Trenton Free Public Library, presented Sep 25, 2017 by Patricia Hall, Director of Operations

Trenton Symposium, Sept 25, 2017

Freddie’s Tavern, Railroad Ave., Ewing

Guest, Patricia Hall, Director of Operations, Trenton Free Public Library

Joe Teti called the meeting to order at 12:10.

Joe asked for a treasurer’s report, and George reported that we had $1045 in the bank.  The report was accepted by voice vote.

Joe introduced Dr. Jane Rohlf, an internist, joining us for the first time.

After lunch, Joe called upon Shan Holt to introduce Patricia Hall, who was our speaker.  Patricia noted several connections to the Symposium, including Lolly and Richard O’Brien, neighbors on Fisher Place who were attending today.  She introduced her assistant who had come along to the talk.

She quickly and kindly corrected my error in introducing her as director of the library, noting that she was operations manager of the library, currently studying for her Masters in Library Science so that she could become the library director by civil service rules.  We all felt, by the end of her talk, that it was a crime not to give her the full position.  More on that below …

Patricia was born and raised in Trenton, and lives on Fisher Place with her husband Patrick.  In addition to her professional work at the Library, she is an ordained minister on the staff at TrueLove Ministries, works with Men, Women, Youth for Hope, and serves on the board of the Trenton Literacy Movement.  She had her first library card at age 4, and had to be admonished not to read and walk at the same time! At 19, she joined the library staff as a junior library assistant. 

The Trenton Free Public Library has a fascinating history, which alone justifies preserving it as a living institution.  It opened as a subscription library in 1750, the oldest in New Jersey and the 2nd oldest in the nation.  The first investment was $200 from Benjamin Franklin, and the library still has 3 of the books bought with that gift.  The Hessians who occupied the city in 1776 burned the building.  The collection was entirely lost, except for 10 volumes that were circulating and so in other locations.  Library staff recently has been able to identify 3 of those remaining original volumes and preserve them.

As an adult staff member, Patricia lived through terribly hard times for the Library.  The 2008 budget or $8 million was cut by Mayor Tony Mack to $4 million, forcing the layoff of more than half the staff and the closing of all the branches.  Patricia retired from the Library in 2013, as an administrator at the Main Library on Academy Street.  After 18 months of building up her other professional and personal interests, the Library called her back 2 years ago.  Her sense is that the library needs leadership with love, compassion, and dedication to the people of Trenton, and this she works hard to provide.

Her earlier experience at several branches cemented her commitment to helping children learn to read.  She recently heard from a young man whom she had met when he was a lost, lonely, non-reading 5 year old.  She had spent a summer with him, teaching him to read, and to love reading.  She saw it as giving him his chance to grow, and he credits her with saving his life.  That branch closed in 2010 when the budget was again cut to $2.2 million.

She is trying to create a 21st century library for Trenton on a budget now at $2 million.  The biggest circulating item today is DVDs, but Trenton’s library is not like others.  It needs not just library-related services, but basic foundational services like repairs to the building.  That morning the air conditioning unit had broken, so with the temperature at 90 degrees outdoors, the library had to close altogether and won’t reopen until the weather moderates.  Replacing the defective chiller could cost as much at $40,000, and it’s unlikely that the city of Trenton will contribute that much.

Meanwhile, Patricia is trying to reopen the branches, so that all of Trenton’s children can access the library in their neighborhoods.  She’s hoping to start with the branch in South Trenton, which had the largest circulation before the closure.  That Skelton branch once provided 30 computers for public use, as well as community space for meetings, tutoring, and other services.  There were branches in East Trenton, Cadwalader, and Briggs, the loss of which catastrophically diminished opportunities for success, organization, and strengthening in those neighborhoods.  She refuses to act like nothing happened or nothing was lost, drawing on her own experiences in the branches to argue for how important they are.

She’s been reaching out to neighborhoods to find out what people want in the way of library service, and hearing that kids from around the city can’t get all the way to Academy Street.  Some of the initiatives she is developing at the Main Library are:

Live, Work, Learn program to offer library cards more widely for free.

Serving the Homeless, especially after the Salvation Army closed.  Homeless can get food, but can’t find a safe, warm (or cool) place to eat it.  The library has space and allows homeless to bring in bags and food, and to eat inside on cold or wet days.

She brought armed officers into the library, somewhat reluctantly.  She noticed that local drug dealers were using the library as a drop/pick-up spot for drug delivery. Dealers had hollowed out books, filled the hollows with drugs and told buyers where to find the stash.  Patricia decided that the officers were needed to protect legitimate users. 

Overall, she has increased programming 200% and see attendance go up sharply.  She has built partnerships with Mercer County Community College, Labyrinth books, Classics Books, Lightbridge tech, Isles, and others to provide programs for Trenton youth and kids.  Noticing that families used the library as  “free summer camp” for kids, she partnered with Trenton day care summer feeding program to make sure those kids got a nutritious meal during the day.  She has also built relationships with Trenton Digital Initiative, Trenton Makes Words (PNC Bank), Amazon, and Senator Shirley Turner.  These partnerships have helped develop computer classes, resume preparation, STE(A)M learning opportunities, Lego clubs, and Trenton history events, several hosted by the late Jack Washington during Patriots Week.

She’ll keep going, and has secured funding to get a South Trenton branch in place in a new building with fewer architectural challenges than the former location.  Funder not willing to build it, though, until the city can commit to maintaining it.   Meanwhile, she hopes to finish her MLS and assume full leadership of the Library.

Questions included several inquiries about what we can do to encourage Mayor Jackson to fund the branch, and to give Patricia the director position.

We adjourned at 1:30, with announcement that we will meet again on Monday, October 23.