An unlikely action figure adorns the desk of Sarah Campbell, who will become the new executive director of the Portland Public Library on July 11. Campbell, a Chicago native, majored in psycholinguistics in college and worked in education afterward. Occasionally she worked in libraries and returned to that profession after moving to Portland 22 years ago. She was the director of library and learning research at York County Technical College (now York County Community College) and then joined the Portland Public Library, where she’s now associate director.

Clad in a modest below-the-knee skirt and holding a finger to her lips in the quintessential “shush” pose is an action figure of Nancy Pearl, a librarian of epic renown. Campbell explains why.

Q: You mentioned you were planning to attend a speech by Nancy Pearl this week. Who is she and why are you excited to hear her?

A: She is a public librarian who has become a national speaker to talk about the love of books and how people can learn about books they should read next. She wrote a series of books called Book Lust, and it goes genre by genre – if you like this book, you will like these others. She’s wonderful and contagious in her enthusiasm and amazingly prolific. She’s coming to Maine to talk about how we recommend books to our communities. She’s kind of a national hero and an action figure was made of her. I inherited one.

Q: So despite the action figure’s pose, you say libraries are no longer the place where you get shushed. How are they changing?

A: People have interests and need to learn at various stages of their lives, and have needs to connect to information and other people. The library of old, with shelves of books, is one way to do that. Now, given all the tools available, we can offer programs, experiences and spaces that are welcoming for interaction. What is quite different is the levels of partnership. Libraries are tapping into what the community can offer and we develop partnerships around that. Obviously, we are committed to working with children and teens and early literacy. We also have a teen library with resources and programs and experiences we offer. And, we’re deeply committed to lifelong learning. Those are sort of the age categories. We’re also focusing on working with the business community and we do a lot of programming and offer online resources and physical resources for people who are trying to grow their businesses. We work with government to make resources more available and we’re also working on providing health resources and offer programs for adults to build a sense of being a citizen-scientist. We’re trying to make available more resources about Portland’s history.


Q: In this digital age, libraries are on the decline and rarely used. True or false?

A: That is false. The role that libraries play for people is making connections for them. Certainly, people can search for information and pursue interests themselves, but part of our role is to help people know how to make those connections and we can be guides and conveners.

Q: Do people still find libraries a comforting place to go?

A: We value very much becoming a welcome and trusted place, and libraries are trusted only second to the fire department. We know people value the library, whether they’re using it that day or not. We are relevant, attentive and engaged. We also are very spontaneous, we are always looking for ways to be creative and match the curiosity of the area – to provide a way for people to try something new, and sometimes we’re trying something new at the same time. It’s also important to make the point that public libraries are democratic, with a small d. We want to make information available so people can be informed citizens.

Q: Do you feel Portland’s libraries are further along in this evolution, or are other libraries around the country also changing and adapting?

A: This is very much the direction that public libraries are going. There are libraries that are father down the road, but the idea of being a community center is true throughout the world.


Q: What’s your favorite book?

A: The book that I’m reading right now that I’m really enjoying is “The Boys in the Boat” (about the U.S. rowing team in the 1936 Olympics). It’s a wonderful story of an unlikely success and speaks to all sorts of ways that people lead one another and collaborate and have success with each other.

Q: Do you ever find weird things in books that people use as bookmarks?

A: We mostly find beautiful bookmarks – real bookmarks – though occasionally dentist bills, photographs and even sometimes dollar bills. Once it was a $50 bill! We try to contact the person who had the book and hold it for them to come back for it.

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