New library director committed to connecting and keeping it real

Posted:  Tuesday, May 16, 2017 - 4:15pm

Joanna Breen's first days as the new executive director for the Boothbay Harbor Memorial Library have been filled with sorting and weeding files and moving from an upstairs office to the executive director's office, behind the circulation desk on the first floor. “This is where all the action is,” Breen said.

She succeeded retiring Executive Director Tim McFadden in April. “Tim is one of the kindest people I've ever worked with. And he identified that libraries were changing and he geared the library toward the 21st century, and it's important to me to honor that vision,” she said.

A Cambridge native, Breen attended the College of Santa Fe as a photography major. While there, she worked in the Beaumont and Nancy Newhall Library.

After college, she and another student, who hailed from Maine, decided to move to Portland and wound up living in the Munjoy Hill area. Breen worked as a waitress in the Old Port. “I wasn't good. I was 23, and my skill was actually my lack of skills,” she said. “Around then, I was trying to figure out how I wanted to make a living.” After two years in Portland, she moved back to Massachusetts to attend the Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science in Boston.

“I worked part-time in three different libraries while I was going to grad school.” After graduation, she worked for the Wilmington Memorial Library. “I was their first marketing librarian,” she said. But the hour-long commute didn't suit her. “I'm big into quality of life.” She took another job at the Belmont Public Library because it was closer to home. But she knew she wanted to come back to Maine, and when a Boothbay Harbor library position was advertised, she applied.

“I was on a camping trip when I found out about the interview, and I had to go to T.J. Maxx to buy an outfit,” she said. It was the first time she had been to Boothbay Harbor. “I met Tim, interviewed, checked out the library, and went down to McSeagull's. Over a glass of wine I thought, 'This is great.' After a second interview, she was hired.

She now lives close to the library. “My proudest accomplishment is going from an hour commute, to a seven-minute commute, to a two-minute walk down the hill,” she said. She shares space with a kitten, Louis, and her dog, a Bernese-shepherd cross named Bogart. “He's a big mook, but he's scared of everything,” she said.

Breen loves living in Boothbay Harbor. “Everyone is open and helpful. As a person from away, I've been accepted for who I am. I never experienced what community meant until I came here. It's palpable. Everybody is so talented. You have some of the finest builders working here. And artists, artisans, craftspeople. We have all the bases covered in terms of exquisite examples of livelihood.”

It's hard to believe Breen has only been here 18 months. “I came in September 2015. But one of my references from Wilmington Memorial remembered me saying, “I want to be a library director. I would have been happy if Tim had stayed with us longer, so I could have gotten really geared up, but I thought, ‘I don't want a new boss. I have a skill set really important for this position.’”

Today's libraries are to some extent technology-driven, but Breen loves that libraries bridge the old and the new. “Social media is not our focus. We want to connect with people that way, but it's important to understand the value of critical thinking and reading and living in the physical world. We don't want to lose that.”

Eventually, she would like to work on getting services to the whole peninsula by doing more outreach. “Geographically, we have a big area to span. We want to remove as many barriers as possible, whether it's having more online resources or figuring out how to get the books to different locations,” she said. She would love to have a branch spanning Edgecomb and Boothbay. “That may be unrealistic, but it would be amazing,” she said.

Breen has already demonstrated her enthusiasm for community collaboration. She headed the April 22 Earth Day Celebration event, which featured organizations dedicated to educating communities about environmental sustainability. Chewonki Foundation, Boothbay Railway Museum, Boothbay Region Land Trust, Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, Boothbay Sea and Science Center, and Crow Point Yoga all participated. She plans to hold the event next year.

For now, Breen is content to figure out the logistics of her new position as she advocates for the library. “It's really important to stress why we're here and what we do. I think that's one of my biggest strengths, is really believing why libraries exist. It makes me enthusiastic about doing the work. Figuring out a plan and getting feedback from the community is in her near future. “Hopefully, we'll be here forever, so there's no rush,” she said.