Breakfast with Martha Brogan
New Haven’s City Librarian Discusses the NHFPL’s Evolution, and her Local Favorites
By Cara Rosner / Photography by TONY BACEWICZ
When Martha Brogan became the city librarian and director of the New Haven Free Public Library in 2014, it seemed to her that having a woman lead the library was long overdue.
As is the case with many libraries nationwide, and the library science field as a whole, the staff of NHFPL is comprised mostly of women. Yet in the 132 years since the library – originally located on Chapel Street – opened its doors in 1887, Brogan is the first woman appointed to the top post.
Throughout its storied history, only eight people in total have held the title of city librarian and director at NHFPL.
It’s no small task. Brogan oversees the Ives Main Library, which is located at 133 Elm St. and serves as the primary branch, as well as four neighborhood libraries across the city, a 24/7 digital branch, and the Readmobile, which travels to early learning centers and sites that lack a public or school library.
During her tenure, Brogan has reinstated seven full-time positions at the library, expanded library hours at four branches, and overseen two major renovations at the downtown location. A capital campaign is under way, and the foundation has raised $1.7 million of a $2 million goal to relocate the Stetson Library branch across the street from its current location on Dixwell Avenue. Today, NHFPL has about 30,000 active cardholders, a number Brogan says she “would love to grow.”
In addition to her job leading the library, a municipal department with 45 full-time and 35 part-time city employees, she is executive director of the New Haven Free Public Library Foundation, NHFPL’s nonprofit fundraising arm.
In May, the library was named one of 10 recipients nationwide to earn the prestigious 2019 National Medal for Museum and Library Science. The honor, bestowed by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, recognizes libraries and museums that provide unique programming and services to make a difference in the lives of individuals, families and communities.
With everything going on, and even amid myriad changes in an increasingly digital age, NHFPL’s mission has remained steadfast.
“We are in the business of understanding New Haven as a city, and its 130,000 residents,” says Brogan.. “What has changed is the way information is accessed and delivered.”
Brogan, who lives in the Westville section of New Haven, took time to sit down on a recent afternoon in the library’s bustling Ives branch, to talk about her job and her local favorites.
Q: What drew you to this career path?
A: I have a lifelong interest in other cultures and providing access to knowledge. [After obtaining a Master’s degree in international administration from the School for International Training in Vermont and working in the University of Minnesota’s Office of International Students and Scholars], I decided to return to grad school to pursue a degree in library science, combining my interests in foreign languages, international relations and access to knowledge. During my 35-year professional career as an academic librarian, I had the opportunity to work at premier research universities and help build area studies collections and resources crossing the globe.
In 2014, I leapt at the chance to transition my career to public librarianship when the directorship opened at the New Haven Free Public Library. Having resided in New Haven since 1990 and having raised my two now-adult sons here in the New Haven public school system with my spouse, who recently retired as professor of humanities at Gateway Community College, I was eager to advocate for strong public library services for all New Haven residents. I was thrilled to be appointed as city librarian as well as executive director of the library’s foundation in September 2014.
Q: How have you seen the role of the library change and evolve over the years?
A: The fundamental vision and values of public libraries as shared communal “practical” assets have held strikingly constant. Public libraries benefit from a long heritage as trusted institutions, are known as safe havens for everyone, and are especially important to those experiencing a critical juncture in their lives. From its inception, the NHFPL was valued as place of learning for newcomers and immigrants – a place to respond to “their appeals … to furnish them, through the library, with such books in their own various languages, as will bring to them this knowledge and start them on the road to good citizenship,” as Mayor Frank Rice eloquently stated at the dedication of the Ives Memorial Library on the historic Green in May 1911.
What has changed is the means of delivering information and accessing knowledge, thanks to online resources and the Internet. This is a blessing to many residents who can rely on any time, any place access, while to others it’s an obstacle when they lack the computer or personal e-device to download, read or listen to library materials or don’t have an Internet connection from home. The library offers high-speed broadband and Wi-Fi access across all five of our locations in New Haven, with more than 220,000 active logins last fiscal year. Wi-Fi access has increased by 80 percent in the last three years and along with that increased access, the library ramped up its basic technology classes to teach residents how to update their résumés, apply for jobs, access health care information, file taxes or complete other necessary regular routines that have now moved online.
