Seated at the desk in the Library Director’s office — a space she is not yet comfortable calling her own — Brenda McKinley moves aside a small desktop plaque inscribed with a Robert Browning quote: “The best is yet to be.” The gift from the Board of Trustees of the C.H. Booth Library speaks to the confidence placed in the woman chosen as the newest leader of the local library.
Ms McKinley stepped into her role as Director of the C.H. Booth Library on Tuesday, July 1, possessing not only the skills the Board of Trustees felt important to carry out the duties of that position, but with knowledge that could only come from someone who has been intimately involved in the local library through some of its most challenging days.
Ms McKinley, a Newtown resident for 12 years, has been employed at C.H. Booth Library (CHB) since 1995, when she accepted a position as part-time reference librarian. A graduate of the University of Connecticut with a BA in biology and a master’s in physiology and neurobiology, she earned a Masters in Library Science from Southern Connecticut University in 1992.
After working for Yale and for Bristol/Meyers/Squibb, the most common route for someone with her degrees from UConn, said Ms McKinley, would have been to go on to medical school or pursue a PhD.
“I didn’t really want either, though. I found that what really excited me was learning things,” she said, and that inspired her to turn to Library Science. “Being a librarian has allowed me to learn new things every day,” she said, and once she began working at CHB, she realized how much she enjoyed public librarianship.
“Personally, while I love learning, professionally I love helping people. I think all of us who work [at CHB] feel that way,” Ms McKinley said.
She was on the staff of the library during its expansion, and in 1998, started taking on responsibilities for systems. “In 2008, a full-time position as head of tech services opened,” she said, providing her with experience in ordering, cataloguing, working on collections, and supporting technology as it grew within the library. She also began supervising the circulation department at that time.
Three terrible storms in 2011 and 2012 devastated the community. Once power was restored to the center of town after each storm, Ms McKinley worked with other staff members to create a space where residents could use computers, recharge devices, and be warm.
As a staff member, Ms McKinley also experienced the trauma of 12/14, working to provide community members with refuge, and useful programs and reading materials. As so many other institutions in Newtown at the time, CHB received an overly generous influx of cards, letters, banners and quilts, all of which had to be processed by the staff. Well over 10,000 books were given out through the library’s Books Heal Hearts project.
Ms McKinley has paid attention to the two women who have been her mentors, former Director Janet Woycik, who retired in 2013, and Beryl Harrison, who has served as head of Reference and as interim director.
“Janet had such a talent for bringing together the exceptional staff we have, and had good community connections. She was all about putting our patrons first, and making [the library] a place people want to be,” Ms McKinley said.
Observing how Ms Harrison guided staff through a rough transition when a new library director was hired and abruptly resigned last fall, as well as when burst pipes flooded the library in January 2014, forcing a two-month closure, was enlightening, she said.
“Beryl’s ability to handle things with grace and calm was impressive. Beryl is known, too, for bending over backward for people. Having her as a mentor when I was in Reference, and with both of them as mentors on public service, was important to me. I will try to carry that through, as director. We are always trying to get patrons what they want. When people walk through the doors, I want them to feel welcome. This is their place,” said Ms McKinley.
She was pleased to find herself one of the final candidates for the directorship, and as one of the final recommendations by the Search Committee to the Board of Directors this spring. She is excited to have the opportunity to lead the C.H. Booth Library into the future.
The benefit of rising to this position from within, she believes, is in knowing the history, and being familiar with the staff.
“Being able to immediately value how fabulous our staff is, with no need to learn that,” makes the shift from staff to director that much easier, said Ms McKinley. “I am able to fully appreciate the challenges we’ve been through,” she pointed out.
A Team Approach
There is some awkwardness in going from colleague to boss, but the new direct of CHB is hoping that her previous role supervising staff will ease that transition.
“My management style is more of a team approach. I see my role as supporting the librarians in what they want to do. I hope it’s a smooth transition,” said Ms McKinley, barring unforeseen challenges.
Challenges that she does expect include the ever constant “trying to do more with less. That has always, and will always be, the challenge for a library,” Ms McKinley said. “The world we operate in is constantly changing, and we need to keep up with it,” she said.
In the immediate future, the staff, Board, and Ms McKinley will be looking at policies and procedures that need updating.
“We’re not jumping into big changes immediately. We have a new slate of officers on the Board of Trustees, and the better part of this fiscal year will be spent on [formulating] a new long-range plan for the library. Changes will come from that,” Ms McKinley said.
Community members, staff, and volunteers will have an opportunity to voice what that long-range plan should include, she said. “We want it to reflect what Newtown needs. I’m excited about this project. [The long-range plan] is a living document. We always need to work with and from it. That will really help us to move forward,” she said, adding, “Everyone is ready for us to move forward in a positive way.”
As she begins her now job, Ms McKinley feels a sense of renewed energy and excitement about many upcoming programs at the library.
“The CHBMakers is a program that is part of the MakerSpace movement in libraries, bringing the community together for mentoring in things like handicrafts and a video component,” she said. “[Children’s Librarian] Lana Bennison and [Young Adult Librarian] Kim Weber have been working on these ideas,” Ms McKinley said, and are planning an open house in September featuring the new 3D printer, among other activities.
The library will have a presence in September during Labor Day Parade, and then during the 3rd Annual Newtown Arts Festival, with Ms Bennison leading a “Pictionary kind of session” in the literary tent, said Ms McKinley. It builds on the importance the library places on community connection, she said.
In the Reference Department, librarian Andy Forsyth has introduced Drop-In Days, when anyone can get help with a variety of devices, she said, from iPhones to e-readers.
“Each department is doing some kind of interesting programming,” appealing to patrons of all ages, she said.
“I’m feeling positive about the Board of Directors-staff-director relationship,” said Ms McKinley, as well as the relationship with the Friends of the C.H. Booth Library.
“Newtown has decided a good library is a part of who we are, and that’s great.
“Everyone’s goal is to make the library a better place, and that,” she said, “is certainly my goal.”