As a young girl, Pat Birchenall often visited her uncle at the Duke University library, where he worked as the director. She recalls being fascinated when he took her to the rare books room.
“It had beautiful, warm, rich-looking wood and upholstery and leaded glass window,” Birchenall said. It was just such an interesting feeling, like I’d never seen anything like that before. He served me lemonade and cookies, and I just thought, ‘Wow, this, this is a library. This is wonderful.’”
After that, she was hooked.
“I was one of those kids who loved going to the library,” Birchenall recalled, now decades later. “I knew from age 7 or 8 that I wanted to be a librarian.”
It was a career decision that took Birchenall to several states and finally to Newark, where she retired last week after 17 years as manager of the Newark Free Library.
Born in Virginia, Birchenall earned a master’s degree in library science from the University of North Carolina in 1977. Her first library job was at the Penn State library while her husband was a graduate student there, and she later worked in South Carolina, Georgia and Dover before getting a job with the New Castle County Library system in 1995. She managed the Appoquinimink and Kirkwood libraries before transferring to Newark in 2004.
Over her four decades working in libraries, she watched as the role of a library changed. Circulation of books has decreased nationwide, but digital offerings have become more important, and libraries have started to offer broader services to patrons, such as holding events, offering 3-D printing services and, in Newark’s case, even lending out ukuleles for kids to learn music with.
“There’s a realization that the library is really a community place,” Birchenall said. “It’s always been that, but now I think there’s more of an understanding that it’s a place where people can come to have meetings or to attend a storytime and meet other parents or caregivers.”
The most dramatic change, of course, happened over the past year as the library had to make drastic modifications due to the pandemic. After being closed for two months, the Newark Free Library shifted programming to Zoom and launched a popular curbside pickup service for patrons wanting to checkout books. Last month, the library reopened to the public but only in a limited capacity.
“It’s been such an unusual time,” Birchenall said. “You can’t relate it to anything else that’s happened.”
As the pandemic wanes, the library is preparing to launch its latest project, a “library of things.” Patrons will be able to borrow a wide assortment of tools and other items that they might need once in a while but not enough for it to make sense to purchase – everything from home improvement tools to puzzles to binoculars to a scanner for digitizing photo negatives.
Despite all those changes, though, the library has retained its original mission of helping people find information and process the world around them – something Birchenall said is a great feeling.
“It’s the feeling you get when you’ve helped somebody find what they need or helped them find something they didn’t know they need,” she said. “Sometimes, people come in with very complex questions that they need help with, and sometimes it’s just something simple. But to know that you helped them find it, and maybe along the way you taught them a little bit about how to find other things they didn’t know they needed, it’s just a really gratifying feeling.”
Birchenall said she is most proud of her involvement in the New Castle County Reads program, which brings in well-known authors to speak, as well as helping launch a children’s literary magazine, which the library publishes each year.
“People just are so excited about it every year, and just to see that excitement, and to see the involvement of the parents and the diversity of the families that get involved with it, it’s just so gratifying,” she said.
Birchenall added that she is grateful for her staff at the Newark Free Library, many of which have worked there longer than she has.
“They know the community so well, and they know the library inside and out. It’s such a pleasure. I know I’ll miss that,” she said.
Now that she’s retired, she is looking forward to doing something that she has never had time to do before, despite all the time she’s spent in libraries – join a book club.