Five Questions With: Jeffrey Cannell

Jeffrey Cannell is the newly appointed director of Providence Community Library. / COURTESY DHANA WHITEING
Jeffrey Cannell is the newly appointed director of Providence Community Library. / COURTESY DHANA WHITEING

Jeffrey Cannell is the newly appointed director of Providence Community Library. Established as a nonprofit in 2009, PCL, Rhode Island’s largest library system, has nine library locations and 65 staff members. Cannell is an experienced manager of libraries and joins PCL from the Office of Cultural Education in New York, where he was deputy commissioner.

PBN: What drew you to Providence, and in particular, Providence Community Library?
CANNELL:
When I saw the job description, I became aware of what an exciting grassroots initiative this library has been for the city. Its inspiring story really caught my attention, PCL reflects the best of what libraries and democracies are all about. I’ve worked in mid-Atlantic and East Coast states all my life, but my interview at PCL was my very first visit to Rhode Island. After, I didn’t want to go home. This state is gorgeous. I really look forward to getting to know its people and exploring Providence and Rhode Island.

PBN: As library director, what are your goals for Providence Community Library?
CANNELL:
This is an interesting and critical time for PCL. The board and staff have done an unprecedented job over the last seven years to make this community library system a success. My job is to build on that success and create a secure and sustainable future. I want to ensure PCL is still here in seven years’ time, maturing and growing as an institution and fulfilling the needs of the city and its people.

PBN: What is your vision for the library in terms of community engagement?
CANNELL:
I compare the life of a city to fabric. I want to see PCL woven into the warp and weft of Providence. We can’t just be part of the community – we have to be the community. And be a leader at local, state and national levels. Whatever’s happening, the library should be involved. When something new comes up, people should ask: “What does PCL think about this?”

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PBN: With games like Pokemon Go taking children away from reading, how do you plan to re-engage children in the joy of reading?
CANNELL:
We don’t tell kids what to read because if they read what they enjoy, children will read more. By providing a portal into the digital world, libraries can place a new world at children’s fingertips. Kids can learn from digital and visual media just as they do from paper-and-ink books – not that traditional books are likely to disappear just yet. Comics used to be seen as trashy, but graphic novels are now a respected genre. Games such as Pokemon Go and Minecraft are part of the new, digital world. Anything that potentially gets kids thinking and brings them into our libraries works for us. We’ll take it from there.

PBN: How do you think libraries can adapt to the 21st century and become a more applicable source for youngsters whose lives are becoming more digital every day?
CANNELL:
The responsibility of libraries is to make available materials that advance reading and literacy. You have to be able to read to develop other skills – that doesn’t change at all. What has changed is the proliferation of different formats through which materials are now deliverable. The challenge for libraries is to keep up with the pace of change and the associated costs. Digital technology may seem ubiquitous to us, but many people in low-income communities rely completely on libraries for access to computers and the internet. Libraries like PCL help level the playing field.