2012-06-01 / Community

Library director’s experience prepares him for future

By Jack Flagler Staff Writer

Thomas Memorial Library Director Jay Scherma has had a strange month.

On May 14, the Cape Elizabeth Town Council elected to let voters decide in the fall whether the town will build a new library. On May 31, Scherma and members of the town council will speak to residents about plans for the library at a public meeting. In between, on May 20, the Maine Library Council named Scherma Maine’s Outstanding Librarian for 2012.

While speaking with Scherma, it becomes obvious both why he was chosen for the award and why he believes the library can no longer function at its current location. He is a man with big ideas about what a library can be in a community. His vision of a library is not just a place patrons can pick up a book or use the Internet if their power is down.

He envisions the library as both a community center where someone can chat over a cup of coffee, and a proving ground for new technology where someone can learn how to use a Kindle Fire or an iPad.

“Increasingly, the role of libraries is to provide nontraditional resources and support,” Scherma said. “I’m hoping we can demonstrate to people a vision of what they could have and how that vision could make their lives fuller, richer and more enjoyable.”

Scherma does not lack for ideas to transform the library. He suggests the library could function as a place for young adults starting families to meet similar people around their community.

“My son is 30-something and he doesn’t always like spending time in bars,” Scherma said. “They’re noisy, expensive and not always conducive to a conversation. Young parents need space and time to just socialize.”

Ultimately though, Scherma said the function of the library comes back to one fundamental idea.

“Libraries are about stories. When we think about it, how much of our lives are determined by stories?”

Rachel Davis, the children’s librarian at Thomas Memorial Library, has worked with Scherma for 17 years, dating back to when the adult section of the library was completely separate from the children’s section, and patrons walked into the main lobby and “didn’t really know where to go,” she said.

Davis said that since then, Scherma and library staff have done a wonderful job of stretching the resources they have, but the time has come for a new building.

“We certainly don’t have space for people to sit and be with their kids,” Davis said. “I have a real juggling act because we can’t have too many people come. We kind of plan for things that aren’t going to be as popular because we have to think, ‘What if a lot of people like this? We have nowhere to put them.’ The programming could be a whole lot better if we had appropriate space.”

This February, Davis said she booked an actual juggling act for children to come see at the library. But because of space limitations and the low ceiling in the community area of the library, the performer wasn’t able to actually juggle. Instead, Davis said, the performer made handmade masks at the Cape Elizabeth library, and displayed his juggling act at South Portland Public Library.

Davis said the public has been receptive to the idea of the library move as they learn more about the limitations of the current location, and she hopes the meeting on May 31 will continue to raise public awareness about the need for a change.

While Scherma agrees with Davis on the need for change, he also is quick to count his blessings over the course of his career as library director in Cape Elizabeth. That includes, he said, the unwavering support of the town government.

“Some of my colleagues have dealt with deep cuts,” Scherma said. “I’ve been able to maintain my support here. I like to think that I do a good job, but I also know that I can do a good job because it’s fertile soil.”

Town Manager Michael McGovern was a member of the group that nominated Scherma for the Maine Outstanding Librarian award.

“Jay has led our library through challenging times,” McGovern said in a news release. “He has found ways to extend the life of a crowded library building by constantly finding new areas to display books.”

As Scherma speaks, his award sits on a dresser over his desk – a silver Paul Revere bowl mounted on a pedestal with a plaque attached. He said he was “speechless” and “profoundly moved” when he received the award.

Now, Scherma will move on to his next task. For a library director who started his career working with clumsy databases before personal computers, and now envisions patrons using 3D copiers and sound studios at the library, Scherma has no time to spend in the past.

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