2018-01-26 / Front Page

A page turns at Kennebunk Free Library

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

Michelle Conners, 32, was hired as director of the Kennebunk Free Library effective Jan. 1, following two years assistant director of the 136-year-old institution. She replaces former director Jill LeMay, a retired educator, who stepped down in November after six and a half years. (Duke Harrington photo) Michelle Conners, 32, was hired as director of the Kennebunk Free Library effective Jan. 1, following two years assistant director of the 136-year-old institution. She replaces former director Jill LeMay, a retired educator, who stepped down in November after six and a half years. (Duke Harrington photo) KENNEBUNK — When the board of trustees for the Kennebunk Free Library launched a national search for a new director last fall, they ended up not having to go very far for the ideal candidate.

As assistant director and head of adult services for the past two years, Michelle Conners was well versed in the job, having already facilitated close to 400 programs serving more than 4,600 attendees in addition to managing a collection of more than 45,000 items. A modern library is, of course, much more than a repository of books, and someone with that ability to meet the many needs of the community beyond just getting new tomes on and off the shelves was deemed a perfect fit for the future

“Michelle’s organizational skills and library science expertise, not to mention her experience as our assistant and then interim director advanced her to the top of our list for the director search,” said trustee president Karen Plattes. “We know that KFL patrons will benefit from her knowledge of KFL and her leadership.”

Conners, 32, of East Waterboro, officially ascended to the top job Jan. 1, taking over from Jill LeMay, a retired educator, who stepped down in November after six and a half years.

A native of Long Island, New York, Conners, holds a master’s degree in library science from Queens College in Flushing, New York. A former director of the Long Island Maritime Museum and Elward Smith Library in West Sayville, New York, Conners came to Maine five years ago and landed first at the Walker Memorial Library in Westbrook before winning the No. 2 job in Kennebunk.

It’s been a big year of change for Conners. In addition to the director’s position at KFL, her first child, Sophia, turned 1-yea- old this past week. On Monday, Jan. 24, Conners took some time from planning that birthday party — and preparing her first $780,000 annual budget proposal — to share with Post readers a little bit about herself and what the future holds for the library.

Q: Congratulations on the new job. It seems a lot of libraries are turning the page to a new generation these days.

A: It kind of goes with a lot of the trends in librarianship recently. There are a lot of the old generation who are retiring and there’s a few of us, all within a year or two of each other, who are taking on leadership roles at libraries across Maine, from Lewiston to Cape Elizabeth, to Boothbay Harbor. So, younger directors in my age range are suddenly becoming more common.

Q: Where were you born and raised?

A: I was born on Long Island and lived in Florida for a while, then went back to Long Island for college and grad school, then came to Maine about five years ago.

Q: What brought you here?

A: My husband Justin transferred for his job. He’s an air traffic controller at the Portland International Jetport tower. I was working at a museum and library in New York, and was sad to go, but I knew that within that organization I was kind of at the top. There was nowhere else to move. It was a small library, so I knew that, without going into the city every day, there weren’t going to be too many options for me. When we came to Maine I got a job as head of circulation at the Walker Memorial Library in Westbrook and was there for about a year and a half.

Q: What attracted you to applying to KFL?

A: It was a promotion from the job I was in at Westbrook and was also more similar to the job I held at the Long Island Maritime Museum. Like KFL, that was a nonprofit, and I had really enjoyed working within that kind of system, where you get to see all aspects of the operations, from finances, to the building, to human resources — you’re a part of each wheel that is moving. At a municipal library, you just perform your one function and you don’t get as involved like that. You don’t feel as much a part of the organization, in my opinion. So, I felt like I was missing out. Here, I had the opportunity again to be a part of every in and out.

Q: What first attracted you to a career as a librarian?

A: As an undergrad, my dream at the time was being a sports journalist. I wanted to work at ESPN. I enjoyed taking those classes but it seemed like a lot of people in sports up reporting what the stations or outlets want them to report. That’s definitely not everyone, but the media ethics classes I took had an influence on me, so I changed things up and went directly from being an undergrad to working toward my masters degree in library science.

Q: And why that particular option, out of everything you might have chosen?

A: Libraries were, I thought [when] growing up, just an escape. It was an interesting combination for me. I was very involved as an athlete. But when I wasn’t on the field, the library was the place I always wanted to be. And it wasn’t just for books. It was a place for meeting people, for contemplation, for learning in general. So, it just seemed natural for that to be the thing I wanted to do.

Q: What is your earliest memory of a library?

