By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
It is Thursday morning, and Leslie Burger has been up since 3:30, unable to sleep on what will be her second to last day of work at the Princeton Public Library.
The past 16 years have flown by for the woman who arrived as the interim- executive director in 1999 and stayed to help transform an institution into what she came to call “the community’s living room.” Under her leadership, it would become a place where someone could read by the fireplace, attend a lecture or community event, bring children to look at the goldfish tank on the third floor or simply sip coffee in the café on a cold day.
“I believe that libraries are these just wonderful, bedrock, democratic, uniquely American institutions that can really help a community meet its aspirations, both for the present and the future,” said Ms. Burger, seated in a chair on the second floor where people are going about their business.
In an interview before she walks away, she was at times philosophical, at times emotional, in reflecting on her tenure here — a time that saw changes in her field and in her life. In that span, she became a grandmother, helped build a new library building, beat breast cancer, turned 60 and navigated the ways technology has changed how libraries operate.
Perhaps the one constant through all that was coming to work every day, to a third-floor office that, now, is mostly cleared of her personal belongings.
“For me, the library was often a place that grounded me while there was all kinds of turmoil going on in my life. And I’d like to think that that’s the way it is for everybody,” she said through tears. “So you have this anything going on in your life, turmoil or challenges, personal challenges, work challenges, whatever they might be. But you walk in here, and I see my colleagues — and they’re not only my colleagues, but they’re kind of my extended family. And that’s just been really incredibly powerful.”
Her career as a librarian, beginning in 1974, has spanned the days of the card catalog to a time when people read books, newspapers and magazines from their smart phones. Princeton was akin to a great laboratory that enabled her to try out ideas and engage the public, allowing her to use the talents she developed during a career that began as a librarian in her hometown of Bridgeport, Connecticut, with other stops sprinkled in.
Early on in her tenure in Princeton, she had the thought to get more people to visit the library. Part of that strategy involved doing more adult programming.
“Because I knew that we were trying to build a new library, it was really essential to try and get some exposure with the community quickly so that we could advance the project,” she said.
An early decision was to bring in a belly dancer to perform — an idea that she remembered “completely appalled” her staff who thought no one would show up.
“So we had the program, and the community room was standing room only. And probably mid to three quarters of the way through that program, people were up in the aisles gyrating and wiggling and dancing with the belly dancer,” she recalled. “I think it was that moment that really opened the possibilities of what we could do to bring a whole new group of adults to the library.”
In 2004, the new library building opened up. As she leaves, her successor will have to help guide the staff through the second-floor renovation that will begin this year.
But beyond the bricks and mortar and books and chairs, she saw the library partnering in what she called “important community conversations” on a range of hot-button topics from the environment to immigration. Her thought was to see the library be a place for people to discuss those topics and “develop what the community’s values are around that particular issue.”
As technology has changed the publishing industry and the way people get their information, libraries had to adapt. Princeton sought to be ahead of the curve by introducing e-readers in the early 2000s.
“Obviously, digital content has evolved and it’s become much more convenient for people to download their own content, to purchase their own reading devices, so that they can have their own personal reading experience,” she said. “There was a concern, I think, as recently as a few years ago that everything was going to be digital, we didn’t need libraries any more.”
But she says that many people are “hybrid users,” who still enjoy a physical book in their hands but will download reading material on their portable device when going on vacation.
A challenge that she and other librarians faced came in the aftermath of the Sept.11 terrorist attack, after which Congress passed the Patriot Act — with a provision of the law dealing with how libraries have to turn over patron information to law enforcement in the course of an investigation. Ms. Burger, a past president of the American Library Association, confronted the issue head on.
“So what we were concerned about with the Patriot Act was it provided broad sweeping power to the government to be able to come in and bypass the normal legal route to getting that information should they need it,” she said. “It felt that it was granting too much power without the proper checks and balances to ensure that your rights were protected.”
In June, Ms. Burger announced that she would be stepping down, but she is not slowing down. She plans to go back to library consulting at the company she and her husband operate. In that role, she sees herself having the opportunity to work with libraries that are in “communities not as always as supportive as this, dealing with lots of challenges, helping them transform themselves and now taking the lessons that I’ve learned here and sharing those with the rest of the world.”
She and her husband will reside in New York, near Columbia University. The move allows her to be closer to the couple’s children.
As she sums up her feelings on working here, words of gratitude for the community pour out.
“We’ve pushed the boundaries quite a bit. And people have been responsive and supportive,” she said. “The amount of affection that I feel from people who I see on the street or who are in the library who talk to me, it’s pretty amazing.”
By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer