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Chief Librarian's Retirement Leaves Void In Hartford

Susan Campbell

September 14, 2008

Hartford's chief librarian, Louise Blalock, soon will have more time for rowing on the Connecticut, spending time with her family and catching up yes! on her reading.

"It's been a great run," she told the board last week, announcing her retirement. "The last bit of it was a bit tumultuous."

Indeed. With her retirement, Blalock will be out of the internecine battles of a crown jewel in a troubled city where the favorite pastime is sport-whining.

Except sport-whining is counterproductive in a place like Hartford. In fact, it's downright destructive.

Instead, we could use a few more old-school librarians who approach their jobs as missions. At a youthful 74, Blalock could give her city a few more years, and they would be good ones, but no. That last bit she referred to has included layoffs, funding issues, branch closings, bad behavior on the part of patrons and a public trashing.

Tumultuous, indeed.

So now we'll have a void at the top of an entity that could lead the way for Hartford, where illiteracy and poverty hover like twin vultures, where morale is in the toilet, where so many homeless people sit in the first floor's comfy chairs because there is simply no place else to go during the day all the challenges of running a library in a city.

Blalock is leaving a library far different from what it was in '94, when she came to town. Under her watch, the library added a 44,000-square-foot addition of windows and light. Blalock beefed up the children's section, and added computer stations downtown and homework centers in the branches. She held dance nights and author readings and offered gourmet coffee. Meanwhile, she earned a reputation as a fearless bastion of the First Amendment. Love your Constitution? Kiss a librarian.

In 2001, Blalock was named Library Journal's Librarian of the Year. The next year, Hartford won the National Award for Library Service from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. At the time, first lady Laura Bush said that libraries like Hartford's are "strengthening ties between neighbors and enriching family and community life."

Then this spring, stories circulated of improper behavior drugs, alcohol, and sex at the downtown branch.

Some employees said they didn't feel safe, and customers began questioning whether they were safe there and worse. The peanut gallery erupted, and some of the attacks were personal. Blalock steadfastly maintained all customers deserve respect, and later she held staff training, and created a task force, and some of her biggest critics said things were looking better.

Then two branches were threatened with closure. Neighbors rallied, but then the mayor said giving the needed money violated the city charter. The state legislators stepped in last week.

We'll see what happens, but what does it say to a neighborhood when you can't keep its library open?

One of Blalock's heroines is Hartford's legendary Caroline M. Hewins, who created the city's public library out of the Young Men's Institute and was an early (and lonely) proponent of children's literature.

She also staunchly defended Mark Twain's writing as appropriate for children, then a controversial stance.

In her 50 years as librarian that ended in 1926, Hewins, a frequent contributor to The Courant, increased the library's books nearly eightfold. She like Blalock, a petite woman with a steel backbone took books into a settlement house.

That, too, was controversial, but Hewins believed that books are for all. Sometimes that gets messy, but as Blalock says, you can't have a great city without a great library.

How to open it up to all is a conversation that shouldn't quit.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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