A: It’s kind of like, as I say, I don’t remember learning how to throw a ball. So, I don’t remember my first trip to the library. It’s just something that always was. It was just a part of my life from as far back as I can remember. My grandmother and my mom were in education and parks and recreation, and going to the library was just another part of the day.

Q: What is your fondest memory of your local library, as a child?

A: Something I remember that made an impression on me, and it’s something simple, but I remember having a book out — I was probably in the fifth grade — I and just couldn’t find it, couldn’t find it, no matter where I looked, and finally went back to the library and they were very generous. Even at that age, you hear the stereotypes of librarians and libraries being very stern, and I was so surprised that I didn’t get that slap on the wrist. It was just a nice experience, that they were trying to help, that they knew I was just a kid and interested in checking out books. And it’s the same thing here. We try to work with everyone. People aren’t out trying to steal things. And kids especially, you don’t know what kinds of situations they may be having at home, so we want to just encourage them to keep coming back, just like those librarians encouraged me. There was never this feeling of, oh, you lost this book, you’re a bad person and banished forever. They just kept encouraging me.

I also loved that, as a kid, there was no censoring of what I chose to check out and bring home. I could check out a Stephen King novel as a sixth grader. That’s where my reading level was at the time and my parents encouraged me to read whatever I liked. I was able to go though the shelves and take out whatever interested me. There was no one telling me, no that’s not appropriate, or, no, you can’t do that. It was what I wanted to do. That was an amazing freedom to have.

Q: What was your favorite reading material as a child?

A: I did really enjoy a lot of fantasy. And I still do. But I was really into vampires as a kid. So, like, Anne Rice novels. Now I do a lot more adventure-fantasy, like the Dragonlance novels, or Dungeon’s and Dragons novels.

Q: What’s on your nightstand right now?

A: (laughs) There’s always a few. Right now I’m reading a book about how much digital exposure you should have with your children. [Screen Time: How Electronic Media, From Baby Videos to Educational Software, Affects Your Young Child, by Lisa Guernsey] My husband is into video games, and so am I, so I’m not opposed to it, but I do want to know what the thoughts are on where’s that balance. I’m also listening to My Own Words, by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginburg. That’s my “car book.” I listen to it on the way to and from work, because that’s pretty much the only real, full reading time I get in these days, with a one year old at home. I also have the audio book for the new Brandon Sanderson novel, too, in The Stormlight Archive series.

Q: How did you get you first library job?

A: I started out as an internship at the Long Island Maritime Museum. That was fun because I was focusing on a certificate in archiving at the time. So, I was able to do some projects, preservation of materials and finding ages and tracking the history of materials. Then, after I started working there, I began to get involved in all other aspects. One day, they came to me and asked, “Do you know any bookkeeping?” I was, like, “No, but I’m willing to learn.” I’m always happy to learn.

Q: How big a part of your life is that drive to never stop learning?

A: I love learning. If there’s something I don’t know, I want to learn about it. I think in general that’s why I decided to become a librarian, because everything is a learning experience. If I encounter something I’m not sure of, that I don’t have any background in, I think, “Even better.” Yeah, I never thought I’d be working with accounting software doing bookkeeping, but it’s a great change from the everyday. When you are dealing with words, words, words, it’s a nice metal break to go to numbers for a little bit.

Q: Now that you officially have the top job at KFL, after a couple of months as interim director, what ideas do you have for new programs.

A: Well, as far as programs go, we are very fortunate in that all of us here have been given the green light that, if you’re interested in something, go for it. Costs aside — because we only have $1,000 for the year to stage programs, and a single performer could cost $300-$500 for one show — we’ve been able to achieve most of what we’ve wanted to. If someone comes in with an idea, I’ll jump right on top of it. Sometimes it takes time to get everything lined up, and price sometimes factors in, but if there’s one person expressing interest there are probably more and we are here to serve everyone. So, we have all sorts of programs.

Q: What are some examples?

A: We really have an outstanding number of adult programs. Just last week we hosted a needle-felting program, which has been a popular craft lately. We had 18 spots and 51 people signed up. So, we kept those names and we are trying to set up some more classes in the near future. We also have different speaking programs from the Maine Humanities Council and the Camden Conference that bring in topics from Trump- Era politics to U.S./China relations. We also recently hosted a program on post-traumatic stress disorder with professors from the University of New England that was wonderful. And then going back to crafts, we had almost 100 people come in to make gingerbread houses, including people who came in just for that, who had never been to the library before. And that’s great. If you come in just to attend a program, or to print something off, that’s okay. That’s using the library. You don’t have to walk away with a library card.

