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Innovative new Falls library director looks beyond the books

Since leaving her hometown of Cornwall, Ont., Sarah Potwin, the new director of the Niagara Falls Public Library, has worked in New York state, Florida and Vermont.

In Niagara Falls, she looks around and sees home.

It isn't just the rivers and lakes where she and husband, Scott, and their son Eoin, who will be 12 this month, are anxious to fish.

It's the city that was hard-hit by the loss of the factories, rich in natural beauty but with a struggling economy, twinned with a city across a waterway, a place where a library plays many essential and possibly unconventional roles in the lives of residents.

"I see commonality, and it feels easy to fit into this community," said Potwin in an afternoon interview in her light-filled office in the unique Earl W. Brydges library building at 1425 Main St. The system also operates the LaSalle branch library at 8728 Buffalo Ave.

The commonality with her hometown extends to the bridge linking Cornwall to Akwesasne and then Massena, N.Y.,where Potwin worked as an assistant library director from 1997 to 2001. In fact, a recent trip across the Rainbow Bridge to Niagara Falls, Ont., felt almost like deja vu for Potwin and her husband.

"I said, 'I can't believe this; I'm in another community with a bridge,' " linking American and Canadian cities, she said. "It's interesting to see how one flourishes more than the other, one has strengths or weaknesses that the other one doesn't have."

Most recently, Potwin was director of the LaGrange Association Library near Poughkeepsie. From 2004 to 2013, she worked at an Episcopal school in Bradenton, Fla.; from 2002 to 2004 she was director of the Winooski Memorial Library in Winooski, Vt.

The position of library director had been vacant since August 2016, when one-year director Jennifer Potter left. Potwin signed a three-year contract for the post, which pays an annual salary of $82,000, and started work on July 1.

The new director praised her staff for keeping the library running when the post was vacant. "They have done an excellent job stepping up to the plate, taking on things," she said. "They are a very talented crew, and I'm amazed at how they kept things functioning."

Potwin's first weeks were a whirlwind of preparing the details of a roughly $2.2 million library budget proposal for a meeting with city officials. The city provides 87 percent of the library's funding, with the rest coming from the county, state and grants, as well as payments from the Nioga Library System.

She still managed to meet with the staff of 14 full-timers and 23 part-timers and began to communicate her vision of priorities under her leadership.

"I've said to the staff, 'You have a place in this library, what are your opinions on how to make it better? I want to know what you think,' " she said.

She also plans to reach out into the community for ideas to design a formal set of goals, a strategic plan for the future that she likens to a shopping list. "It's a timeline vs. shooting from the hip, which is not efficient," she said.

"There are things that have to happen here that we have to prioritize," Potwin said. "I can see things that need to happen, but I'd be interested to hear from citizens who have lived in this community and have ideas about what they want from the library. So a strategic plan would be a bit more of a democratic process."

That process would involve meetings, focus groups and sit-downs with community leaders, Potwin said. "Normally we invite people in, we have open forums where anybody who is interested can attend. I'm interested to know what people want from this building and the people who work here. This is their building, these are their services that they pay for with taxpayer dollars. I'm very aware of that and I want to honor that."

Public hours in the Local History Department of the Niagara Falls Library could expand under new director Sarah Potwin, who praised the work done by department leader Courtney Geerhart, above, and other staff. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Right away, Potwin said, "We are looking at expanding hours for the local history department," one of the cornerstones of the library's collection, which assists people with genealogical searches and information about history, including Niagara Falls' world-famous industrial and daredevil past.

"Local history is only open nine hours a week for public access, my hope is that we can bump that up to 20 hours a week," said Potwin. "Full time would be ideal, but I'd just have to find the money for that."

In her previous jobs, Potwin has used library space in some innovative ways. At the LaGrange Library, AARP Driver Education classes were offered and the amiable Potwin was an instructor. The library also became a pickup point for local Community Supported Agriculture food shares.

But Potwin is proudest when the library began issuing passports, a role often filled by passport offices and post offices. "I was quite proud of that," she said. "It was a demand in our community."

At the local post office, she said, "there were limited appointments, and when you went to get your passport, everybody in line knew that you were planning a trip. I had patrons tell me it was so much more friendly to go to the library, they could sit down, it's a quiet space, and they could do it on Saturday, they didn't have to pull their children out of school. It's just a pleasant experience. We were fulfilling a need that was there."

The LaGrange library also offered health coverage navigators to help people understand their options. "There is open enrollment time, but if people lost their jobs in non-enrollment times, they needed the navigators then," she said. "There was a constant demand throughout the year for that."

Offering such innovative services at a library might surprise people who haven't visited one recently.

"When you mention the library, people say, 'Oh, I remember going to storytime when I was 4.' It's a lovely warm memory, but it's just a piece of what we do," she said. "I think we just need to start broadcasting our accomplishments more."

Of course, Potwin has her own fond library memories. When she was a child, she and her father, who worked as an electrician in the now-closed Domtar paper mill, used to visit every Tuesday night, checking out books and sitting and reading together. "I remember the card catalogs and it all seemed so warm and fuzzy," she said. "But nowadays, we obviously don't have the card catalogs anymore, libraries are run in a much more efficient fashion, there's a lot more cooperation among libraries systemwide."

"People use libraries in such a different fashion now," she said. "Yes, we loan out books, and we always have and I'm sure we always will,  but our role in the community has evolved. I often say that we are the community's living room."

Free public computer terminals are popular with patrons in the Niagara Falls Public Library. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

While several people sat at tables with books and papers in the library's main room, many others were busy at the computer terminals. There are 30 terminals set up for public use in the main library and at the LaSalle branch.

"People come to use the technology we have," said Potwin. "Some just want to print out something, they might have the document on their device but need a printer. Others might come to use their own technology," asking how to borrow an eBook from the library and read it on their iPad, for example."We have people come in who need help with basic computer skills. The LaSalle branch has classes, which can be as basic as 'This is the mouse and how it operates on the screen.'"

Potwin is up to date on innovations in other library systems.

"Our role has evolved," she said. "There are libraries in much larger systems that have social workers on staff who offer guidance" to patrons who might be homeless or have difficulty feeding themselves. "We're this conduit, a safe place for people to meet their information needs."

But learning goes far beyond reading, she said. "It could be a workshop on learning how to knit. I've seen libraries hold a butchering class, they bring in meat and teach people how to butcher it. We're fulfilling a need, we equalize. Nobody does a credit check when you come in the door."

While embracing innovation, Potwin predicts that libraries will always stock and loan out books. "I think we are reevaluating our collections, certainly, and maybe in some cases we are paring down the size," she said. "We are a central library in our system, so I don't want our collection to get too small. At the same time, we need to have things on the shelves that are relevant.

"We offer books, and we will probably most likely continue to offer books forever and ever. I don't have a crystal ball, but that's my opinion. But we need to look at our collections and make sure we are offering the right things to our community, that our community wants and needs."


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