Joanna Breen: Installing a vision for the Boothbay Harbor Memorial Library
Imagine, if you will, Boothbay Harbor Memorial Library as Joanna Breen sees it — not just as a fixed location on terra firma, but as a living, breathing community organism that reaches patrons wherever they happen to be.
That’s the vision behind such relatively new initiatives as Storytime Picnics at Harold Clifford Park, where children’s librarian Harolyn Hylton reads a story while kids nosh. It’s the idea behind the library’s annual Earth Day activities, where the library helps connect the community with businesses whose missions center on the environment. It’s why the library wrote a letter of support for the town of Boothbay’s broadband plan. And it’s driving the way Breen, the library’s director, and the governing board think about the library’s role now and in the years to come. With three full-time and one part-time librarian, plus a dedicated group of volunteers, Breen is putting solid work behind her ideas.
“It’s outward-looking and community-focused,” said Breen, who ascended from assistant director to director in 2017 when Tim McFadden retired. “I wanted to make time for our work outside the library. We like to try things out and see what sticks.”
Pauline Dion, president of the library board, is glad Breen has stuck. In an email to the Boothbay Register, she wrote: “Since becoming president of the Library Board, I’ve been extremely impressed by the commitment of the staff and the volunteers to all that is important and good for not only the Library but also for all those they serve.” Of Breen, she wrote, “Since becoming the director she has brought new programs, staff, and equipment to the Library and to the peninsula. Not to mention infectious energy and enthusiasm!”
That enthusiasm radiates when Breen speaks about the library’s place in the community as a place to gather, a place where information is curated and passed on, a place where democratic ideals guide interactions in a way that doesn’t always happen in more authoritarian, hierarchical structures.
“It really speaks to the philosophical space a library holds in the community,” she said.
Breen came to Boothbay Harbor in spring 2015, after having held librarian jobs in Wilmington and Belmont, Massachusetts, where she “came from a basic background in librarianship,” she said. Boothbay Harbor is different from those experiences, in that the library is a nonprofit with some community appropriation, rather than relying entirely on funding from town government. That distinction has allowed more freedom in imagining what the library could be and how to go about bringing those ideas to fruition, she said. A big item on the list: installing an elevator so patrons can move more easily from the main level to the upstairs.
Before becoming a librarian, Breen graduated with a bachelor’s in documentary studies from the College of Santa Fe (now defunct), then knocked around in a few jobs before returning to school in 2010 at Simmons College, where she pursued her master’s in library science. It was a watershed year for her career trajectory, and for books and libraries.
“In 2010, that was when the ebook was really happening. It was palpable,” she said. She said classmates had trouble finding jobs as municipalities wrestled with the role of libraries in a wired age. Breen, however, was undeterred.
“I think of it like bicycles. When cars came along, people didn’t stop riding bikes. Books are an unmediated resource. To enjoy them, you don’t need anything but the book itself. There’s nothing else like them.”
And in Boothbay Harbor, amid everything else, the books remain the central mission.
“I’m all about the stacks,” Breen said.