About a month into the course, Eileen Burnash was sitting in ninth grade biology class when her tough, intimidating teacher pointed her finger at her and told her to report to the library in the fourth period.
Not knowing what to expect from her teacher’s stern words, Burnash nervously made her way to the library at her appointed time to find the school librarian, who was also the school’s track coach, and her biology teacher’s husband. With a stark difference in his method, he had a reputation for being one of the nicest staff members.
“Eileen, thank you for volunteering to work in the library,” he said to Burnash when she arrived. From that experience, Burnash — whose mother was a registered nurse for 52 years and whose father was an accountant who also served for the Army Corps of Engineers — found she was “wired” to be in a library.
She spent her free time there, and helped the library repair books, check books out, and perform other tasks when she was not in class. Burnash’s experience at Morris Hills High School in Rockaway (she grew up in the small town of Wharton in Morris County) was just the beginning for Burnash, who has an extensive background in the library and academic fields.
As she prepares to take the reins from Jinny Baeckler, who retires at the end of the month, the library’s new director is busy training to learn the ins and outs of Plainsboro Village Center’s mammoth centerpiece.
Despite her love for the library, she did not immediately pursue a career in the field after completing her undergraduate degree at Northeastern University (Class of ’74) — she considered the Peace Corps, law, and teaching — and she remained in Boston for a few years after college and eventually found her way back to the library and back to New Jersey.
Early in her career, she got a job working in a law library, where she stayed until she had her first child and decided to stay at home (She and her husband, a Linux systems administrator for Knight Capital in Jersey City, have four children, ages 24 to 29). She went back to school to earn her master’s degree in library science from Rutgers and began working at a library department in AT&T and its subsidiaries, where she performed telecommunications research to help the companies’ marketing departments.
From there, she moved on to public libraries. She worked at Mendham Township Library, where she learned the basics of running a library. Three years later, another, bigger, library in the area — the Clarence Dillon Public Library in Bedminster — had an opening. The library had expanded to double its size and had undergone a renovation.
Burnash brought with her a children’s program she had initiated in Mendham — a Harry Potter dinner party for children. The event, a sit-down dinner for over 100 children, involved printed screen shots of the real movie, which were placed around the room to provide the atmosphere. The children attending the dinner were divided into the four “houses” in the movie, and parents were not allowed to attend (they could attend a simultaneous lecture in another room).
It’s this type of innovative programming that piques Burnash’s interest. “Programming is the area I get most excited about,” she said. “I like to use my creative side.”
From there, Burnash worked at Rutgers, where she was the assistant to the dean of public affairs and administration. When her position was eliminated in the economic downturn, she took a job as the library director at the Huntingdon Valley Library in Lower Moreland, PA, a position she held when she accepted the job in Plainsboro.
What attracted Burnash to Plainsboro was what she saw on the library’s website. “I couldn’t believe this building was built this way in the center of the community,” she said.
Many librarians talk about their dream location for a library in the center of a residential and business area. “You’ve built the ideal library as far as the structure goes, but the more I learn about it, the dedication to education and the commitment to the diverse culture, the more I’m impressed,” she said.
Burnash strongly believes in education and that the children should be the most important focus of the community. The library in Plainsboro serves people who have a “lifelong commitment to learning,” she said.
Further, the programming is “not the standard, cookie-cutter” programming offered in most libraries. “It’s just perfect,” said Burnash.
First up for Burnash, who is training but will officially start her new role on Thursday, June 9, is examining the library’s extensive collection to see if there are certain areas that can be developed further.
She also wants to keep the programming that Baeckler has run, but also wants to encourage new programming. She points to an example of the programming during one of her prior roles, during which a man brought in an enigma machine, which was used for encryption and decryption and decoding of secret messages. Most commonly used in the 1920s, they were used by the governments in various countries during World War II.
This man volunteered to bring in the machine and talk about its uses and make a presentation — for free. The event drew over 200 people, including veterans and other people interested in the subject who might not come to the library frequently. “It was the best program we ever did,” she said. “He answered the most technical questions and was able to explain the details in a way that non-technical people could understand.”
When it comes to challenges, the biggest one is state funding, says Burnash. Libraries are only a “tiny fraction” of the state budget, and there seems to be a lack of understanding of their value. But “it’s the best money you can spend,” she insists, saying several studies have shown that training and education, even the supplementary education offered by libraries, can help with job creation.
Burnash said that for now, she and her family will stay in Bernardsville, but they may consider moving closer in a few years.
The staff at the library and the community in which she will be working will make a strong case for that, though, as Burnash has already seen their dedication.
“When I interviewed for the job, part of the process was spending half the day with the staff,” she said. “It helped sell me on wanting the job. They have years of experience, knowledge in various areas, and an enthusiasm for the library. That is important, and I can see that in everyone I spoke with.”
“I’m looking forward to the cardboard canoe races,” she added.