H. Jack Martin became the new executive director at Providence Public Library on Jan. 13, returning to his professional roots. Having worked in multiple posts at the library between 1999 and 2001, Martin, who is a Georgia native, joined the New York Public Library for more than 11 years, holding positions of increasing responsibility. Those culminated in his role as assistant director for Public Programs and Lifelong Learning, where he oversaw citywide cultural and educational programming.
He also developed and implemented innovative digital media and online programs in New York in his most recent position as associate director of the Online Leadership Program for Global Kids, Inc., a New York-based nonprofit.
An immediate past president of the Young Adult Library Services Association, a division of the American Library Association, Martin earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1998 from the University of Georgia, Athens, and a Master of Library and Information Sciences in 2003 from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y.
PBN: Now that you’re back at the Providence Public Library after such an extensive career in library and education services, what aspect of your work at the New York Public Library will most directly inform the work you do here?
MARTIN: Most of my work experience for the last decade has revolved around designing educational programs for children, teens and families. During my tenure at the New York Public Library, I focused on developing programs around the unique collections and exhibitions there for the entire city. At Global Kids Inc., my team taught youth to become global human rights activists through the lens of digital media programming and learning. We taught them game design and web building, and that provided a platform around which they could then “geek out” around topics and issues they were passionate about.
I would love to bring these experiences and ideas to Providence, and then tap new ones by collaborating with other cultural and educational institutions across the city to design new programmatic experiences at the library.
PBN: One of your tasks will be to shepherd a new strategic plan for the library here. What key areas will the plan explore?
MARTIN: I’m super excited about this. The new strategic plan will focus primarily on the future of the library and the future of public libraries in general in a world that is constantly changing because of technology, new audiences and decreasing public funding. As a downtown destination, Providence Public Library is positioned to provide unique types of services based on its collections, public spaces and location. The strategic plan will help build a trajectory from which the library can launch a new identity and menu of programs and services.
PBN: What will be your priority when fundraising for the library? What are key goals?
MARTIN: There are actually several, but the first one is absolutely the condition of the building, including the exterior and interior. We want to make certain that our beautiful building stays intact and safe, plus we also want to continue renovating and improving spaces inside of the library. Our recently renovated spaces are beautiful and beloved by the public, and we want to make sure that the rest of the library is equally beautiful. Learning is made all the more easy if it can take place within an inspiring space.
Also, core to Providence Public Library is our dedication to education and learning. We have extensive programs for all ages across the library. We teach adults how to speak English and how to get their high school diploma, and we have a terrific early childhood literacy program that is continually growing. We will also want to think about what age groups we aren’t reaching – namely the youth who attend the middle and high schools and college who have yet to discover the learning opportunities within the library walls.
Finally, Providence Public Library is home to some amazing special collections. We have one of the largest collections of whaling logs in the country. We have signed editions of George Washington’s personal library, an extensive collection spanning Rhode Island’s historical heritage, as well as a collection of stunning, oversized folios on the history of architecture. We want to make sure these collections remain safe and stable, and we want to create inspiring spaces with informed staff who can help users enjoy and learn from them.
PBN: How do youth today use the combination of print and digital resources the library provides, and in which area do you see the library focusing its programming and funding in coming years?
MARTIN: I think that youth use both digital and print resources depending on the content and how easy it is to access that content. For instance, if something is more readily and easily available online, then they’ll seek it out online. If it’s only available in print – say in our special collections – then they’ll come to the library to look at it.
That said, there’s a huge opportunity in the world of digital media to think about how youth can access, study, remix and build new content inspired by and around our materials, and I’m very interested in exploring how we can take advantage of that opportunity and make our collections more accessible online. I think that youth probably have great ideas on how we can make this happen and what we should be doing to make it easy for them to access our collections.
At the New York Public Library, we used our collections and digital media programs to deepen youths’ knowledge around a topic they were interested in. For example, we tasked youth with building a mobile alternate reality game across a neighborhood where they used the library’s digital collections to educate other youth about that neighborhood’s history. We also created a web TV series called DesignNYPL where high school fashion designers mined the library’s many collections to create looks for one of the library’s flagship events that then counted towards their diplomas and graduation. We also explored digital video remixing and editing, radio journalism and more. I look forward to working with other cultural and educational institutions around Providence to build these kinds of experiences for youth.
PBN: Which programs are most effective now and where can the library improve?
MARTIN: Over the past few weeks since I’ve arrived, I’ve experienced some amazing programs: everything from a 300-person auditorium packed with people from the design world to meet world-class typesetter Matthew Carter to fun early childhood literacy programs where babies, toddlers, moms, dads and nannies read and play together. Plus, we have waiting lists full of Rhode Islanders eager to learn about genealogy. The key will be to identify which programs are the most unique to Providence Public Library and figure out how we can amplify them for maximum impact while we explore new programmatic strands that we’ve never tried before. It’s going to be exciting.