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Retiring library director looks toward library’s future

Pat Immen, director of the Concord Public Library, stands for a portrait in the library on Tuesday, January 14, 2014.  Immen is retiring at the end of this month after 40 years working at the library. 

(ARIANA van den AKKER / Monitor staff)

Pat Immen, director of the Concord Public Library, stands for a portrait in the library on Tuesday, January 14, 2014. Immen is retiring at the end of this month after 40 years working at the library. (ARIANA van den AKKER / Monitor staff)

From a window right outside Pat Immen’s second-floor office, she can look out over Concord Public Library’s first floor and see what used to be there.

As she walks through the building, she can point to phantom circulation desks – and library staff – that once filled the space. She can pick out where the card catalog, now electronic, used to be stored in drawers built into the wall, and where the old projector used to shine movies out into the auditorium.

But when Immen retires at the end of this month after 40 years at the library, 11 of which were spent at its helm, the outgoing director of the Concord Public Library leaves her post having carefully charted its course into the next era.

“It’s been a privilege to serve as library director here,” said Immen, 62. “I think what I’ve enjoyed most is helping the staff and the organization carve out a path for the future. In an organization like this, we don’t make huge changes quickly, but we always have a sense of direction, a sense of goals as to what we want to accomplish next.”

She crosses a threshold that was a wall when the library was built in 1940, stepping into a new set of rooms added during a 1965 expansion to the building.

And she talks about the possibility of another much-needed expansion – or, better yet, a new building.

“Helping them design a path for the future has been the exciting part of this job – improving services, improving the building, buying new equipment we need, or the furniture,” Immen said. “My job has been to find the resources to make those improvements and changes happen as best I could.”

‘A harsh reality’

In 2009, the city sliced the library’s budget by about $400,000, a cut in funding that has not been fully restored in the years since. The library had to cut three full-time staff members and reduce hours at its Penacook branch location, and the city nearly halved its budget for new books and materials.

“We had to make a lot of structural changes and budgetary changes for a lot of different departments of the city over the last five or six years because of the need to keep the tax rate down,” City Manager Tom Aspell said. “A major part of the impact was the library.”

The city has returned some of that money to the library’s budget over the last several years. Its $1.5 million operating budget is still short of its funding before the 2009 budget cuts, but Immen said she has continued to search for outside funding and help her staff adapt.

“I don’t know if I remember it fondly, but I think one of our most important accomplishments as an organization . . . (has been) the way in which the staff has responded to a decrease in resources that was experienced citywide,” Immen said. “The staff expressed a huge determination to maintain services for our customers.”

Aspell said Immen has been a resilient leader for her staff since the city shrunk her budget.

“Pat’s done a great job, I think, of trying to manage the number of full-time people with the number of part-time people, getting the most out of the staff that she has. . . . It’s been very refreshing, working with someone who takes that type of approach and understands budgetary impacts,” he said.

In her crisp blue suit, Immen sits on the edge of her desk chair with her shoulders square and her spine straight. There are cards from well-wishers propped up on one corner of her desk.

“A retirement wish to a special someone.”

“Wish you good luck.”

Even as she prepares to pack up those cards and leave her office, Immen will spend her last days at the library preparing its budget for next year and planning for the library’s future.

Budget cuts were “a harsh reality, I won’t deny that,” she said. “But it’s one that we really couldn’t change, and we weren’t alone in that decrease of resources. I think we want to do the very best that we can with the resources that are provided.”

In the council’s hands

Immen began her career in Concord running the library’s bookmobile. In the 40 years since, she has earned a master’s degree in library science from Simmons College in Boston and worked her way up through the administration, taking over as director in 2002.

And at the end of the month, the woman who led the library through its transition to an online card catalog will leave it at another turning point.

In 2007, a needs assessment called for a new 40,000-square-foot library in downtown. That report concluded the current library building provided insufficient meeting space for community programming, no designated space for teens and insufficient access to its own collection.

With a third of its collection housed in basement storage, “Concord has fewer accessible books than any comparable New Hampshire library,” the report states. That collection includes about 150,000 items.

Ward 3 City Councilor Jan McClure headed a task force to examine the library’s options and presented a report on its findings in early 2011 – a report that also recommended a new library be built elsewhere downtown.

Immen has been a diligent advocate for the library, McClure said, and she has thought about what “a future library” means for the city.

Options for that future library include an addition to the existing library on Green Street or an entirely new facility, such as the one suggested as part of redevelopment of the Employment Security site on South Main Street.

The council will consider those options as it sets new priorities for its term in the next several weeks, Aspell said.

The project has been on the list of “ongoing priorities” for the city council in years past, but it has yet to rise to the top.

“I don’t think anything is set in stone,” McClure said.

Immen will officially retire at the end of the month, and Aspell said he will lead a national search for her replacement. As of Feb. 1, technical services manager Sandi Lee and children’s services and branch manager Pam Stauffacher will serve as interim co-library directors.

“I think the whole topic of a restoration here or a new building somewhere else in town is in the hands of the city council,” Immen said. “I think we’ve worked very hard to let them know the needs of the library, the needs of the community. I hope at some point in the future that the city council as a community will find the resources for some improvements at the library.

“In the meantime, the staff is going to work to continue to offer better services, new services.”

(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or mdoyle@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)

Lets hope Aspell doesn't make the same mistake Ballantyne made in selecting a new director, by dragging his feet to the point where the most qualified candidates either took other positions or weren't interested any longer. We need someone with a vision on where a library should be going in the 21st century. During this reign, people lost jobs and budgets were cut but the directors salary got over the century mark. We need a new director who has fresh ideas but will listen to other opinions and who'll fight for those principals of the Concord Public Library. What we don't need is safe and no change.

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