco, and my colleague David Leonard at the Boston Public Library. Those are all some people that I think are extraordinary in the field and then we have people like John Palfrey, the Head of Phillips Academy in Andover, who wrote Born Digital and BiblioTech.
Who are your most frequent patrons in Cambridge libraries?
Families are enormous users, and we know that there's a correlation between early literacy and reading, school success and that school success is correlated with life success. Early literacy is so, and our families in Cambridge try to tap into that. We have a very robust youth service program. An example of a program that we're so excited about is 1,000 Books Before Kindergarten and that program we're encouraging every child to read 1,000 books before kindergarten. We already have 2,000 people who have signed up for this, and that's so critically important. I want to share with your readers that a lot of people don't realize that babies should be read to and that it should be part of their experience from the moment that they're born. It is part of their early literacy experience.
Cantabrigians are lovers of books. We have a diverse range of users. We circulate over one million physical objects a year in the Cambridge Public Libraries. Our readership is huge.
The one constant we know is change. How will libraries change over the next twenty years?
Being flexible is important for both library leaders and libraries as a whole. Keeping up with the skills in the area of technology and STEAM learning and helping all members of the public to be able to advance in that way is vital because we know how important it is to keep up with career skills. One skill that you may learn will be old technology in five years. We want to ensure people are keeping up with their skills. It is important for people 55 plus and retirees to keep with their skills too and keep their mind fertile.
Cambridge is a sanctuary city, and yet many Americans have been voicing fear over immigration. How do libraries across the country, and not only Cambridge, have a conversation about these fears?
Public libraries across America welcome dialogue on difficult topics. It is an extension of our commitment to intellectual freedom, which is part of the American Library Association’s bill of rights. I believe that libraries should welcome difficult discussions, including on immigration, gun legislation, prison reform, the education gap, poverty and wealth in America— it is part of our democracy in the making and it is a way for individuals to learn more about their views as well as to broaden perspectives by learning about the issues from experts as well as the views of others. This is achieved in libraries through author and scholar talks, book discussions, film screenings, and community conversations.
So the library is less of physical space and more of a place with access?
I think that that's a way of seeing libraries. An example, locally, is our archives. They are a historical newspaper collection, which has been digitized and it is used heavily, and the users are not only from Cambridge. We have worldwide users and having materials that might be locally significant – but making them available globally – is really important. Also, having ways for people to be able to interact. One library leading the way is the New York Public Library. They have a whole tech group and the archival group as part of the process of engagement, where people can participate in tagging, for example, or in translation.
In a rural community, Michelle Kuo talks about this in her book Reading with Patrick, and you had her here reading, it's not until members of the community build a library that we see access for all. How does that conversation make its way into other states and into our national dialogue, especially when we think of libraries being access points to broadband Internet?
Rural libraries are a critical component of this, and rural libraries do remarkable work, often with one-room libraries. My husband's family is from Mineral, Illinois with a population 200 people and there is one library there, and that library and single librarian does opens up the world for people. I think that by having continuing support for these libraries across the country, that's important and then to have entities like the American Library Association that help to bring the ideas together to have conversations and to learn from each other as a professional body is also really vital.
How can people donate if they want to help?
People can support the American Library Association. They can support a group called United for Libraries to which many stakeholders belong: trustees of libraries, fundraisers, people who are giving to libraries. There is also an advocacy group called Every Library, and they do advocacy on behalf of communities who maybe don't have the resources to advocate in-depth and lobby. Every Library does lobbying work.
Contributions to our Cambridge Public Library Foundation’s Annual Fund support Library programs, special events like DREAM BIG and our operations. We welcome contributions from individuals, foundations and businesses. To contribute online, people can click here.
What are your personal goals at the Cambridge Public Library?
I am passionate about equity and inclusion. Without that, we have nothing in public libraries. My goals are to make sure that the libraries in Cambridge are open and available to everyone and that we're doing a variety of programs and services that meet different needs of the community. I see my work as a community leader and a community connector, so my team of amazing library staff members and stakeholders and volunteers are all continually learning and improving together. That's a vital part of my work and my hope for the Cambridge Public Library system.
Do you see the Cambridge Public Library as a model for the nation or are you focused solely on Cambridge?
I would extend that idea of listening, learning, modeling, testing, and piloting across the country. I have a lot of amazing colleagues across the country, and we have these conversations and share our knowledge as a way to try out a multitude of ways, and not only for Cambridge.
I also feel that my work is embedded in Cambridge and that I'm here for the Cambridge community and that while it is great to learn from others and share with others, my work is grounded in giving my heart and soul to Cambridge.