A look at Paterson Free PL’s Facebook page shows a variety of programs in January alone: a digital jazz concert series, “Interviewing for Teens,” a winter reading challenge, and over 15 programs per week in the Children’s Department. The library’s four branches (one under renovation) serve over 145,000 residents of the Silk City. 

Paterson is the original public library in NJ. How would you say that history has affected the library? 

As far as the library world is concerned--well, it’s always good to be the first of anything. Some people know about the history, but some people don’t. When they find out they say “For real?” Though Paterson does have a very rich history with the industry, the silk mills and the Great Falls, the general population really doesn’t know much about the library’s history. 

Sign Up for Paterson Newsletter
Our newsletter delivers the local news that you can trust.

Tonya Garcia challenged NJLA members this year to “Find Your Why”—that is, define why you choose to do what you do as a librarian. What would you say is Paterson PL’s core “Why?”

I’d say, “Because we’re needed.” We are a rich resource that is beneficial for every citizen in our city. There’s a need: the library just opens the door to the universe. From young children who need homework help, to the teen who needs guidance—whether that’s for school, applying for college, applying for jobs, or handling the stresses of being a teen—, to adults looking to charge their phones or just sit in a warm place, but who also get skills and job help, to seniors that are not mobile, depending on our outreach services to meet them wherever they are. 

The online resources, encyclopedias, databases, language resources, magazines, digital resources, and eaudio books: with them we can connect our residents to the rest of the world. We’re no longer just about books, we’re the community hub, the place to go if you want to have the program, to build awareness of a cause. We’re also an educational institution, we work with the schools. When the schools are closed we’re open. We have so many partners that we work with: schools, organizations, churches, daycares, etc. We have something for everyone! 


Tell us about partnerships the Paterson Free Public Library has with other organizations that are distinctly urban. 

What’s important and vital as far as partnerships is that we are one city with different communities. All over the city, we have different organizations providing similar programs. It’s important not to reinvent the wheel. Partnering together with other organizations doing the same thing allows us to offer a stronger program and reach more people than otherwise. Funding is also a big issue. As you know, libraries are really underfunded. Partnerships are important because we try to do a lot with a little bit, but with a partner you can cover more ground that way. We may not be able to pay for something, but we have the space; another organization can pay for the program, but doesn’t have the space. An organization may have the ability to plan a program but doesn’t have the staffing. I can assign someone on my staff to work with them so the program gets done. 


How do you communicate with your community? 

We have a bunch of different ways to communicate: social media, email blasts, marketing in newspapers. We also market our programs inside the libraries, to people who are already in the building. We also get a lot of contacts by word of mouth. The key is meeting people where they’re at. We have to communicate with people on all levels. I try to meet people where they are: visiting schools, homeless shelters, meeting people on the streets and in the building. The library’s partners help us reach more  people. We send email blasts to our non-profit partners, so they can share them with their communities. We are always communicating with municipal employees as well, sending emails out to them so they are aware of our services and programs and can recommend them to the residents they work with.


Which social media has Paterson Free Public Library been the most successful with?

For us, it’s Facebook & Instagram.

You really need to have a tech-savvy person behind that keyboard to make the best use of those channels. Sometimes I post, but having people that really know what they’re doing to manage those channels, that’s vital.


Have you had good luck reaching out to students through the schools?

I’ve been here about two and a half years, and we’ve been working on that. We have had relationships with the schools, and we’ve been given key people in the schools to send our information to, to send it out with the materials they send out to parents.


What would you say are the biggest challenges to Paterson PL as an urban library or just as a library?

Number one: funding: for our library system we don’t receive enough funding. [laughs] You’re always going to hear every library say that, funding is always the top priority!

Number two: trying to do a lot with a little bit. There’s so much need: job readiness, literacy, mental health, opioids, homelessness… these are common to all urban libraries, all over the United States.


What's the most successful program the library has done recently?

I’d have to say it’s our summer program. Children’s services are definitely our most successful. The highest numbers reached through outreach and community programs are during the summer learning program. We work with schools, day camps, the Boys & Girls Clubs, and we’re continually expanding to other organizations.

Children are at the age where they are still moldable. They come into the library. That’s the opportunity to make library users. We go into the schools and do classroom visits. We also have a summer meals program and an afternoon dinner program in the school year with afterschool and homework help programs. When kids become library users at a young age, they grow up to become library users.

My philosophy, when it comes to a library, is if you have a strong children’s department, those kids will come back and eventually move into the teen department, and then the adult department. You have to have a strong base: If you can grow and develop your children patrons, they come in when they become adults!


What's the program you're most proud of? 


"Honestly, it’s a program we are about to have: The New Jersey re-entry, Fresh start program for ex-offenders. Six New Jersey libraries are participating in the Fresh Start program, which will provide residents with access to social workers who will help with job, career, mental health, and family assistance for people returning from prison.”This is spearheaded by the State Library and the Department of Parole, based on the model created by the Long Branch Public Library and its social work program. This is a way of testing out a statewide program for re-entry for residents. We’ve gotten a little pushback from concerns because people don’t know what the program actually involves, but it’s going to be a good thing.

This is the work we do every day for our community. What really impacts me is when we know that a service or assistance of a customer has paid off, like the Job and Career Center we had on the Career Connections grant. We worked with customers on job and career resources, resumes, and interview help. When they came back and said the time they spent at the library allowed them to get a job and now they’re working-- that was a really good feeling.

We also have a program where the kids bring in their report cards, and we give them a free book as an incentive. That’s a real positive impact. A homeless guy I’d met at the shelter came in and got a library card and started using our services. Later, he came back to thank us and tell us that he was able to get a job and get his own apartment. I was really thrilled when I found out about that. We have to find resources to keep supplying the career programs—for instance, once the Career Connections grant ran out, I reclassified the librarian hired under the grant so we can keep doing it. 

We are already out there with the resources, and we just have to do some tweaking so we can keep doing that.


 I notice that Paterson PL has what you call the Community Learning Center—does that house the ‘literacy’ programs? Can you tell us more about it? 

Right now that houses our literacy program, which is more geared towards children. We do take in adult customers during the day. We don’t have the resources to market it as a fully-fledged literacy program yet. One of my goals is to find sustainable funding to expand adult literacy. 


Any uniquely Paterson stories about the library?

I can’t say that I have a uniquely Paterson story about the library. Paterson has the key ingredients to be a twenty-first century library, and that’s one of my goals: to position us to do that. 


What do people say when you say you’re the director at Paterson New Jersey’s library? 

Some are shocked: I’m a black male librarian. There were only two males in my library school class; I’m in a female dominated field and mostly white field. Some people are “Well, that’s great!” and some don’t even know what a library director does. People often ask if I think libraries are going to go away? And I say, “No, they aren’t.” 


Would you feel comfortable giving any advice about encouraging non-white, non-female involvement in the profession? 

Diversity starts at an early age. Showing kids about the profession, that it’s a great profession, and how they would go about becoming a librarian, is really important. I started out as a law clerk heading for law school but I really liked the stuff I was doing, finding information and helping people. Going into librarianship seemed like a natural step.We have to be able to be in high schools, career centers, professional days in college, so people understand that there’s a vital profession where you can make a halfway decent living, and it’s helping people; it’s rewarding. 


Are there any professional development resources you’d recommend? 

The most important thing, whether you go to conferences or meetings or talk online, is to connect and build relationships with other librarians. Make friends in the field, talk about what you’re doing, what problems you are encountering, what’s going on in other libraries. Being connected to others in the field, having resources that you can call up and ask questions.


Reprinted, with permission, from the New Jersey Library Association NEWSletter. Interview by Jennifer Heise