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As a book lover, Martha Church ’74 has found her niche: She’s the director of the West Hartford Public Library, in Connecticut, where she’s surrounded by books and people seeking them out. Read on to see how the former English major is changing lives with her career, how she keeps in touch with Dickinson and what she wants you to know about today’s modern library (there’s more to it than you might think).
Can you speak to how Dickinson’s useful liberal-arts approach applies to your career?
Being exposed to a variety of disciplines through Dickinson’s system of distribution requirements gave me a basic working vocabulary in many subjects that were not my areas of primary interest or focus. Those “basics” have been the tools I use on a daily basis to guide library patrons to the best available resources, no matter what their questions may be. I never cease to marvel at the random bits of information that I am able to pull out of my back pocket—facts and associations I don’t even remember learning!
What was your favorite activity or organization at Dickinson?
Coming together with friends for a meal and hearing about what a friend had been excited to learn or experience, sharing a laugh, solving the problems of the world and having the luxury of time to learn about myself as I learned from my friends was as much a part of my education as what I studied. I treasure those friendships to this day.
How do you stay involved with Dickinson?
For several years, I have been an alumni admissions volunteer, representing the college at local college fairs or interviewing students in my area who are not able to visit the campus. Getting the word out about Dickinson’s great programs and variety of learning opportunities helps the college reach out to top students. In addition, my husband (also a Dickinson grad) and I support the Dickinson Fund each year. Strong support from alumni is a sign of a healthy institution.
What about your career excites you most?
I love the fact that libraries do change lives—when you find the perfect book for a self-professed “nonreader,” help someone learn to use a computer for the first time or show a student how to get started on that daunting first research assignment, you know that you’ve made a difference in a very tangible way.
What does your current work entail?
As the director of a library system serving a town of 60,000, I’m busy with buildings, staffing, budgets, policies and, most of all, patrons. I’m fortunate to work with an incredible staff of people who are talented, creative and tuned in to the needs of our diverse community. I see my job as that of team captain—keeping everyone’s focus on the same goal: providing top-quality library service. The staff all know what and how to do what we do; I just try to make sure we don’t get in each other’s way as we do it!
What is the most challenging part of your work?
The greatest challenge is marketing ourselves in an age of Google and ebooks—we’re so much more than that and so much more than what you might remember about libraries! We are a place to make connections with information and with other people, a place for civil discourse, a place where all are welcome to learn and to broaden horizons, regardless of economic, educational or ethnic background.
What comes to mind as something memorable you’ve done since you graduated?
In 2008, my husband and I had the chance to participate in a rebuilding project on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. We were in the town of D’Iberville, where the residents had taken charge right after Hurricane Katrina to effectively manage the volunteers who flocked to the area to help out. It was that efficient management of the process that enabled this community to put itself back together almost completely just three years after the hurricane. What an inspiration!
If you could have dinner with anyone famous, living or dead, who would it be?
Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln, two great storytellers who’d keep me laughing. I’d also find it fascinating to hear them discussing the events of the period through which they lived.
You just built a time machine: Where and when do you go?
I’d go forward in time to 2115 and visit the West Hartford Public Library to see what a 22nd-century public library looks like.
You’re going to live on an island by yourself for a year: What books, albums, and movies do you take with you?
It had better be an island with Wi-Fi so I can take an e-reader and download books—or better yet, it would be an island with a library! I’m always on the lookout for authors new to me, and I love the serendipity of browsing the new book shelves. I fit my reading to my mood and frame of mind, so I need lots of choices!
If you could change one thing about your life, what would it be?
I’d love to live a little closer to our children and granddaughter, all of whom live in the Twin Cities. Other than that, I wouldn’t change much—I’ve been very blessed, and Dickinson is one of those blessings.
Published November 30, 2015