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Life-Long Learning at Milwaukee Public Library

Off the Cuff with Director Paula Kiely

Nov. 8, 2016
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The great astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan once said, “I think the health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture, and our concern for the future, can all be tested by how well we support our libraries.” Sagan couldn’t have been more correct, as libraries continue to provide essential services, intellectual opportunities and safe spaces for patrons on frequently limited budgets. But budgets don’t reflect the importance of libraries the way communities do. According to Milwaukee Public Library Director Paula Kiely, public libraries remain anchor institutions in the community, offering life-long learning opportunities regardless of age or need. With the meaning of community in mind, Kiely recently took the time to discuss library popularity, initiatives and challenges.

How has library usage been?

It continues to be very high. Millions of people come through the doors each year. What is interesting is that over the years we’ve seen a change in how the library is used. Many more people are attending programs; we have more programs than we’ve had in the past. We also have many electronic resources and we have people using the library through the website. So, they may not enter our doors over the course of the year, but they use resources multiple times throughout the year by going to mpl.org.

How do you reach out to the community and generate interest?

I think we have a built-in audience in that we are meeting basic need of individuals in the community. Whether it’s kids in elementary school doing their homework after school or people who are looking for jobs and looking to build computer skills. But we’ve been proactive about how we reach out to the community. We connect to people through social media, but probably one of the most exciting things we’re doing now is an awareness campaign called Library Loud Days in which we’re working with some really great partners in the city. We had our first event at the end of July and we held a concert at the central library and people could also rediscover all the things the library has to offer related to music. It was an after-hours event and we had about a thousand people come through the door. 

One other initiative that I think your readers will be interested in is Milwaukee Public Library, MPS Superintendent Darienne Driver and Mayor Barrett have been working together to make sure that every student in MPS schools has a library card [as part of the National ConnectEd Library Challenge]. This fall we are working collaboratively to make sure that every child will have access to the library through a digital library account. We’ll be going into the schools to talk to the students about all the resources they have through their computers at school.

What are the challenges of running MPL?

I think our greatest challenge is stretching our resources to meet the needs of the community and being able to implement some new ideas that we have. We have a fantastic team at the library of about 350 people between the Central Library and our branches and MPL Express. We’re always trying to come up with new ideas to meet the needs and the interests of the community, so launching a program on a limited budget is really a challenge for us. We are extremely fortunate that we have a supportive mayor, common council and very supportive community. Our library foundation helps to fund a lot of the key programs that we offer such as our summer reading club for kids, our computer classes and our early literacy program. That is really what the challenge is, continuing to do good work in what all of us recognize are tight-budget times.

To learn more about Milwaukee Public Library visit mpl.org.

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