Getting to Know the Cambridge Public Library’s New Book Boss

cambridge public libraryThe library's main branch illuminated at night. Photo by Jess Benjamin.

For Maria McCauley, returning to Cambridge is like coming full circle. 

“First of all, I love Cambridge,” McCauley effuses. “Cambridge opened up the world for me.”

This August, she’ll take over as the city’s director of libraries, a position from which Susan Flannery retired in April after more than two decades of service. She’s coming here from the Santa Monica Public Library, where as director of libraries she managed five branches and a staff of more than 200 employees.

But this new chapter in her life is really something of a sequel; she lived here in the city between her junior and senior years in college, in an MIT house across from the NECCO factory. She worked at the Y, did an internship at Dance Umbrella in Central Square and worked in Harvard Square. “It was just this amazing, diverse world,” says the Connecticut native. “It was a happening place.” That was especially true when it came to the city’s literary liveliness: “I remember getting the bookstore guide that they used to give out at the visitor center and going to all the bookstores,” McCauley says.

Maria McCauley, incoming CPL director.

Maria McCauley, incoming CPL director.

She’s no stranger to the city’s libraries, either—in fact, one of her first jobs was with the Cambridge Public Library. She was looking for a part-time position, and walked into the library’s main branch, where Susan Flannery just happened to be standing at the circulation desk. The two chatted, and McCauley landed a job behind the circulation desk herself. She’d later work behind the reference desk and in the A.V. room, among other positions.

She loved working at the library, especially because it offered her the opportunity to connect with the residents who would visit.

As director of libraries, her role will be a bit broader. “Sometimes, people think that librarians can sit around—that they have all this time to read,” McCauley laughs. She explains that her role is to act as a bridge between residents, groups and staff members, and to help the staff “translate the needs of residents,” whether that’s introducing new classes in fields like coding or developing programs that get people into the library. And a huge part of her job is to look towards the future, to figure out where the library is going and how to best get there by examining best practices and observing what other leaders in the field are doing.

That also means talking to the people who visit the library—and being a good listener. She’ll be doing a full assessment when she comes on board, looking at the library’s website, checking out current course offerings, figuring out what’s happening with the renovations at the Valente branch. She plans to really hone in on the library’s role as a learning center for the people of the city. Its children’s programs are strong, especially early literacy for young learners and the innovation initiatives at the middle school. But she wants to make sure that everyone, whether they’re an early learner or a retiree, an autodidact or someone who learns best with others, can make the most out of what the Cambridge Public Library has to offer.

Because while libraries have always adapted and changed, and have had to do so rapidly thanks to the information revolution, their core purpose has remained the same.

“In terms of the basic values of libraries,” McCauley explains, “of being a place that is for everyone, that’s accessible to everyone, meant to help people learn about the world or to explore issues or to build new skills—those basic tenants of libraries are here as they have been in the past, and will continue into the future.”

“I’m so excited,” she adds, “on a personal and a professional level.”

Oh, and because people are always asking what she’s reading: Right now, that’s Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.