Maureen Hartman was named permanent director of the St. Paul Public Library in May. An English major in college, Hartman said she was bitten by the library bug after volunteering shortly after graduating from college.
Her job is no small task, she admits. As libraries have become community hubs, complete with social services, they must remain safe and welcoming spaces.
Eye On St. Paul sat down with Hartman to talk about the St. Paul library system's past — and future. This interview was edited for length.
Q: Tell me a little bit about you.
A: The first thing you should know about me is: I'm a library person. I've really been able to see firsthand the continued evolution [of libraries]. I've been with the St. Paul Public Library about six years. I was the deputy director for public services prior to this role.
I went to Macalester [College]. I was an English major. And when I graduated with my English degree, I was sort of like, "Well, what am I going to do now?" I happened to live very close to the Merriam Park Library. So, one day, I got the idea — I'd always liked libraries — of just volunteering. And the job they assigned me was to clean all the children's picture books.
I stood in the workroom, and I cleaned them one after another after another with a sponge.
Q: When was that?
A: This was 1996, 1997.
So, I was doing this cleaning and I'd done a couple shifts of it, and I thought, "This is kind of boring." I started looking around and I saw the people who were doing other things, helping community members, and I thought: "I wonder how I could do that?" I'm sorry to say I quit my volunteer job. But I ended up going to graduate school. I got a master's in library science.
Q: When you say you're a library person, what does that mean?
A: I think what's beautiful about being a library person is there are so many different traits. What I meant was that I am so passionate about libraries. In particular, I'm passionate about public libraries. And I have the beauty, the joy, the privilege of being able to see on an everyday basis how libraries make a difference in people's lives.
And we can get really feisty when we hear people say, "Well, I don't know, libraries may not be relevant."
Q: I don't hear "not relevant." When I write a story about the expanding role of libraries, I hear, "You should just be a library, stop doing all this other stuff."
Q: Do you hear any of that?
A: Libraries have been in St. Paul for over 100 years, and our mission is really unchanged. It's how we deliver our mission that's different. If you go way back to 1917, when the Central Library opened, we have the same mission. The mission is to connect the residents of St. Paul with information. Information that they use to live their life, to do their job, to go to school. And that mission hasn't changed at all. What's different is the kinds of things that we're referring people to and the different kinds of information and services that people are seeking out.
As library service has evolved, that answer might be on the internet , it might be a referral to a person who might be able to find you a place to stay for the night. That answer might be, "Yes, I have a program for you and your child to learn to read better."
Q: What are the skills you need now to be a librarian?
A: You know, that's a topic of much discussion in the library field. That [library science] degree is not necessarily required in order to be a good library staff person and be responsive and deliver services to the community.
I have a master's in library science. I'm proud of it. It's not required for my job. But I also know that the ways that libraries are continuing to evolve, for that degree to continue to stay relevant, it has to evolve.
Q: Last year, we heard library staffers asking for more staff, more security, more safety. Where have things gone on that front?
A: There's nothing more important to me than the safety of our staff and our community members. And two things are in motion that I want to highlight: In last year's budget cycle, a substitute staffing budget was put into our budget. It's enabled us to provide more temporary staff to fill in those gaps, so that when staff call in sick or when they're at a training, that we're able to bring in more part-time, temporary folks to ensure the staffing levels are adequate.
And we got $1.5 million in [federal American Rescue Plan] funding from the city. We're doing two things at the same time. That has meant in some cases increasing the number of security guards and also operating in a different way. We're creating a new role of library safety and support specialist. We are working on that project and are hoping to have those positions ready to start at the end of the year.
Q: As a user of the public library, should I be worried about my safety?
A: I absolutely believe you will have a safe experience. And I also recognize that folks have different definitions about what safety means. What's important for us is we're staying in regular conversations with you so we can understand: What does it feel like when you come into the space? What might make you feel safe might make someone else feel entirely unsafe. We're navigating what makes spaces feel safe, but also welcome, so that everyone feels like they belong.