Westport Library director Bleiweis to retire
Maxine Bleiweis was 12 years old when she first had the idea of becoming a librarian. It was the result of a conversation at a Lions Club event she attended with her father.
"I was told I could be a teacher or a nurse when I grew up," said Bleiweis, Westport Library's executive director who announced this week she plans to step down in July. She said neither appealed to her. "But I thought, `I do like books.' "
That started Bleiweis' journey from college and graduate school, where she studied library science, to her current position as the top administrator of one of the busiest libraries in the state.
"Throughout college I took every library job I could get," said Bleiweis. Her first job after graduate school was as the head of a branch library in New Jersey. "I just plunged in," she said. From there, Bleiweis' career has spanned 41 years working at public libraries.
Bleiweis on Wednesday announced she will be "retooling," not retiring, as of July 1. She has "nothing concrete" in mind for after that, But, she said, she wants to share the "knowledge and insight" she acquired during her many years on the job by serving as a consultant to the Westport Library and others..
In her second-floor office in the library she has transformed in her 17 years there, she talked about her decision to move on.
"The executive director position is like running a marathon or relay," she said. "You always want to hand off at a place of real strength and this library has never been stronger."
But that wasn't the case when she took over in 1998. "That was the same year Google emerged and it was the beginning of major changes in the ways people searched for information," she recalled.
Bleiweis said there were concerns about whether there would be a need for libraries in the digital future. But, she said, with the new technology "there has never been more to learn" and the library has evolved into the place to foster that learning.
She said she's proudest of enabling her staff of 15 employees "to grow and operate in a way that carries our vision and philosophy." That, she said, is that the library is "for all ages and stages of life. There is no tuition, no entrance fee -- you can't fail here."
"The public library is about access," she said, adding the Westport Library is open seven days a week year round, except for a few holidays.
Every day, 1,200 people come to the library and another 1,200 have contact with its programs, by Internet or telephone, she added.
She also receives calls from other library administrators asking questions about some of the innovative programs at the Westport Library, like the 3D printer and the two robots -- Nancy and Vincent -- the library recently acquired.
"Our goal is to stay a little bit ahead," she said. "It's also important to know your community and be open to new ideas."
Bleiweis, a resident of the Black Rock section of Bridgeport, will be leaving at a time when a $25 million expansion of the library is envisioned.
"There's no perfect time to leave," she said. "But I'll continue to be a part of the fundraising and act as a partner."
She said, to date, "more than 100 Westport families have committed financially" to support the project.
Bleiweis said, now more than ever, the library has become the "epicenter of downtown," especially with the relocation of the Westport Weston Family Y to its Mahackeno campus in the northern section of town.
She said a proposal in the Downtown Master Plan draft discussed earlier this week -- to turn the driveway alongside the library into a street called Library Lane -- also is evidence of its importance.
As she prepares for the next chapter in her life, Bleiweis said there are no regrets. But, as she said in her letter to the library Board of Trustees, the decision "to make this change was a difficult one."
"Helping to guide the Westport Library into a true 21st-century center of learning and innovation for the past 17 years has been the most rewarding work of my professional life," she wrote. "Now, with the Westport Library solidly set on its future path, I hope that I will have the opportunity to help other libraries achieve similar goals."
"Maxine has been a powerful influence for the library," said Marcia Logan, the library's communications coordinator. "She's made this place what it is."
"Maxine may be leaving her position as director of the Westport Library, but her spirit, enthusiasm and dedication will remain in our grateful community for years to come," First Selectman Jim Marpe said in a statement.
"Under Maxine's professional guidance, the library has evolved into a community-driven, citizen-centric resource for all," he added.
"In her 17 years of dedicated service, Maxine has propelled our library into an innovative, 21st century institution," said Marpe. "She has been a worldwide ambassador, making numerous trips overseas and hosting delegations from other countries. Each of these endeavors, in combination with Maxine's creativity, diligence and perseverance, has been a major contributor in making the library and, by extension, the Town of Westport, the artistic, progressive, and `still revolutionary' community we love today."
Since becoming director, and under her leadership, Westport's library has become one of the busiest in New England, adding a wide array of programs -- only some of them involving books.
When she arrived in Westport in 1998, the library offered about 700 programs yearly. Last year, it had more than 1,600, according to a press release from the Board of Trustees. Many focus on new ways of learning, inter-generational involvement, and support for the business community and independent entrepreneurs.
"By every measure, Maxine was instrumental in ushering our library into the new millennium and guiding us through a dynamic period of change," board president Michael Guthman said in the release. "Through the gift of her imagination, visionary thinking and ability to motivate others, our library is now recognized as one of the most innovative libraries in the world."
She has embraced and implemented new technologies as they have evolved, the release said, instituting automated circulation systems, providing Internet access and wireless computing, introducing 3D printing and most recently, teaching programming with robotics.
Under Bleiweis' guidance, the Westport Library was also among the first libraries in the nation to maintain a MakerSpace, emphasizing creation and invention, inter-generational collaboration, innovation and entrepreneurship, according to the release.
The U.S. State Department last year asked Bleiweis to host a conference of librarians visiting from Moscow. She later visited Russia with staff of the the Smithsonian Institution to share Westport's experience in creating and managing Makerspaces.
Bleiweis is often called upon to visit libraries across the United States, Canada and Europe to share insights on the new roles libraries can play in learning and community development, the press release said.
The Connecticut Library Association named Bleiweis its Librarian of the Year in 2011.
Before coming to Westport, she was director of the Newington Library for 18 years.
Her career started in New Jersey as branch head for the Mercer County Library System, and she became director of the Suffield Library in northern Connecticut in 1974. She has served as president of the Capitol Region Library Council and, in 1995, as president of the Connecticut Library Association.