By BOB TUROSZ
NORTH READING – Helena Minton will retire at the end of this month after 13 years as director of the Flint Memorial Library and, while she will be sorry to leave the job that has defined her life since May 2001, she knows she’s leaving the library in a strong position to continue serving the community.
Minton’s previous position was assistant director at the Peabody Institute Library, the public library in Peabody, which prepared her for the changes and challenges facing public libraries in the 21st century.
“Certainly the technology has increased tremendously,” she said, remembering that when she interviewed for the job she promised a library website which of course, most people take for granted now. “And certainly the emphasis on social media in the last few years, from Facebook to Twitter to Pinterist have changed the landscape for libraries. Every library needs a Facebook page now,” she commented.
Then there have been other additions like Overdrive to allow readers to download e-books and bringing in e-readers to keep pace with technology.
Minton will be remembered for the successful North Reading Reads community book program which just finished up its 11th year with “Beautiful Ruins” by Jess Walter. The program started with “Travels with Charlie” by John Steinbeck in 2003 and won a grant a few years later to bring in author Roland Merullo when his novel “In Revere in those days” was the chosen book. Another very popular choice was “A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson.
“It’s a busy library for a town this size,” said Minton and children’s programs have always been strong. As with public libraries everywhere, finances has remained a challenge although the library has always maintained certification and Minton credits a supportive group of trustees and Friends as well as the support of the Selectmen.
“When there’s a real crisis, there is an enormous swell of support as there was when the 2002 override failed” and library hours were cut, she said. “Everyone reveres the historic building and the children’s programming. The staff is very helpful. It’s been a privilege to work here.”
Patrons like the technological advances that have been introduced in the library catalog through the Merrimack Valley Library Consortium (MVLC), she said, as well as the museum passes that have been added by the Friends. “It’s a community gathering place, people like to come and chat in here.”
Recently the library added a new “browsing café” on the first floor, complete with tables and leather chairs to encourage people to linger and make themselves at home. There are two active book groups, the North Reading Book Discussion Club and the Evening Book Group. “They take it very seriously,” she said.
For a couple of years now Minton and the trustees have been warning that in order to maintain state certification, the library will have to be open for business more hours per week. The state Department of Revenue has finally caught up with the town census in certifying North Reading’s population at 15,254, she said. Because the 15,000 threshold has been crossed, the library will have to add hours of operation or risk losing certification from the State Board of Library Commissioners – and the state library aid that goes with it.
This will be a financial challenge, Minton admits. At present the Flint is required to be open 40 hours a week but with a population of over 15,000 it will have to be open at least 50 hours a week. The trustees have been asking for 54 hours to allow for a more regular schedule, with the building to be open Monday and Wednesday mornings and Wednesday night. Fortunately, there’s a three-year grace period and town financial planners have until 2017 to provide the funding.
People have been predicting the demise of libraries since the Internet was born and the first e-readers were introduced but it hasn’t happened yet and Minton knows it will never happen. “There’s been such a push for technology but at the same time there’s a counter push, a ‘maker space’ push for libraries as an area where people can come in and physically do things.” It’s connected to the concept of “innovation labs” she said, and can be as high tech as a 3-D printer or as traditional as the knitting and crocheting groups that use the Flint. “It’s hands on and people can come in to classes and learn how to do things.”
“That’s what people mean when they talk about the library as a community center, not just to come here and listen to lectures but to interact and make things,” she said. “I certainly don’t think every library can have a maker space but they can do those things to become a community center.”
“A library is a refuge, it’s a physical space that people like to go to. It’s the ‘third space’ – it’s not home and it’s not work. It has a lot of amenities with comfortable chairs.”
The director’s job has taken up most of her life for the last 13 years and she will definitely miss it. “I’ll miss the connection to the community and the atmosphere of the building. Just coming in every day has been a joy.” And she particularly enjoyed the Library’s involvement in the Middle School’s choice of “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio as a book project last year.
She will miss the library’s “wonderful staff” and making things happen as well as the interaction she’s had with so many people. She will certainly drop in occasionally but her immediate plans are for a trip to France followed by a visit to her son, who lives in China. Together they plan to travel in Southeast Asia in February. She has always been interested in poetry and intends to continue to write.
Minton’s last day on the job will Friday, Aug. 29. There will be a reception for her in the library on Saturday, Sept. 13 from 2 to 4 p.m