GROTON -- Come December, it will be the end of an era as longtime library director Owen Shuman retires from the position she has held for the last quarter century.
"I've been director for 25 years and have worked in libraries for the last 36 years, so it is time," said Shuman. "I've been very fortunate to be able to work on the expansion of the library 13 years ago, which quadrupled it in size, automating the library, and working on the last five-year plan for lifelong learning, which we've instituted this year.
"It's time now for the next person to take over," continued Shuman. "Right now, there are many online resources available to libraries, including Access 360, for borrowing ebooks for, e readers and online databases. Obviously, libraries have changed a lot in 25 years, and Groton is fortunate to have a strong library community that loves public libraries. We've got a great board of trustees, 45 volunteers, and a wonderful staff. With all that in place, I thought that 25 years was a nice mark for me. It was time to move on. I'm retiring, but I'm not sure what I'm going to be doing. I'm still exploring my options. I may do more consulting to libraries."
Shuman's final day on the job will be Dec. 14.
"I came in November of 1987 when my son was three years old," recalled Shuman. "I had worked at the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners and at the Memorial Hall Library in Andover, so I worked at some special libraries before becoming director in Groton. We moved to Groton in 1979 and at one point, my next-door neighbor saw an ad in the paper for library director. I applied for it and got the job. I still remember the day I came in for the interview and thinking what a wonderful little library we had in town and with so much potential. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, so I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to work here."
After attending Florida State University, where she majored in English, Shuman moved on to Simmons College where she earned a master's degree in library and information sciences.
Although proud of the many improvements and programs she has championed at the Groton Public Library over the years, Shuman thinks that her involvement in expanding the library's space was perhaps the most significant.
"When I was hired as director in 1987, one of the first things we did was to do some brainstorming about where we would like to be in the future," said Shuman. "We formed a Space Planning Committee and worked very hard in looking at our needs and finally applied for a grant to build an addition. I wrote the grant with the committee and submitted it in 1994 only to have it denied in 1995. So I rewrote and redesigned it and the application was accepted in 1996. It was a tremendous amount of work and on top of that, we had a lot of challenges with the site behind the library building, where the ground was sloping and very narrow. But when the addition was completed, we went from a 4,000-square-foot library to 17,000 square feet, quadrupling its size.
"The building project was a community-wide project, and I was humbled by the generosity of people who came out to vote on it," said Shuman. "It was the largest vote in favor of a building project to date. It was overwhelmingly positive.
"The public likes this library and sees it as more than a building," Shuman continued. "It has one of the most beautiful interiors of any library in the area. It's been well-maintained because we have a good custodian and staff who care about it."
But other accomplishments were only slightly less important in the director's mind.
"While working on the addition, we also started an endowment trust fund," Shuman said. "In that capacity, we raised $1.2 million in two years. That has allowed the library to have $60,000 a year available for special programs. But you have to remember that any success that the library has had has always been a team effort consisting of staff, trustees, volunteers and the public. Especially the public, because the public is what makes the library come alive. They're the ones who come to me and ask about starting a Spanish club or a knitting group or whatever. I consider the library to be the heart of the community, as do many other people. Some words used to describe the library that we received in a survey included friendly, innovative, accessible, and community, so I think the biggest part about being director here is that it was my good fortune that it was ready for improvement and growth. I just happened to be here when it was. I was very, very lucky."
Over the next few months, Shuman said she expects to work with a screening committee to help review resumes of applicants seeking to replace her, but her participation in the process will not include interviews and selection.
"I have to say that the director's job is a plum job," Shuman admitted, adding that officials would not limit the search for her replacement to current employees of the library.
"I would advise whoever replaces me to continue to listen to the community," said Shuman. "Libraries are forever changing, so enjoy being at the helm and working with a great team that we have here in Groton."
Although it might seem that Shuman would be leaving the library in such a state that anyone who replaces her would have little to do, that is not likely to be so, said the director.
"Future challenges will continue to involve funding because the town did reduce our book budget," points out Shuman. "The library should also look into potentially joining a network of other libraries for improved access to materials. Beyond those, the other challenge will be keeping up with technology and the changing role of libraries. I think extending services and hours and dealing with funding will always be a challenge and moving the library forward to whatever is next in the 21st century."
Shuman, however, is not fearful that libraries will lose their purpose in a future that is likely to be dominated by technology.
"I think people know that the library is a wonderful resource," said Shuman. "They will continue using hard books and there will always be the need for a story time to introduce kids to books and reading. The public library is a community gathering place and a place for public discourse. Libraries are lifelong learning centers where people can visit either alone or in groups."
But Shuman will not make her exit without difficulty.
"I loved the challenges that being library director gave me," concluded Shuman. "I love learning and of course the books and the people I met at the library. I loved being able to walk through that beautiful building and seeing a child read to a dog or watching 40 teens reading or talking to an elderly patron who I'd known for 25 years. The constant activity that happens inside this public library is what I'll miss. There's always something going on here. I think the person who takes over from me will continue all that and add things that we've never thought of."