Libraries, says Bill Harmer, are “places of connections.”
In one of his first library jobs, he met a mother and daughter. The younger woman had just been diagnosed with a very serious cancer. Day after day, Harmer helped them research the disease and treatment options.
One day, they brought flowers. “You’ve done more for us than our doctors have,” they said.
“Those are the moments that happen in this profession,” Harmer says. “It’s almost like a calling.”
The librarian has been “called” to a new position. Last month, he became executive director of the Westport Library.
Maxine Bleiweis is a very tough act to follow. But with passion, energy, creativity and a community-minded sense of purpose, Harmer seems poised to pick up exactly where she left off.
His path to Westport was “meandering,” he says. “I wandered in the forest of journalism and publishing.” His experience with libraries had been limited to “checking out books.” But the publishing job introduced him to reference sections, and the company paid for his graduate degree in library and information science.
He spent the past 9 years at the Chelsea District Library in Michigan, near Ann Arbor. His achievements included moving a rural library into a 30,000-square foot, state-of-the-art downtown building. He quadrupled his budget and staff, and turned the library into a beloved community asset.
He put the library on sound financial footing, during tough times. A millage increase passed by a landslide — just a few years after the bond issue to build the new library had squeaked by.
Harmer loved Chelsea, and his very innovative library. And Chelsea loved him.
But when he saw a posting for the Westport job, he was intrigued. Harmer felt a “kinship” with this library’s vision and philosophy. He already knew about the Maker Space.
As he researched Westport’s broad and diverse programming, and saw the “talent, expertise and resources” of the community, he recognized a great opportunity. “People here have their hands in the arts, business, you name it. There’s the Maker creativity. And the library engages everyone, of all ages. It really is a community resource, from birth to death.”
The proposed transformation of the library for the 21st century was truly exciting.
“Ten or 15 years ago, no one could have predicted where libraries would be today,” Harmer says. “Chelsea’s building is beautiful, but we’ve found physical limitations. I love the flexibility in Westport’s plans. The potential to engage people, do exciting things and have an impact on the community are enormous.”
One of those “exciting things” occurred on his very first day of work. Salman Rushdie agreed to give the Malloy Lecture in the Arts in October. Harmer takes no credit for that coup — it was in the works before he arrived — but it was a vivid reminder that in this town, and with this library’s staff, “people make things happen.”
He’s spending his first weeks getting the lay of the land: talking personally with employees and patrons, learning the budget, figuring next steps for the Maker Space.
He’s also immersing himself in Westport. He’s meeting with Rotary clubs. Miggs Burroughs gave him a “Tunnel Vision” tour.
Jeff Wieser showed off the Gillespie Center. “I love what it does, and that it’s right across the street from us,” Harmer says. He’s made plans for his staff to prepare and serve a meal there.
Harmer is learning about the Y, Senior Center, Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Merchants Association and Arts Center. He hopes to collaborate with town organizations as much as possible.
He’s grateful for the “well-oiled machine” that Bleiweis left, and her “incredible legacy.”
He knows he’s filling big shoes. He knows too that expectations are high. Fortunately, Harmer says, “there are plenty of outstanding people, in the library and the community, to make sure we keep innovating and making a difference.”
Every move — career and personal — is filled with challenges. Was there one moment when Harmer realized that — despite those challenges — he’d made a good decision to come here?
It came quickly, he says. He decided to come a week before his official start date, to see what the huge Summer Book Sale was all about. An easy 2-day, 2-car drive east with his wife and 3 children ended with a horrendous, Friday traffic jam on I-95.
That evening coincided with the library staff’s annual Compo cookout. After 2 hours of gridlock, the family’s nerves were frayed. Just to be social, they headed to the beach.
“Before we set foot on the sand, a dozen staff members swept in,” Harmer says with awe. “They fed us, gave us a warm welcome, and made us feel part of their family.
“We saw the entire staff. There was a breeze, and a beautiful sunset. As we drove away, my wife and I knew we’d made the right move.”