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Article Published September 4, 2019
Amanda Brouwer Sees Libraries as Favorite Places
Aviva Luria, Staff Reporter

Starting a new job at a new place of work is a major life transition. When that job is a position of leadership, the stress level might be even higher. Add to the mix a staff that’s been through an especially difficult couple of years? It helps if you’re as steady and unflappable as Amanda Brouwer.

Amanda has been director of the Acton Public Library for one year now. In August 2017, then-director Michele Van Epps died after a long illness. Karen Giugno, the library’s assistant director and children’s librarian, stepped up as interim director until Selma Dautefendic was hired as director in January 2018.

But that didn’t work out. At a special meeting of the library’s Board of Directors (BOD) in July 2018, the following motion was made, seconded, and unanimously approved: “The Library Board finds the performance of the library director inadequate to meet the needs of the community.” Dautefendic left soon thereafter.

“I’ve been in places where there’s been upheaval,” Amanda says.

When she started at the Acton Public Library a year ago, “I wasn’t gung ho with saying we need to change everything. I sat back. We have a good group of people here and they just want what’s best for the community and the library. We’ve moved forward. I think they’ve welcomed me in this town and in the library and we’ve made some new hires. We’re just moving forward.”

Positive Change

It’s been a busy year. The library’s former young adult librarian, Erik Caswell, became reference librarian after the previous employee retired. A new part-time young adult librarian, Brian Story, was hired this August.

“That brings us up to fully staffed,” Amanda says. “We’re really excited because it’s been a tough summer—we’re really busy; there’s lots of really great programming going on. Our adult programmer, she’s on fire. She’s got a cookbook club, she did a running club—a couch to 5K. We have a genealogy group going on, we have a knitting group, a mystery book club, a regular book club.”

And that’s just the adult programming.

Amanda gives staff opportunities to follow their passions.

“I think it’s been beneficial because we have a really good response from the patrons and they seem excited by what we’re offering,” she says. “I get some nice notes and nice emails and those are always really nice to see.

“Those are the things that keep us going, when we actually see that people really appreciate what we’re doing,” she adds.

Story, the young adult librarian, plans to create a “teen advisory board so that the teens have a place to talk about what they want to see here, what kind of books they want, what kind of programs they want so they have a voice in decision making,” Amanda explains.

“As much as we’d like to think we’re cool, we’re not,” she says, laughing. “We don’t know what they want. We can hope to know what they want but we need to ask them. They’re full of opinions and they have their own ideas and they should be able to start exercising their voice and telling us what they need, too.”

And participating in the advisory board will be a way of earning community service hours.

“They are performing a community service by telling us what they need and what other teens might like, too,” Amanda says.

New Strategic Plan

Amanda and the BOD are embarking on a strategic plan to guide the next three- to five years of the library’s operations. The previous one was completed in 2009.

“It’s a nice way for us all to come together—staff and board and community—to know where the library is heading,” she says. “Sure, there’s a million great ideas, there’s a ton of things that you can do, but I think it’s nice to have it kind of laid out: our vision, goals, and objectives, and making sure we meet those. And if it’s not working, we need to reevaluate and look at those goals and maybe change the goals or objectives or maybe the way we’re doing it.

Feedback from patrons will be sought in various ways, including focus groups, “making sure that the patrons and the community is an integral part of deciding what we’re going to do three to five years in the future,” Amanda explains. “Population changes and we want to make sure that what we had planned however many years ago is updated. Things change in every community, every organization, so we’re just trying to keep up to make sure that we’re spending the taxpayer money wisely. That’s the charge of the BOD, to make sure they’re representing the community.”

The timing is right, Amanda says, as the state is offering grant funding, which should pay for a consultant.

“So that’s another bonus about starting now—that those funds are actually there,” she explains. “The board’s excited about it. I have a good board, they’re very active, they have a lot of good ideas. It’ll help us move forward.”

She estimates that the entire process, with the consultant’s help, should take six to eight months.

Then she tempers that prediction.

“We’re being optimistic,” she says, and laughs.

A Busy Year

This past year has seen maintenance upgrades, such as painting, carpet replacement, and an upgrade to the emergency lighting, which will switch on if there’s a power outage while people are in the building.

“It’s not glamorous, but this library sees over 100,000 people a year. So we’ve been doing a lot of maintenance around the building,” Amanda says.

The library’s quiet area also has a new study room.

“We have a lot of kids that come [to the library] after school,” she says.

In addition to providing a devoted space for studying or working on projects, it helps reduce demand for the second-floor conference rooms. The new study room has a maximum occupancy of four and can be used for two hours at a time on a first come, first served basis, Amanda explains.

Notary public services will be available beginning in October, as Amanda and one other staff member have obtained their notary public commissions. The service will be free, but for up to three pages only. Patrons must call in advance to have documents notarized.

“A lot of times banks close at 4 o’clock and you just can’t get there,” she says; the library is open late two nights a week.

Libraries as Favorite Places

After graduating from Eastern Connecticut State University with an English degree, Amanda, a native of Waterford, wasn’t sure what she would do next, but she knew that libraries were some of her favorite places.

“I started up in Tolland just to figure out what I liked about libraries,” she says.

She went on to earn a master of library and information science from Southern Connecticut State University.

“I’ve been in all different kinds [of library positions],” she explains. “I’ve done internships in the historical library down in New London, I’ve worked in a high school library. But I love public libraries. I think that’s where my passion lies. Being around all different kinds of people, making sure that we’re bridging barriers and making sure people get the information they need. It’s simple stuff, but it’s really important.”

Among other positions, Amanda worked in circulation at the Groton Public Library, was head of reference at the Otis Library in Norwich, and served as director of Hebron’s Douglas Library for around 4 ½ years, after which she accepted the position in Old Saybrook.

For Amanda, the role of libraries “first and foremost [is] always about the information. It’s being able to get people the information they need when they need it. As far as technology, that is meeting them in the format that they need...So many times people just come in and take pictures of things now.”

Even the methods to alert patrons that the books they placed on hold are ready are tailored to individual preferences. Once, a notice was sent by mail. Now, in addition to phone calls and emails, the library sends text messages.

“We’re just trying to meet the need—meet them in the place they are,” Amanda says.

“We realize that, as a library, we’re also space and that’s really needed. We’re a free and open space for people to just be. We don’t expect anything out of you when you come into the library other than to be a nice person and treat everyone around [you] well.

“But libraries are one of the last places where you can sit down and just read a book and you don’t have to belong,” Amanda says. “You can just come in.”