March 8 2017 11:28 AM

Retiring director Maureen Hirten embraced change as director of CADL

The Capital Area District Libraries system has gone through some changes since Maureen Hirten became executive director in 2011, but the heart of the job hasn’t changed.
Hirten

“You are basically a servant,” Hirten said. “It’s a very public job. You have to please the board, the staff, the municipalities and the communities. They’re all asking you for something, and you’ve got to be nice to all of them.”

Hirten, 66, leaves behind fewer books and more of almost everything else, including overdue fines, as she retires in May to move with her husband, City Pulse's associate publisher, Mickey Hirten, to Florida.

As director, Maureen Hirten presided over an explosion of services and activities, from online services to the ubiquitous “Minecraft” nights to a Library of Things that invites patrons to check out a telescope or a metal detector.

“One of the things I wanted to do when I became director was to expand outreach,” she said. “That is the future of libraries. We can’t just stand up on the hill and expect people to climb up and use us.”

There’s no shortage of hand wringing in the beleaguered libraries of the land. “Reinventing the Library,” an op-ed piece by Alberto Manguel in The New York Times Oct. 23, 2015, declared that libraries “have become largely social centers.”

Buying, storing and processing books is no longer the library’s main reason for existence. In the past two years, the downtown Lansing branch has cut its book collection by 10 percent, and the branch’s airy new redesign, to be unveiled Monday, reflects that change. (See related story, p. 8.)

Today’s librarians, Manguel lamented, are forced to do things that society is “too miserly or contemptuous to fulfill, from homeless shelter to nursery, fun fair and provider of social support and medical care.”

Hirten takes issue with that phrasing. “I don’t feel forced,” Hirten said. “Change is going to happen, and you’re going to get dragged along if you don’t learn the lesson the first time.”

CADL’s core mission isn’t changing, either, especially in the “post-truth” era. Alternative facts don’t get much sanctuary at the library.

“What’s quality, reliable information?” Hirten said. “Librarians can steer you to databases, to peer-reviewed journals that will give you good information. That’s one of the things we pride ourselves on. Expert assistance.”

CADL doesn’t look very beleaguered. The high point of Hirten’s tenure was a successful 2014 millage campaign, approved by 77 percent of voters. Branches in Haslett, Mason, Okemos and South Lansing were all remodeled, culminating in the 2017 renovation of the downtown Lansing branch.

Another part of Hirten’s legacy is the old-fashioned overdue fine, enforced by a credit reporting service, and non-resident fees, both of which the system did without until 2012.

“We found that a lot of stuff wasn’t coming back,” Hirten said. “People kept stuff, got billed and never used the library again. Other people kept stuff for two months while people were waiting.”

There were complaints. A man told Hirten that with fines being charged, he and his wife could no longer take a couple of boxes of books to Florida and keep them all winter.

“I told him, ‘You are the reason we’re doing it,’” Hirten said.

Hirten got hooked on libraries early in life, in her hometown of Port Jervis, about 90 miles from New York. She spent a lot of time at Port Jervis’ Carnegie library, thinking it might be a nice place to work someday. She studied English at State University of New York with no particular career in mind.

“I liked to read, but I didn’t want to teach or do anything with it,” she said. “All I wanted to do was spend my time in college reading different things.”

She got her first library job in Baltimore in the 1970s and became a librarian after getting a master’s degree at the University of Maryland’s library school.

She always found library work while following her husband’s journalism career around the country and raising three sons. In New York in the 1990s, she was rolling in clover, with free run of expensive early databases such as Lexis/Nexus in the library of a Gannett newspaper office serving the Westchester-Rockland area.

“That was the best,” she said. “Those services, you paid by the minute. I became a computer librarian right when database research was getting huge.”

She later became director of the Burlington College library.

She was still unpacking boxes after the move from Vermont to the Lansing area in 2002 when a real estate agent told her there was an opening at CADL’s Okemos branch. She transferred downtown to work in administration in 2005.

At an academic or newspaper library, people have to come in to get their work done. Hirten found public libraries to be completely different.

“You had to think up ways to get people to come in,” she said. “Social media makes it easier now, but we had to come up with displays, events, holiday observations, and it was fun.”

Getting people in the door is still central to CADL’s mission.

“Our biggest challenge is people have no idea what’s in the library,” Hirten said. “They still think back to when they were kids and went in for their book report and used the encyclopedia.”

To reach out to the public in as many ways as possible, Hirten hired librarians specializing in local history, digital literacy and business outreach, plus two more outreach librarians and a mobile librarian. Training sessions on new technology, inside and outside the CADL system, are required from everyone on staff, regardless of age or job.

CADL’s old Bookmobile, on its last legs in 2015, was replaced and sent on the road to townships, rural areas and places like the VFW Children’s Home last year.

The libraries bustle with programs like “book a librarian,” which gives patrons a half hour with a staff member.

“Nine times out of 10 it’s a technology question — using Word or something like that,” Hirten said. “Our business librarian will even work with you on your business plan.”

Hirten likes to amaze her fellow Rotary Club of Lansing members by telling them the library has resources like Lynda.com, a database with thousands of courses in business, technology and creative skills.

“They say, ‘What? Our company pays for that,’” Hirten said. “We have people who get library cards just for Lynda.com.”

Hirten is most proud of is a new line item in CADL’s budget devoted to supporting outreach ideas from library branches. She knows the programs by heart and happily ticks off some of the recent fruits of the Public Service Grants program.

At the South Lansing branch, iPads were loaded with Zinio digital magazines, about 110 downloadable titles offered by CADL. A popular Story Walk in Haslett adapted an idea that started in Vermont to Meridian Township’s Orlando Park. In Dansville, a librarian used a grant to buy six iPads to teach kids how to do stop-motion animation. In Stockbridge, a librarian donned a gorilla suit to read “The One and Only Ivan” (about a gorilla) to fourth- and fifth-graders.

In Webberville, a grant funded adult art classes and maker classes for kids. The Holt branch launched a program of exercising in the park, with Zumba and tai chi. Hirten said the grant applications are simple and all of them are accepted.

To Hirten, there’s noting wrong with turning libraries into “fun fairs” or sources of “social support,” as Manguel sniffed in the Times. And the remark that libraries have turned into “homeless shelters” doesn’t faze her in the least.

“It’s a public space,” she said. “Homeless people come in to use the computers, they read, they know where the newspapers are, they are not here to cause problems. We don’t let people who are obviously high or intoxicated come into the building, homeless or not.”

With the downtown remodel finished, Hirten is ready for the move to DeLand in central Florida. A 2-month-old grandchild and Volusia County’s 18-branch public library system are two strong incentives.

“I’ve already got my library card, checked out the online stuff, and I’m really impressed,” she said.

She avidly reads both physical books and e-books on her laptop.

She just finished “A Week in Paris,” a World War II historical romance, and has the latest book by Michigan author Steve Hamilton lined up, along with a book on getting the most out of Medicare. She predicted that books and Internet resources will continue to co-exist for many years.

“I’m sad to be leaving, but so much is going on,” she said. “It’s a good time to let others take it on.”