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A New Chapter for the Providence Community Libraries

He grew up thinking there was something extraordinary about bookstores and libraries. He’s a big fan of purple – the color – as you can see from the photo. He’s also a big fan …

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He grew up thinking there was something extraordinary about bookstores and libraries. He’s a big fan of purple – the color – as you can see from the photo. He’s also a big fan of Melvil “Decimal System” Dewey, and he’ll give you extra points if you know why Dewey spelled his first name like that.

Why lead off with this kind of information when introducing the new – and very accomplished – director of the Providence Community Libraries? Simply to illustrate the originative sense of levity with which Jeffrey Cannell approaches his new job.

Growing up during “the Mad Men era,” Cannell lived among those very same Madison Avenue advertising executives in New York’s suburban Westchester County. After obtaining Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in English and Library Science, respectively, at the University at Albany, he launched his career – not as a librarian, but as a retail bookseller. “For me,” he enthuses, “it was like Christmas every day.”

It was in this capacity that Cannell first began to develop his skills in “imagining what the customer will want.” Early on, he saw the importance of knowing his community and what their book-related needs were.

From there, Cannell moved to Pittsburgh, where he ran the city’s Bookmobile program. For him it was the equivalent of the one-room schoolhouse, which required the same imagining and guesswork as book sales. Because there was only so much space to hold the books for the day’s travels it was imperative to know what people were going to want to read. He learned about being proactive, to envision the user’s needs.

After a brief librarianship in North Carolina, Cannell was hired to direct the Albany, NY Public Library. During his tenure there, he built five new branches, and was eventually named Deputy Commissioner for Cultural Education at the New York State Education Department.

Fast forward to July 6 of this year, when Cannell took up his post at the helm of Providence Community Libraries (PCL). Cyndie Wilmot, President of PCL Board of Directors, said “The Board was impressed by Jeff’s background as an innovative manager of multi-library systems, as well as his deep understanding of how state and city government works.” For his own part, Cannell said, “I’m delighted to be here. I had never been to Rhode Island before this, and I have found the people to be friendly and welcoming. I am so excited to be so close to the ocean.”

Cannell sees the American library as one of the foundations of democracy. Unlike the other city services – the fire department, the police department, trash pickup – you can use the library every day. “We are so much more than just books,” says Cannell. “We offer classes, community events, homework help, movie screenings, story hours and more, and it’s all free.”

The biggest challenge, he said, is staying relevant in the digital world. “When I was young,” he says, smiling, “it was a big deal to go from the clay tablet to papyrus. Now we are dealing with a technology that changes very fast. It is not so much the rate as the velocity.” In order to be sustainable, he stresses, libraries – and librarians – need to be nimble. “The internet changes everything, every week. A librarian doesn’t need to know everything, but he or she needs to know where to find everything.”

The greatest advantage for PCL, in Cannell’s view, is the communities in which the library’s branches are situated. The librarians are so engaged with their communities, which creates the environment for the library to be a social, cultural and intellectual hub.

This is the essence of Cannell’s vision for the future of PCL. “We will continue to grow, marching confidently into the digital age,” he said, his expression clearly giving away the ebullience he feels for his work. “We will continue to be nimble, to embody the warp and weft of the community. My vision is that the library will be the community.” ProvComLib.org