Q: What has been your most popular program, of late?

A: Our “Tech Time” service has just been overwhelmed. We have a two-hour designated period each week that people can come in for any questions and that is booked way in advance. We knew it would be popular when we started it in September, but we had no idea. It’s gone way behind our original concept. We thought we’d help people download an app or access the cloud library, but it’s been everything — from helping someone set up an email account or navigate the internet for the first time, to helping people print out mailing labels for their business, or put photos into a slide show for their family. We knew this we needed but had no idea it would be as big as it is.

Q: What does the future hold for KFL?

A: Moving forward, we are looking to start a new strategic planning process. Our current five-year plan is up in 2018. We really want to be assessing our library right now. We are very happy with it and our patrons generally have very good feedback, but there’s a lot more that we could be doing. We are running low on space for programs. Sometimes we have to turn people away just because we don’t have the room. We’ve had more than 100 people come to some things and, having moved all of the furniture out of the reading room to make more space, still had people sitting outside the room.

And it’s hard in that, in order to make room for new materials, we may end up having to take an item out of circulation that is still popular, that’s been checked out 20 times in the last three years, but it’s just not moving as much as other things, so we’ll end up saying, well, we can still get that within a day or two through the statewide interlibrary loan.

So, we are in definite need of an expansion. But we are limited. We can’t really push out. We have problems with parking already. I can’t see us moving. This building means a lot to us and it’s in a great location. But everything is on the table — can we build up, do we need a parking garage, can we turn our garden area into an indoor amphitheater. Everything is on the table and I hope to land a really great consultant to help guide us in the right direction.

We also have some hiring to do. My old job needs to be filled, and one of our employees just left for the job as director of the Waterboro library. We’re happy for her, but that’s a loss for us. Luckily, we have an incredibly strong volunteer base. If you count everyone, including those who just help out with our annual road race, we probably have more than 80. But there are two to five here every day, and that’s fantastic.

We also need to look at upgrading our technologies. We do OK, but we need faster speeds and no connection issues. If someone comes in to print out their tax forms, they should not have to wait. They should be able to do that quickly. We don’t want people to get frustrated and leave here having had that experience.

Q: In the digital age, why keep physical books at all?

A: We do have e-books and we’re part of the state cloud library, but there have been libraries that have tried to transition more to digital, and that has not always been that successful. People still want to hold that physical book in their hands. e-book sales have actually been going down.

Q: Why is that, do you think?

A: Well, I think a part of it is that you always have to be keeping up with the latest technology, whereas with a printed book, apart from the physical sensation of it, once you’ve bought it, you have it always, long after whatever e-reader you have has gone away. Something may come along to wash it out generation and generations from now, but its still pretty stable. But as far as the library goes, and people don’t realize this, we don’t pay the individual fee for an electronic title like we do a printed book. For an ebook, we may be charged $150 and told, OK this can go out 50 times or two years, whichever comes first, and then it’ll no longer exist in your cloud library. So, it’s counter-intuitive, but the costs behind e-books are very difficult. It’s hard to relate that to people, because it really doesn’t make sense.

Q: What is the most challenging aspect of your new job?

A: The building itself. It can be said of most any degree, but almost every day there’s a case of, well, they didn’t teach you this in library school. But when you are trying to maintain a building, parts of which date to 1906, and trying to keep up with maintenance, as mush as we love this space, it can be a challenge. The extreme cold we had recently showed us we have some pipes that we needed to get some TLC to. And our fluorescent lighting is outdated. But we can’t just switch to LEDs because none of the fixtures were made for that purpose. So, we are going through an energy survey to hopefully try and get some grants to get some new fixtures. So, every day is a new challenge. No matter how far you think you’ve gotten ahead, then the next light blows, or whatever.

Q: And what is your favorite part going to work every day at the Kennebunk Free Library?

A: Coming here, I absolutely love it. We have the best staff, the best volunteers and patrons. Just everybody combined. There are some organizations where you’re like, “Ugg, so this is what they meant about being an adult.” But you come here and people are cracking up and having fun all day long while they’re working. And it’s not just games. Everyone is productive. But it is that fun atmosphere that fuels that productivity. I saw that when I first came here as assistant director and I’m so happy to be a part of that. I love being here. I’m just thrilled each time I walk through the door. I know I have a lot of work to do, and no matter how much more I do there’ll be tons more to do the next day, and I’ll probably have to work over the weekend, but it’s just worth it. The atmosphere here is such that you really want to work hard for the organization. Jill LeMay really created that and I’m just trying to carry that on.

Staff Writer Wm. Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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