CHATHAM – It's hard to believe, but growing up in Norwalk, Conn., Irene Gillies hated public libraries.
“When I was a kid I was allowed to walk downtown to where the library was,” she explained. “I was into Agatha Christie, and that was in the adult section, and I was told I couldn't take [a book] out unless my mother was with me. Since I was allowed to be there by myself, I was highly insulted.”
Other than when she needed to go for school assignments, Gillies didn't visit a public library again until after college. Years later, when she was desperate for something to read and finally ventured into the Brewster Ladies Library and found the staff helpful and friendly, she realized libraries weren't all that bad after all.
After getting her degree in library science from Simmons College – she'd already graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst with an art degree – and spending a year working at the Marlborough Public Library, Gillies found a full-time position as head librarian at the Eldredge Public Library. Nearly four decades later, she's ready to retire, and will step down on March 29. Amy Andreasson, who's been with the library for 20 years and is currently assistant director, will take over as director April 1.
During that time, Gillies has seen a lot of changes in the way libraries serve the public and the way people use libraries. When she started in Chatham in November 1979, she had a part-time staff of three and the only thing that plugged in was the copy machine. The collection consisted of nothing but books and magazines; circulation was 62,247.
Today the library has more than a dozen employees, thousands of electronic resources ranging from DVDs to e-books, and many computers available for public use. Total circulation in 2016 was 129,895.
During her tenure, Gillies also oversaw a building project that nearly doubled the size of the historic library – built by Marcellus Eldredge and opened in 1896 – as well as a wide expansion of programs and services that has made knowledge even more widely available to more and more people.
“There's always something going on,” she said of the library. “And it really has been rewarding.”
“We're clearly going to miss Irene,” said Board of Trustees President Joe Gagliano. “It's a well-manager, well-run organization, it has a fine reputation.” He said the library receives letters from people from all over the country expressing appreciation for support and assistance they receive, and under Gillies' leadership the library received a star rating nine out of the past 10 years from Library Journal, an honor given to just 250 of the nation's more than 9,000 public libraries. The one year the library missed out on the rating was 2016, when it was closed for a month due for mold removal.
“To me that's a pretty impressive reflection of the direction and management Irene has given to the library,” said Gagliano.
Gillies was the Eldredge Library's first professional librarian. Among her early tasks were creating a young adult section and starting a record album collection. The Friends of the Eldredge Library had just formed and she began recruiting volunteers and using the group's resources to expand programs and build the collection. She took over the children's activities and started a summer reading program.
After just a few months on the job, she realized space was a problem, and told the board of trustees so in January 1980.
“It was jammed,” she said. “We did a lot of book weeding.”
It took a decade to accomplish the expansion, with the new addition and renovation to the original building opening in 1992. In the meantime, technology began to creep into library operations, and the new facility provided the infrastructure to accommodate what would become a boom in electronic resources. The library got its first computers when it was temporarily housed at the Chatham Elementary School during construction; that's also when the entire collection was put into a database in preparation for joining the Cape-wide CLAMS network, which helped make a wide range of material more easily available.
“When I started, it would take anywhere from three weeks to nine months to get an interlibrary loan,” Gillies said. “Now [patrons] can do it themselves and sometimes get it within a couple of days.” Greater access also allows the library to more narrowly focus its collection; with so many resources just a mouse click away, every library doesn't have to have every book a patron might want.
“I used to keep some really strange books just because I knew it would be very hard to get them,” she said. “Just as for every reader there is a book, for every book there is a reader, and it should not be difficult to get them.”
Despite the explosion of information available on line, Gillies said public libraries still serve an important need. “You have to know what's reliable and what's not,” she noted, adding that the library provides access to many information databases and archives through the state library system, at no charge to patrons, and staff are always willing to help locate and research information.
“Equal access is our goal,” she said. That continues by finding new ways to reach people; Andreasson and Youth Librarian Tammy DePasquale have led the way by strengthening the library's social media presence.
“We're just trying to get the word out about the library,” especially among younger people, Gillies said. “And I think it is making a difference.”
Gillies passed that passion for libraries first kindled in her in Brewster to many others over the years. Tavi Prugno spent a lot of time at the Eldredge Library while growing up in Chatham, and recalled that Gillies was always to help search out information. Later, as a volunteer at the library, he helped match books to cards in the old card catalog in preparation for creating a database of the collection, a job some might have found tedious but he saw as a “treasure hunt.” He also organized the library's vast collection of National Geographic magazines. Prugno is now the director of the Snow Library in Orleans.
“Certainly I think Irene was an example of someone who have me pause to consider a career as a librarian,” he said.
Like Gillies, Andreasson has spent her career at the Eldredge Library. She said she will build on the strong foundation Gillies put in place, taking a fresh look at the building – funding for a major landscaping project will go before town meeting in May – as well as the relationships between the library, the trustees, Friends and the town (while the town owns the building, the library itself is a nonprofit organization run by the trustees). But don't expect any radical changes.
“We will make changes based on what we think is best for the library, the community and the staff,” she said, adding that listening to patrons has always been a priority. “I think we offer a lot of programming and support for what the community needs. It's going to be a balance of maintaining that, fulfilling the needs of the staff and looking at the building needs.”
Gagliano said Andreasson's duties had been ramped up in recent years in anticipation of her taking over as director. The trustees considered advertising the job, but decided, after interviewing Andreasson, that they'd rather promote from within.
“She's in a great position to take over the library,” he said.
Even during the time in her life that eschewed public libraries, Gillies was a reader. “I really like books,” she said, “and a lot of people do.” It's those people – both the patrons and the staff – that she'll miss the most.
“We have the best staff,” she said. “They know what they're here for and who they're here for.”
Asked what she'll miss the least, she pointed to a file on her desk marked Fiscal 2019 budget.
“The always chasing after money part,” she said. “Writing grants and talking someone into giving something or donating money.” But, she acknowledged, the Chatham community has always responded to the needs of the library.
“Chatham has a very unique population,” curious, cultured and ready to help, she said. “If somebody is in need, people respond. It's an excellent example of a town.”
Gillies, the mother of two grown children, lived in Harwich for many years but moved to Brewster to take care of her father. After retirement, she said, she plans to tackle projects around the house, do some arts and crafts and see some movies.
“And read a lot,” she added.
A reception honoring Gillies will be held Tuesday, March 27, from 4 to 6 p.m. at the library. All are invited to attend.