Starting a New Chapter at the Needham Free Public Library

May 13, 2024
• In his first month on the job, Needham’s new library
director has not been one to hide in the stacks.

Rob MacLean wasn’t a library kid. The one time he did step foot in his hometown library — as a middle schooler working on a research project — he was met with a not-so-friendly librarian with her arms crossed.

He didn’t return until he graduated college, when the accompanying debt meant he couldn’t fund his reading habits.

“To feed my hunger for books, I discovered the public library,” MacLean said, “which really hadn’t been part of my life growing up.”

MacLean first became a regular library patron, then a Friend of the Weymouth Libraries in 1996 and then a member of the library trustees until he decided, with some guidance from friends, that he should pursue library school.

After more than 13 years as the director of the Weymouth Public Libraries, MacLean still harbors a genuine love for books, libraries and the communities around. And that passion has transferred to Needham.

MacLean is now the director of the Needham Free Public Library. His first day was April 22.

The library’s strategic plan resonated with MacLean. From reexamining library space to increasing the library’s community outreach, the plan aims to “show up where people are” with the library and its resources, he said.

Facing an ever-changing media landscape, librarians must be flexible and adaptable, so it’s especially important they think creatively about engaging the community, he said.

“We can be safe and just stay in our building, and that’s the way things are, but that’s not what’s best for Needham,” he said. “It’s not what’s best for the library.”

Coming to Needham was also a personal challenge for MacLean, who grew up in Weymouth and had spent much of his life there. Before his stint as director, MacLean served as a part-time library director in Mendon, his first paid library job.

In Weymouth, MacLean said he worked to find smart ways to do things without a budget. Post-recession, the library had $0 for materials and risked losing certification, but a community effort raised $30,000 in just six weeks — the goal was $20,000.

What defined MacLean’s leadership in Weymouth was the complete library rebuild, which concluded in October 2020. The main branch of the library was in desperate need of repair, and after meeting tight deadlines, the library secured a critical state grant. As a result, the library gained the community’s trust, MacLean said.

“Things have just been great in Weymouth ever since,” MacLean said. “The new Tufts Library is the go-to destination town, because it’s got so much. We’ve made sure that it’s going to meet the community’s needs for decades to come… The quality of the building now matches the quality of the staff.”

That experience helped MacLean stand out from the candidate pool, Deputy Town Manager Katie King said. After completing a feasibility study, the library will eye future building projects — Town Meeting recently approved a $454,000 redesign for the library’s young adult section.

Needham will need a director “to see those ideas come into fruition,” she said.

“I think a lot of the work Rob will have in the next year or two is a lot of community outreach, getting the word out about the wonderful programming that the library does,” King said, “brainstorming new and innovative ideas to help folks connect with the library, and all of that is in alignment with the strategic plan.”

The search for MacLean was an extensive one that began last fall, when stakeholders decided none of the finalists would move forward. That prompted the town to retain a recruitment firm, who helped produce “a highly qualified pool of candidates” for a second hiring round, King said. Among them was MacLean.

His “community-minded” approach became apparent through the interview process, said Erhardt Graeff, chair of the Trustees of the Needham Free Public Library​​. The trustees, alongside town and library staff, were part of the interviews, but the decision to hire was ultimately the town’s to make.

MacLean’s varied involvement with his previous library was also an important determining factor, Graeff said.

“I was excited because I see that opportunity for the Needham Library and being even more deeply connected to the town,” Graeff said. “And I’ve noticed, even in these last couple of weeks, Rob’s really been showing up to different events. He’s getting to know folks, and so I love the fact that he is interested in being part of the overall community.”

Instead of sitting in his office on the isolated third floor, MacLean spends much of his day at a service desk downstairs, meeting patrons and introducing himself, he said. He already recognizes a few regulars by name.

“That’s the fun part of the job,” MacLean said. “Being behind the desk all day is sometimes a little tedious. It’s great to meet the people that we are serving.”

And for MacLean, it’s all about reaching people where they are.

With 400,000 digital music albums and a much larger digital collection than their physical one, library resources are more accessible than ever, MacLean said. Residents can read, watch and listen to “incredible content,” as well as tune into hybrid programming, he said.

“I don’t want them to feel that we want them to change their life in order to fit us in. We can fit into their lives currently,” MacLean said.

Nearly 17,800 Needhamites have library cards, and MacLean hopes the number of cardholders keeps pace with the town’s growth. Children’s librarians will be visiting elementary schools in June, and MacLean said people might find the library in more “unusual places” in the future.

In his own time, MacLean checks out fiction, thrillers, police procedurals and romance books, but also likes to keep up with teen and children’s reading to stay current. His favorite book is “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, which he considers “one of the great American novels.”

He’s a slow reader, he said, and can’t give up on a book — sometimes to his detriment.

“I’d get more done if I could stop reading books I’m not enjoying, but I just have to finish it,” he said.

MacLean will attend his first Trustees meeting as director on Tuesday, but he’s already stepped out into the community for other events, including Needham Open Studios, local fundraisers and, of course, the Annual Town Meeting. He looks forward to the summer reading program for Needham youth.

Entering his fourth week on the job, MacLean said he has “no regrets.”

“I’m just looking for opportunities to get to know Needham and to have them get to know me, and hopefully get to know the library more, because this is a fantastic library,” MacLean said. “I’m really excited to join the team here and make things even better than they are, if possible.”

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