When Jinny Baeckler first interviewed for the position as head of Plainsboro’s old library inside a two-room schoolhouse on Plainsboro Road in 1985, the library served primarily as a children’s room, and officials were hoping they could grow the collection to 30,000 items.
Now, two library buildings later and her retirement looming, Baeckler leaves behind a legacy that transformed Plainsboro’s library system into one that boasts the best summer programs around and a community-driven system that strives to educate its citizens, especially in areas not normally touched by public libraries — science and math.
The collection now totals almost 100,000 volumes, and it will continue to grow to 125,000 after Baeckler leaves on Tuesday, May 31. But there is one thing that has not changed over the years — and despite the advent of devices like the Kindle and smartphones with digital book-reading capabilities — nonfiction books are the most heavily circulated books.
Baeckler predicts that will remain that way for years to come, despite marketers of the technology that allows consumers to download books of all kinds virtually on their devices. “If you lump everything together, nonfiction is our biggest circulating item, way bigger than the media and everything else,” says Baeckler.
Of course, Plainsboro embraces technology and offers a collection of 70,000 digital books to users. That does not mean consumers find this technology easy to use. “The difficulty with that is, with the exception of Safari Select, it’s very hard to get in digital form the kinds of nonfiction we would like to see.”
“People who have the Kindles are not at all interested in nonfiction,” said Baeckler. “Even though the role of digital books is expanding, it is a very tiny segment of the book world. They like to trump up how rapidly it is expanding, but it’s growing from 2 to 3 percent, which is not a big portion of the book world.”
Baeckler says she feels the library is not in an “either-or” situation when it comes to whether technology will render printed books obsolete. “We’re in a both-and,” she says.
That’s why her successor (Eileen Burnash of the Huntingdon Valley, PA, Library) will ideally have the skills to merge both worlds. “They have to be good at two things — they have to be good at the traditional book world and digging out information, and they have to be good at the digital technology,” she said.
Still, circulation is strong. Every year, the number of books taken out by patrons of the library increases. “We’re almost at 400,000,” she said.
But technology does matter. In March, library officials fielded 5,246 questions via access to databases the library provides. These databases are key for the future. “That’s 5,000 questions the librarian didn’t have to run and try to figure out ourselves,” she said. “But our resources offer solutions to people who would not be able to get it free on Google.”
In fact, this element of technology offered at the library will prove to be very useful. “People have the feeling that you can go to Google, and everything is there,” she said. “But if you try to get the New York Times from 1876, you can’t get it unless you pay.” Access to those databases is provided free of charge at the library, though.
Patrons can renew their books at home with their Blackberry devices, but the other side of the coin is that not everyone has a computer. “There really needs to be an understanding that not everybody is on board, and not everyone wants to be on board,” she added.
Technology may not have provided such a drastic change in the library’s goals over the years, but behind Baeckler, a transformation into the world of education has occurred. “We’re not going to be a research library; we are going to be an educational stop to open doors and help people get on their feet,” she explains.
Baeckler grew up in Ramsey. Her father was a researcher and electrical engineer at Bell Labs, and her mother was “a mom.” She attended college at Cornell, where she earned degrees in Russian and also received her first exposure to the library world.
She had a student job in the library there, and ended up running a branch. She maintained that job for a few years before coming to Princeton University’s Firestone Library. That was when she decided to get a library degree. From Princeton, she moved on to direct the Mercer County Library System from 1973 to 1975.
She retired from Mercer County to have two children. It was then she began writing books, which led to speaking and consulting engagements. From that expertise, she was asked to work as a part-time lobbyist for the Education Media Association, which was interested in persuading the state to require schools to have physical libraries.
“There were requirements that you had to teach library skills,” but no requirements for a physical library, she explained.
From that part-time job, she landed a full-time job as an arts and education lobbyist. Then “somebody threw my name in the hat (for the position in Plainsboro) without my knowing it,” she said.
The library board chairman asked Baeckler to meet at the old library in the two-room schoolhouse on Plainsboro Road. When she arrived, she noticed one sofa, a table, and four or five people working. The shades were closed, and no one spoke to her. Because of this, Baeckler told the board chairman she did not think she would be the appropriate person for the job.
“I’m a very different kind of librarian,” Baeckler recalled telling the board, which had been very familiar with her work in Mercer County. “They said, ‘We know exactly what you did, and we want you to do that for Plainsboro.’”
Baeckler realized she and the board members were on the same wavelength, and they discussed everything from new programs to growing the collection.
At the time, the library board had already planned the move into the municipal complex at 641 Plainsboro Road, which occurred in 1993.
Looking back on her career, Baeckler says she wouldn’t change very much at all, including her foresight to encourage the library’s board to start planning for a bigger library immediately after moving into the location at 641 Plainsboro Road. “Very early on, I said, ‘You built this library too small,’” she recalled. “They were still riding on this presumption that it would primarily serve children.”