NHFPL engages with scores of community partners to extend our reach and impact. We are an active hub for meet-ups, learning, and community conversations, with a focus in the last five years on the NEA Big Read with the International Festival of Arts & Ideas and the Long Wharf Theatre’s participatory theatre-making with library users.
Q: What’s your favorite area of the library?
A: I like to refer to NHFPL as a constellation of libraries – that is, the Ives Main Library on the New Haven Green, our four neighborhood branches located on New Haven’s “main streets” and the Readmobile, which circulates to early learning centers, schools that lack libraries, and festivals across the city. Each of our locations is a “star” in its own neighborhood and contributes to the overall vibrancy and well-being of residents in the city.
Q: What’s a typical work day like?
A: There’s a great deal of variety to my days and I always have to be prepared to switch gears and adjust my calendar! Overall, I give my attention to garnering the fiscal and human resources that our dedicated staff needs to provide outstanding service to the public. We typically have two or three full-time vacancies and a half dozen part-time vacancies a year and I consider recruiting, retaining, and helping library staff thrive among my highest priorities. The library staff are without a doubt our most valuable resource. Without them, we are unable to open our doors, let alone offer the astonishing array of programs and services that we make available together with the community.
NHFPL has also an extensive physical footprint: five library facilities comprising over 175,000 square feet of space. We always have projects underway to improve the infrastructure of our facilities and upgrade them for contemporary use. Right now, we have an active capital campaign underway to move the Stetson Library branch into the multi-use Dixwell Community Q House. Thanks to the Seedlings Foundation, we have a community challenge where donations of $50 to $10,000 are matched. We are in the homestretch in reaching our $2M goal to open the next Stetson in 2020 [visit nextstetson.org for more information].
The library is supported by an active governing board, consisting of nine New Haven residents appointed by the mayor, together with the Board of Alders, which meets monthly, as well as by the NHFPL Foundation Board, whose 14 members are laser-focused on promoting the library’s accomplishments and attracting philanthropic support so the library will continue to flourish. In the evening, you will often find me at a board meeting, enjoying one of the library’s programs or attending an event hosted by one of our partners – including great theater at Long Wharf and the Yale Rep.
Q: Where’s your favorite place to grab a bite to eat in New Haven?
A: It’s a great spring day when I have a chance to run across the New Haven Green to get a smoothie at Claire’s. We also launched café services, currently in transition, at Ives Main Library so it’s convenient for me to stay on site and enjoy a quick bite in Ives Squared. I am always pleased to serendipitously run into neighbors, library customers, our partners, and board members when I drop in. And, of course, my husband and I love to dine out in the evening and enjoy New Haven’s flourishing culinary scene. We can’t wait to enjoy the beautiful summer weather at Shell & Bones Oyster Bar & Grill on City Point. The library appreciates the way local restaurants offer tastings each year at our annual Mardi Gras fundraiser so we can showcase all the great dining options in the city. So many choices, so little time!
Q: What’s your favorite summertime activity in Greater New Haven?
A: In June, of course the International Festival of Arts & Ideas brings world-class performances to our front yard on the Green. We are proud to partner with them in showcasing local talent at the neighborhood festivals, typically organized with the library branches. In July, my husband and I enjoy going to the Beecher Park Summer Concert Series on the backyard lawn of the Mitchell Branch Library in the Westville neighborhood where we have lived for 30 years. This is always a casual and fun family time, with pie tastings and great music!
Q: What’s one thing the NHFPL offers that may surprise people?
A: Well, I hope that they know we have a Tinker Lab at the Ives Main Library where you can learn how to use 3D printers or laser and vinyl cutters and also book appointments for coaching and mentoring your business ideas. It may surprise people to know that in addition to free museum, zoo and theatre passes (this year we added Yale Rep, alongside Long Wharf Theatre), we have a cake pan collection in the Young Minds & Family Learning Department at Ives Library. Our 45 thematic and character cake pans circulate about 90 times a year. On a more serious note, we are very proud of our productive partnership with Liberty Community Services (LCS), which offers counseling and referral services to meet the basic needs of individuals who may be experiencing homelessness, job loss, reentry, domestic abuse or other challenges to their well-being. We would love to expand this service to all of our locations and be able to offer additional hours of service at Ives Main Library. Last year, the LCS case manager at Ives assisted more than 550 people during about 15 weekly hours of service.