She’s not your stereotypical librarian. She’s young, ebullient, and in her five years at the Oak Bluffs Public Library (OBPL), Sondra Murphy has only “shushed” somebody once.
“I felt awful after I did that. I hate that sound,” she said in a recent interview with The Times at her office. Her desk had an impressively diverse clutter collection, including dishes from yesterday’s lunch.
“I know librarians are supposed to be super-organized, but when it comes to my desk, oh well,” she said. Pinned above her desk is an article about “Occupy Wall Street,” where she delivered a suitcase of donated books, on her own time and on her own dime; and an email from her father titled “The Fundamentals of Leadership.” Pictures of goats and manatees and children’s drawings of cats hang on the wall behind her. “My cat was hit by a car, and the kids made me cards. I really treasure them,” she said. “The kids are awesome here. They’re the reason I fell in love with this library in the first place. I’m really going to miss them.”
Ms. Murphy was made children’s librarian in 2010 and interim director a year later. She is widely credited for bringing new energy and a wide assortment of new programming to the library. “Local Heroes day, when kids can sit in a police car and a fire truck, was a huge hit. We could do that every day,” she said. There was “Frozen” night, where the smash movie was screened and children showed up in costume. “There were 50 Elsas there,” she said. “And I was one of them, oh yeah.” Ms. Murphy said some of her other favorite events were the sock hop, the luau with a pig roast, indoor mini-golf, and the stuffed animal slumber party. A glance at the OBPL Facebook page shows listings as diverse as “Caffeine & Computers,” “Graphic Novel Book Club,” “Film Noir Night,” and a book drive for children in the Bahamas.
“When I started, public opinion about the library was on the whole, negative, which is why I pursued more fun programming,” she said. “I wanted people to know it was different, that you don’t have to be afraid to come here.”
By any metric, Ms. Murphy succeeded. Adult and children’s program attendance has increased from 4,000 attendees in 2010 to 11,315 so far this year. The number of registered borrowers increased from 8,251 in 2010 to 10,462 this year. Over 4,000 of Oak Bluffs’ 5,000 townspeople carry an Oak Bluffs “CLAMS” library card.
“Being a director is 99 percent personality,” Ms. Murphy said. “Strategic planning is a necessary evil to me. I know that’s not very librarian-like. I’m not the most organized person, but my focus is on the human experience. I like to think outside the box. Someone might say, ‘You can’t have a roast pig luau at a library,’ but why not? The library is a community center, so why not bring in the community? The selectmen and the board [of directors] have been great. They’ve let me do pretty much everything I dreamed up.”
Ms. Murphy is leaving, confident that her vision will continue. “I’m not worried about what’s going to happen after I leave, because we have an amazing staff here. I trust that they’ll keep going with what we’ve started, and they won’t settle for anything less. I know the trustees will hire someone awesome. I think there’s some good candidates already on the Island.”
Asked what she sees as her successor’s biggest challenges, besides the always fickle HVAC system, Ms. Murphy weighed her words. “Developing a technology plan with the I.T. department to keep the library on scheduled technology updates,” she said. “We’ve been doing some, but it’s not on a regularly scheduled plan.” Ms. Murphy also said she hopes her successor takes up her as-yet-unsuccessful campaign to get new carpeting in the building. “After 10 years, library carpeting gets pretty nasty,” she said.
She also hopes her successor continues with community outreach. “Maybe doing storytime on the ferry, or storytime at the beach, or doing programs at the Council on Aging,” she said.
Ms. Murphy began working at the OBPL part-time while she was getting her master’s degree in library science at Simmons College in Boston. She also waited tables at Zephrus and at Salt Water. “I paid off half of my student loans by the time I graduated,” she said. “I wouldn’t have been able to do that without the work opportunities here.”
She began working at the library full-time three days after graduating from Simmons. The children’s librarian resigned a month later, and Ms. Murphy got the job, and eventually became the library director.
Ms. Murphy announced her departure at the Sept. 22 selectmen’s meeting, where she was applying for a one-day wine and beer permit for the library’s 10th anniversary celebration on Oct. 16, which coincides with her last day. Selectmen were unanimous in their disappointment. Selectman Greg Coogan said he was particularly vexed that Ms. Murphy’s departure was in large part due to the affordable housing shortage on the Island. “We need to address housing in a coordinated approach with the other towns,” he said. “We’re losing our most talented young people.”
Ms. Murphy told The Times that housing suddenly became an issue when her landlord informed her she was selling the home where she had been renting a two-room apartment for several years. “I fixed it up and I was hoping to buy it, but then a realtor stepped in and the price went way up, and it didn’t work out,” she said.
Ms. Murphy had little luck finding an affordable year-round rental that also permitted pets. “I put out a lot of feelers, but I wasn’t finding anything decent in my price range. Having a cat narrows your options a lot. By the end of the summer, I still hadn’t found anything, and I was getting worried. I didn’t want to live in a dark, moldy, basement apartment. I’m 30, I’m a professional, I don’t feel like I should have to live in a potato chip truck,” she said, laughing. “My boyfriend actually did that. But that’s when he was in his early 20s; that’s what you do.” Ms. Murphy said buying was also not an option, so she had no choice but to look off-Island for a new job. She interviewed at the Worcester public library, and soon after was offered the job of youth services coordinator. She will supervise a staff of 15 that services five branches.
“People love to hate on Worcester, but I think it’s really up and coming,” she said. “It’s an extremely diverse and culturally rich place. There’s a lot of people in my age group doing some really interesting things there. There’s not a lot of people in my age bracket here. All my friends are much older, and all have families.” Ms. Murphy said an added bonus of moving to Worcester is that she’ll live near her parents in nearby Boylston, where she grew up.
After an uncharacteristic somber pause, she said, “It hasn’t hit me yet. It’s very bittersweet. But I’m excited about taking things to Worcester that worked here.”