Library officials had their first planning retreat in 1996, where they came up with ideas and began designing the new library that opened last April. “In that sense, had I not done that, this building probably would not have been here for another 10 years,” she says of the new facility. “The computer revolution had not yet really happened when we moved into the building. Computers took up the study carrels, and people who wanted to study had nowhere to go.”
That need was perfectly planned for in the new building, says Baeckler, explaining that many people do not want to use the library’s computers. “They want to use their computers and use the wireless,” she said. In the new library, there are stations where patrons can plug their own devices into outlets and use the library’s wireless connection.
While there were future plans for expansion of the former library within the municipal complex, that would have taken all the parking, and there would have been the need for other discussions, possibly a parking garage. This was avoided by Baeckler’s urging to consider a new library facility.
Baeckler’s approach to bringing educational programming is also a legacy she will leave to the library. Some of that approach comes from her love for research and her love for science, which influenced her from the time she entered the township’s first library. She pondered what the library could do to help education. “The library is a social institution,” she said. She recalled asking herself: “What are we doing about science education? Absolutely zero.”
“That was when the concept of the science center at the library was birthed,” she added. “When people went into the children’s section here, you could not go in there without seeing the display of microscopes, DVDs, and other things to engage kids in science.”
Soon, parents began noticing their children had interests in science. This concept led Baeckler to her work with Contact Science, a nonprofit that brings museum-quality exhibits to libraries around the country. The goal is to provide informal science education by placing science centers in libraries via traveling exhibits.
In her retirement, Baeckler says she will help that project a lot more. “We have exhibits circulating in libraries around the Dallas area; it’s catching on like wildfire,” she said.
This concept has already caught on in Plainsboro, and Baeckler envisions it continuing after she leaves. “You’ll see that the arts link and the science link are built into the educational mission of the library, so it’s not an oddity — it’s what people expect,” she said. “We attempt to educate in many different fields. Those are two obvious ones that need a physical space.”
In addition to Contact Science, Baeckler will consult with the architect who built the new library.
She will also have more time to see her children and grandchildren. She and her husband, Bill Baeckler, who has retired as head of Independent Educational Services, which places teachers and headmasters all over the country and sometimes internationally, have two children. Their oldest, Gregg, is a computer tech in Silicon Valley, and their younger daughter, Sarah, is the head of a chimp sanctuary in the state of Washington and was just featured in Glamour Magazine.
Baeckler says the summer programs are already set up, so the new person will come in and see the library at its finest. “Our summer programs are really unparalleled. The person can see the clientele and see the response to various programs, what works in Plainsboro, and what doesn’t work.”
Knowing what the community wants is something that is very important, she said. “I’m big on listening to the community,” she said, adding that in Plainsboro it is the math and science subjects that are important. As a result, the library works hard to provide math and science events. “Do other libraries have these crazy math events? Probably not. But if they are listening to what their people want, they are responding to what their community wants.”
Part of that is relying upon community members who care about what they are doing and want to give back. For example, some seniors run embroidery programs in the summer just for the love of it. “Those kids probably could not learn it from their parents,” she said. “That’s symbolic of what a library is: it’s more than just books on the shelves. It’s a community of people who care about education and who will give it back free of charge.”
As a result, the library virtually never pays for a program. Most libraries have a small budget to run programs. But “we program according to the people who step forward and say, ‘We want to do that,’” says Baeckler.
Listening will be important for Baeckler’s successor. Baeckler was working in Plainsboro at the time the Berlin Wall fell. She assumed it would be of great interest to the library’s users, so she purchased books and materials relevant to that subject. “They did not go out a single time — not at all,” she said. “It was a very quick lesson. Listen to what’s coming at you from the community. I learned very early on that politics was not an interesting topic here. Business and finance, those things are big.”
Says Baeckler: “Listening and communicating are the magic buttons. I have people who wave at me like I’m their best friend. They know that I’m the one who made the Chinese New Year event happen, I’m the one who made the Diwali event happen. That kind of familiarity comes from the fact that they know I’m listening.”
In fact, one of the best parts of Baeckler’s job in Plainsboro has been learning about the different cultures. “It was a nonstop learning experience,” she said.
One of her favorite events is the Holi festival, the Indian holiday celebrating spring and the return of life, color, and flowers. One of the traditions is to throw bright, powdered paint all over everyone during the celebration. The first time she attended the event, one of the board of trustees came up to here within two seconds of her arrival and splashed paint on Baeckler’s face. Baeckler had a lot of fun.
“The end result of doing something perfectly ridiculous brings to the forefront of what it’s really all about — we’re all one,” she said.
More information on the new Plainsboro Library director, Eileen Burnash, will be reported in the May 20 edition of the WW-P News’ “Sneak Peek” E-mail edition. To sign up send an E-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.