Q&A: New Director Shares Plans to "Renew" the Newton Free Library
Phil McNulty came on board in May as the new director of the Newton Free Library after Nancy Perlow retired from the post.
Phil McNulty may be coming from a smaller library, but his big ideas certainly fit his new position in Newton.
McNulty, the former library director in Milton, was named director of the Newton Free Library in May following the retirement of Director Nancy Perlow.
Patch recently sat down with McNulty to hear more about his plans for Newton and how he's adjusting to his new position in the Garden City.
Patch: Tell us a little bit more about your background -- what did you do before coming to Newton?
McNulty: I was the library director in Milton for nine years and before that I worked as an administrator in a regional service office at the Boston Public Library. Most of the work at the BPL revolved around the administration of services to those using the Metro Boston Library Network.
Boston was a fun job...but it was on the state budgeting payroll and business was shaky back in 2003. So, I started looking around and Milton was doing a building project, a $13.5 million renovation [and that interested me].
Before I was in Boston I had worked as director in Medway where we had a renovation project as well.
Patch: What was the Milton building project like?
McNulty: The Milton building project was interesting because 10 years prior, in the mid-90s, the town got approved for a state construction grant for the library, but the town turned the project down.
So, [the library supporters] spent a decade building up support, did a lot of community outreach and the trustees set up a library foundation. In the end, the town voted 74 percent in favor of the library and we got it built. It was a fun project to manage.
Patch: So, why come to Newton?
McNulty: Milton is a great position, and there are few spots in the state that would be a step up -- and Newton is one of them.
There was also one thing I missed about working in Boston -- that staff of 300-400 people. There was a lot of collegiality within the library system. Newton is the closest approximation to that big, collegial type of staff that you find [in the larger systems].
I also know some of the [Newton] staff, and some of the previous directors [including Kathy Glick-Weil]...there are a lot of good people here. I actually hired one Newton library employee in Milton last summer for a Saturday reference position.
Patch: What do you see as the biggest difference between the two jobs [Milton and Newton]?
McNulty: In Newton, it's more about keeping good [employees] and letting them do the thing they know how to do and simply coordinating them.
I also see this position as setting a longer-term vision for the library. [The library] needs a little refreshing...and we should start to re-imagine how this place can be used.
Patch: What are some ideas that come to mind when you think about "refreshing" or "reimagining" the library?
McNulty: One of the big nationwide library initiatives is "collection marketing," and we haven't delved into too much of that here. You walk into this library and you almost always have to ask where things are. It's a little curious that the part of our collection with the highest turnover -- the audio/visual section -- is the furthest away from the entrance.
Our borrowing numbers are high, but collection marketing helps people have a better connection to what their doing.
Patch: What do you see as the biggest challenge as library director in Newton?
McNulty: Libraries in general face challenges now with eBooks. We've been watching them for two decades now...but the technology has finally taken off. We've been trying to figure out how libraries can best be positioned in getting eBooks to people.
When we buy hardcovers, the math is simple -- we look at a state bid list and often get titles at 40 percent off...but eBooks are a little different. There are publishers that refuse to sell to libraries because they're worried about what's going to happen to their other markets. The eBook challenge is about getting good prices and getting good partners to work with.
But the hardcovers are jumping off the shelves, and the demand isn't really diminishing. People are reading more and consuming all types of media and entertainment.
Patch: How have the first few weeks been here in Newton?
McNulty: They've been great. I have to remember a lot of names -- not just the staff, but also people in the community. But everyone has been very enthusiastic, very welcoming. It's been a lot of fun.
Patch: What should Newton Free Library patrons expect in the coming months and years now that you're the director?
McNulty: We're going to refresh the place, re-imagine it a little bit and try to meet their needs of today.
This is a great building, a great style -- the design of it is really nice. We just need -- to use a library pun -- to renew it a little bit.