At 150, Portland Public Library still celebrates ideas, inclusiveness

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PORTLAND — When the Portland Public Library opened its doors 150 years ago, then-Mayor Charles Chapman saw the institution as “a home of true democracy” that could foster “an atmosphere of philosophy, knowledge and fancy.”

Today, “freedom and inclusiveness remain core (library) values,” said Sarah Campbell, the institution’s executive director. “It’s an honor to lead it.”

“Portland and Maine have strong values, diverse perspectives, and loads of creativity and resourcefulness,” Campbell added. “And the library exists at the core, providing a home to convene meaningful conversations, share ideas and stories and inspire growth and transformation.”

Although we now live in a digital age, books are still the backbone of the library, which offers a huge number in all genres.

Even so, the library may be best described not as a place where books circulate so much as a community center in the heart of the city.

“All of Portland comes through our doors,” said Emily Levine, director of development and external relations at the library, whose main branch is at 5 Monument Square.

“Libraries are one of the few places that are still free and open to all,” Levine added. “We’re wonderfully busy” and with everything the library does, it works to “celebrate that diversity.”

While the library still has a vast collection of books, it also provides patrons access to e-readers, along with free Wi-Fi, a bank of computers and a 3-D printer.

The library has a large assortment of movies and programming that ranges from book groups to lectures and live performances.

In addition, the library also sponsors a number of special events each year, including the popular Maker’s Fair, which will be 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, April 22. 

The library also has its own art gallery. An exhibit entitled, “Through Her Lens—Women Photographers of Mid-coast Maine, 1885-1925,” is this month’s feature. 

The library first opened at 44 Plum St. in 1867 as the Portland Institute and Public Library.

In 1889 it moved to what’s now known as the Baxter Building at 619 Congress St. The move to Monument Square happened in 1979.

Over time the library added five branches in neighborhoods around the city, from Burbank to Peaks Island. There is also a popular bookmobile.

Throughout the year, the 150th anniversary will be celebrated in various ways, including a new “My Card, My Story” initiative, featuring a collection of crowd-sourced stories about what makes the library special to patrons, staff and the wider community.

Library staff is also planning a historical exhibit at the main branch and, this fall, will hold a family-friendly BooktoberFest celebration.

The library now serves 675,000 visitors annually and is “the most visited cultural institution in Maine,” according to its website. It has a staff of about 50 and is governed by a board of trustees.

Its overall mission is “Building a city of readers,” the website states, with a goal of being “the civic and cultural center of a dynamic region in which citizens are literate, informed, and engaged.”

The library receives 84 percent of its funding from public sources, including the city, county and state. The remainder of funding comes from donations and fundraisers, particularly the annual campaign.

Campbell has been the library’s executive director for nearly two years and has worked for the institution since 2001.

What inspires her, she said, is knowing “we make a difference and strengthen the fabric of our community each and every day. There is (also) great satisfaction that our work provides resources to support needs, opportunities to engage in community and ways to inspire joy.”

“Libraries are even more relevant in the digital age,” Campbell said. Through the Portland library’s public computers, specialty online resources and tutoring “we are committed to building digital literacy and bridging the digital divide.”

She said throughout history, libraries have served as places where people have free access to materials to help them achieve their true potential and “this (philosophy) still resonates today.”

“Underlying (it all),” Campbell said, “we unflinchingly embrace upholding freedom, sustainability and building a stronger democracy.”

These days, she said, “Our staff are experts at riding the waves of change, whether it’s technological, (understanding) trends or connecting with the (wider) community. What hasn’t changed are our values of providing quality and balanced resources with a vision that every person will be literate, informed and engaged.”

For Beth Bordowitz, chairwoman of the library’s board of trustees, the Portland Public Library is a place where inclusiveness is valued and encouraged.

She’s been a Portland resident for over 30 years, and was first elected to the board in 2009. Bordowitz joined the board because she was a long-time fan of the library and was impressed by its wide variety of programming and resources.

“While books are important,” the library “is not just about books” anymore, said Bordowitz. She encouraged everyone to “drop by and check out the programming. There (is always) something (new) to engage in.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or Follow Kate on Twitter: @KirishCollins.

At 150, the Portland Public Library serves 675,000 visitors annually and is the most visited cultural institution in Maine.

The Baxter Building, designed by architect Francis H. Fasset, was the Portland Public Library’s second home. It opened in 1889 and still features its distinct Romansque Revival look.

Every day is different at the Portland Public Library’s front desk, said Meghan Gillis, the outreach services director. “We are the first point of contact,” she added.