When Maxine Bleiweis was 12 years old, she attended a Lions Club meeting in her hometown of Pascoag, R.I., that would shape the rest of her life. The service organization's gathering featured a guidance counselor, who explained that Bleiweis and other girls her age had three career options: teacher, nurse or librarian.
"I couldn't stand the sight of blood, I didn't have a whole lot of patience, so I figured I'd take the third, which was being a librarian," Bleiweis explains. "That's how it started in my mind. I'm just lucky that I found the right path that fit with my personality and abilities."
Almost 50 years later, that path has taken her to the top of her field. After 13 years as the director of the Westport Public Library, she was honored in May as the 2011 Outstanding Librarian by the Connecticut Library Association.
The accolade also reflects the library's rise to prominence as a community and state institution during Bleiweis' tenure. Since she arrived in 1998, daily circulation of library items has doubled to a current average of 2,700, making Westport the eighth-busiest library in New England. During that time, program attendance has also doubled, with library events now attracting an annual total of more than 50,000 people.
"The goal was to make this the best library any place," she says. "This community is a unique place that has a lot of resources to share with each other and with people outside of here."
`A fascinating journey'
Bleiweis, 60, became the head of Westport's library in 1998, after serving as the director for 18 years at Newington's public library. She also led Suffield's library for five years after she got her start as a library branch head in Mercer County, N.J.
She now presides over an institution that differs markedly in its scope and services compared to the establishment she took over 13 years ago. The rise of Google -- founded the same year Bleiweis became Westport's library director -- initially led some observers to believe that libraries would soon become obsolete. To the contrary, Bleiweis says the internet search giant made her profession even more relevant.
"Nobody taught anybody how to search," she says. "All of a sudden, people realized how much information was out there. And you needed somebody to help you sift through it."
The library now offers a comprehensive range of apparatus and services to meet patrons' technological needs, including loans of Amazon Kindle e-readers and access to Freegal, an online database that allows users to legally download music for free. Last week, the library also kicked off the summer session of its "Tech Tuesdays" program, a weekly workshop where patrons ask staff technology-related questions and try out devices such as tablet PCs and e-readers.
In the fall, Westport's library and several other libraries across the nation will partner with the company that created Freegal to launch Freading, an e-book checkout service.
"Everybody needs to know how to use these things," Bleiweis says. "The library's role has gone from literacy of vocabulary, words, and those sorts of things to technology literacy. That's been a fascinating journey for us as we've had to stay ahead and know how to use all the devices."
The library operates on a budget of approximately $5 million, with about 80 percent of its funding coming from the town and the remainder from private contributions. During Bleiweis' tenure, the library has also evolved into an institution more engaged with its constituents, says Nancy Wilson, who serves on the committee for the library's main fundraiser, "Booked for the Evening."
"She's a regular person; she doesn't have an `I run the library' aura about her," Wilson says. "As the head of the library, you need to have someone who's approachable and who people feel they can talk to and meet. Maxine is very likable."
`Bringing the community together'
During the next year, the library expects to attract patrons from more than 100 municipalities in Connecticut, making it the state's highest-used library by visitors outside of its home community, according to Bleiweis.
Foot traffic at the library has grown to the point where staff frequently have to turn visitors away for lack of space, she adds. Bleiweis and other town leaders have accordingly begun planning a "transformation" of the library building.
She declines yet to provide details of the plan, but says "our goal is to re-create space so that it's commensurate with the needs of the community."
Eduardo Andrade, president of the library's Board of Trustees, says the project epitomizes Bleiweis' ambitious agenda for the library.
"Maxine has never thought inside the box; the box has never been something that she's bound herself with," he says. "She's always been at the forefront of understanding the library of the future and pushing the library towards programmatic excellence."
Top town officials also view Bleiweis as a key partner, as they seek to incorporate the library into their drive to revitalize downtown Westport.
"She's a visionary," says Selectman Shelly Kassen. "You just look at everything the library is doing from e-books, to book clubs, to helping job seekers. She just knows how to have creative ideas and see them through."
While the library could be set for major changes in the near future, Bleiweis emphasizes that her mission will remain constant.
"You can't be a great library in a community without having all your doors and windows thrown open to everybody," she says. "Our role in bringing the community together is really paramount."