Louise Blalock: Chief Librarian Hartford Public Library Blalock’s legacy: unmatched expansion and recognition for the Hartford Public Library
2008 PUBLIC SECTOR EXECUTIVE OF THE YEAR
November 20, 2008
It is 9:30 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, 30 minutes before the Hartford Public Library’s central branch opens, and already there are a dozen people milling about outside.
By 9:59 a.m., the crowd outside the library has nearly doubled with more than two dozen residents lining up outside the front entrance on Main Street, poised to enter as soon as its wide glass doors open.
The crowd illustrates just one of many examples of how the appeal and use of the Hartford Public Library has grown under the helm of retiring chief librarian Louise Blalock, and the reason she has been named the 2008 Hartford Business Journal’s Public Sector Executive of the Year.
Although she announced her retirement in September, Blalock won’t leave her post until the end of the year.
Blalock’s 14-year tenure marks the end of an era of unmatched expansion and recognition of Hartford’s library system. In 2001, Blalock was named the National Librarian of the Year by the Library Journal, and in 2002 the library won the National Award for Library Service from the Institute of Museum and Library Service.
Regardless of these accolades, Blalock is most proud of shepherding the library’s $42 million project to revamp and revitalize the downtown location and to strengthen the library’s neighborhood branches.
“There had been no improvement to our facilities in over 40 years,” she said. “We now have a landmark building on Main Street for the people of Hartford. You cannot have a great city without a great library.”
The city’s central library has been expanded by 45,000 square feet since the project commenced in 2002. Much of the new space has already been dedicated to staff offices, expanded reading rooms, a section for new books and the addition of more classrooms and study areas.
But there remains even more space for future additions that include an improved community room for meetings and political forums, a first-floor bookstore café and an art space on the second floor.
It is all part of Blalock’s plan to draw people inside the library for a variety of reasons, beyond the simple act of borrowing a book.
In particular, there are more than 250 personal computers on site as well as the largest media collection in greater Hartford consisting of thousands of DVDs, CDs and audio books.
“There has been a paradigm shift for libraries,” Blalock said. “It used to be just asset management and that was managing our collection, which we still do. But now, you have to expand what you can offer to the community and really get engaged in moving people forward in their lives.”
To that end, the library has undertaken several community-focused initiatives, such as offering classes for non-English speaking residents and forums to help immigrants with the U.S. naturalization process.
Blalock views the Hartford Public Library as an ideal place for such programs because the library is more than a building with a classroom; it’s a facility that can offer residents valuable resources.
“They can come here to learn English or even become citizens, but they can do more,” she explained. “They can go to the computer and finish up a resume or apply for jobs or apply for college loans. It’s a resource in the community that other places cannot match.”
For that reason, Blalock has been active in bringing organizations to the library for regular meetings, forums and even debates.
“I don’t think we’re the first library to get involved [with the community], but we’ve made a strong effort to get involved,” she said. “I feel that the library’s role should be to help more people to participate in the democratic process. Most importantly, we have to give them the knowledge so they can participate.”
Albert Ilg, former interim city manager for Hartford and current chairman of the State Contracting Standards Board, credits Blalock with raising the profile of the library and expanding its reach.
“Louise Blalock is smart, modern and persistent and as a result Hartford has a world-class library system that has over 600,000 visitors a year,” Ilg said. “It has [one of] the most advanced library programs in the nation, a central building that is spectacular and branches that serve every segment of the community.”
Ilg added that Blalock’s accomplishments have been “remarkable” and are a testament to the hard work of the library board, employees, supporters and its “fantastic chief librarian.”
However, Blalock’s tenure has not been without rough patches, most recently for the temporary closure of two branches and accusations of illicit behavior in the central library’s bathrooms.
But her willingness to initiate change and institute new programs has earned her plenty of supporters throughout the community.
“When you meet her, she is just this really stylish, intelligent woman,” said Marilyn Rossetti, former Hartford city council member and current executive director of Hartford Areas Rally Together. “But when she did her budget presentations, you could tell that she was so committed to the library and to the community.”
Rossetti said that Blalock’s greatest asset is that she is unafraid to take chances. “If you do something that’s never been done before, sometimes you’re going to have great results and that’s what she’s been able to do,” Rossetti said. “She has an inner strength about her to do that.”
The criticisms of Blalock regarding the users of the library do not resonate with Rossetti.
“She wanted to incorporate the entire community,” she asserted. “No one wants to take responsibility for all of the community, but she did because everyone should be represented. I think you have to credit [her] for being willing to do that. The library has been on the tip of people’s tongues and I don’t think it’s always been that way.”
Budget concerns have always been an issue for the Hartford Public Library, as it has been for libraries nationwide, and that is an area Blalock would like to see improved.
“Stable funding is always a concern and I believe the library needs to be more entrepreneurial,” Blalock said. “We’re going to open a bookstore café and we’re looking to add a copy center that could be a potential revenue stream. Hopefully, all of our nine branches will be renovated.”
Blalock also strongly believes that the branch locations, as with the Main Street location, can be economic drivers.
“To use a business term, it’s market penetration,” she said. “When you have a library, you give people a reason to go to a certain area. Then you can build retail around and start to build from there. But the library can be a catalyst.”
Arguably the best example of Blalock’s work and desire to think outside the box can be found on the second floor of the library’s Main Street location. Blalock not only wants to give people a reason to come to the library but to show them what the community is about when they arrive.
So that’s why the newly installed kitchen used for culinary demonstrations at the library stands out. “There’s so much great food and so many great restaurants in Hartford, we wanted to give them a space,” Blalock said. “It’s just another way to spread the word about what the community has to offer and what better place to do that than at the downtown library?”