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Lokvani Talks To Priya Rathnam

Ranjani Saigal

(This article is sponsored by Immigration Solutions)

Assistant Director of the Shrewsbury Library, Priya Rathnam has a passion to help people. She has worked on transforming the library to make it a must visit place in Shrewsbury. In 2013 she won the Library Journal Movers and Shakers award. A dynamic leader who transforms challenges into opportunities, Rathnam gives us an insight into the future of the public libraries

How did you decide to pursue a career in the public library? 

I came to the US in 2001 and fell in love with American libraries! While working as a teacher at a private Catholic school in Lexington, I used the resources at the local public library. I moved to Shrewsbury in 2004 and started volunteering at the Shrewsbury Public Library. My conviction that I wanted to be a librarian was strengthened and I enrolled in a Master’s in Library and Information Studies program at the University of Rhode Island in 2005. I also started working part-time at the library. I was gaining practical and theoretical knowledge and I enjoyed every minute of it. When I became a full-time Children’s librarian in 2006, I was ecstatic. Talk about realizing your dream – my personal dream was woven with the American dream! Where else but in America can you go back to school and start a new career at middle age? I then went on to become a Reference Librarian and in 2014, I became the Assistant Director of the Library!  

What do you think is the greatest contribution of the American public libraries?

The American public library is the bedrock of American democracy. Any person of any age, nationality, or socio-economic background can get a free library card and can access resources from any library from practically the whole state. Public libraries encourage lifelong learning; foster a love for books; provide access to internet and wifi to people who can’t afford it in their homes; help in serendipitous discovery of new products and services; and provide opportunities to network and participate in various activities. The slogan of the American Library Association is “Libraries transform your community” and, I think, that is the most precise definition of public libraries.

What challenges are the public libraries facing in the new information age? 

I think one of the main challenges that we face is the public perception of libraries. Libraries are not merely warehouses of books but dynamic institutions that keep up with changing societal trends. Library professionals today are nothing like the stereotypical shushing librarians of the past century but they are early adopters of technology and eager to help library users navigate the digital age. I would encourage everyone to visit the library in their town and see what a vibrant center of learning it is. Libraries are in the business of disseminating information and librarians will find the information you are looking for in the format that you want. 

Most people are not aware of ALL that the library has to offer. Parents of young children are attracted to children’s programs and resources available for kids. Teens might go to the library to do research, look for volunteer opportunities or borrow movies, music CDs, or video games. Adults might be interested in borrowing bestsellers or classics and everything in between; getting tax forms; or attending book discussion groups or computer classes. If everyone got the whole picture, it would be nice, because the library has something to offer people of all ages and individuals with varied interests. Looking for book clubs, coloring clubs, Scrabble groups, music or dance programs, archaeology or genealogy workshops, science (STEM)-themed programs, author visits, yoga or meditation workshops? Chances are you’ll find them at your public library! 

 How are the public libraries morphing to support the current customer base?

Around 2010, when e-books started getting popular and a lot of people got Kindles or Nooks for Christmas, they came to the library to learn how to download books on to their devices. Librarians not only taught them how to use their devices but also showed them how to download free e-books from the library! We offer classes on information technology and have digital petting zoos so our patrons can get familiar with smart phones, tablets, e-readers, digital cameras etc. 

Print books and digital media can and do coexist at the library! Did you know that you can stream videos, download music, download e-books, e-audio, take courses online and access databases like Ancestry.com from your library website? So, even when the bricks and mortar library is closed, the virtual library can be accessed 24/7!
In addition to books, DVDs, music CDs,and video games, you can also borrow non-traditional items like board games, gardening tools and kitchen gadgets. You certainly can, at the Shrewsbury Public Library! You can also get seeds to start your own vegetable garden! Our Library purchased a 3-D printer about a year ago and patrons can request objects to be printed. 
 What new services are you offering in Shrewsbury Public Library to suit the new clientele?  

The population of Shrewsbury and the neighboring towns in the Greater Worcester area is extremely diverse. As a Children’s librarian I noticed that we had a loyal following among Indian American patrons, so I started a collection of bilingual children’s books from Tulika publishers. We have picture books in various Indian languages that are very popular. I also conducted bilingual story times in English and Hindi and English and Tamil. I have been organizing quarterly multicultural performances that showcase the rich local talent. The Library celebrates festivals like Chinese New Year, Chinese Mooncake Festival, Diwali, Holi, and Raksha Bandhan. Various culinary traditions have been celebrated. Performers of Middle Eastern music, Latin American music, Native American music, Irish and Celtic music have entertained Shrewsbury audiences. 

I launched an English Conversation Circle program for adults –  recent immigrants who wish to improve their conversational skills and learn about American culture. For one year, I taught the group myself but then the demand for this service grew exponentially and I applied for a federal grant administered by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners. When we were awarded the grant in 2010, I was able to expand the English Conversation Circle program to offer 4 sessions a week. I have been the Project Director and overseen the work of dedicated volunteers who facilitate these sessions.   Hundreds of new residents have benefited from this free service and I’ve been fortunate to be awarded a grant from the Greater Worcester Community Foundation for the past four years and that has helped us sustain this much-needed service. In 2016, we added a fifth session to meet the growing demand for this program.

The recession of 2008 affected Shrewsbury library patrons too and I noticed that a lot more patrons using the public computers were asking for help with submitting job applications online. So I launched a Job seekers’ network called Work Initiative Network (WIN). This networking group has been meeting twice a month since Fall 2012 and career coaches and employment experts are invited to these meetings to share tips on job-search related topics like resume writing and interview techniques.

Another collaborative project that I’m proud of is called Greenhouse for Entrepreneurs. This is a partnership between public libraries and Krosslink.org, conceived by Venkat Kolluri, CEO and Founder of Chitika and Cidewalk. Shrewsbury Library is one of the pilot libraries participating in this venture and strives to bring aspiring entrepreneurs and successful business owners and startup founders together to learn and grow. 

 How best can we use the public library system?

It’s important to be aware of the physical and electronic resources available in a library. It’s also imperative to support your local government and vote in favor of municipal funding so that libraries can thrive. In Shrewsbury, we are very fortunate as the residents overwhelmingly voted to expand and renovate the library so that it will be a 21st century library in every sense of the term. Our “new” library will be functional by Fall 2016 and I invite all Lokvani readers to visit us! 

Find out about all the informative, educational, entertaining programs/events for all ages at your library. If it’s not available at your local library, it might still be available in a library in your neighboring town. Ask for a service and your librarian will be willing to accommodate your request, if it’s affordable.

 Do you think such a resource can be brought to India? 

I wish and hope that more public libraries are created in India. If local government officials set their minds to it and put aside funds to start libraries, the dream can become a reality. Philanthropic organizations can also play a part in this undertaking. I’m sure there are dedicated individuals who would be eager to work as librarians. Schools and colleges in India have good libraries and I think, it’s more important to provide access to good books and resources for the underprivileged. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!

Any other thoughts you would like to share? 

Going to work every day is a joy for me. I feel so blessed to have a second career in my life - to meet interesting people and to brainstorm with other librarians and come up with creative and innovative ideas to make our library a community hub and a place where everyone wants to hang out! 
I have to tip my hat to the Director of the Shrewsbury Public Library, Ellen Dolan, who is a visionary and a compassionate leader who genuinely believes that a library is successful because of the residents in the community. I have been influenced by her leadership and am looking forward to serving with her in this exciting time for Shrewsbury!

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