Dynamic duo cultivates community at the Oak Bluffs Library

Sondra Murphy and Zoe Thompson at the Oak Bluffs Library. — Photo by Keya Guimarães

A wise mother once quipped, “Raising young children will yield the longest days, but shortest years, of your life.” Filling those days with enriching and joyful activities on Martha’s Vineyard is soon to become a bit harder, as Zoe Thompson, beloved Oak Bluffs Children’s and Young Adult Librarian, leaves her position to begin a family of her own.
“I’ve had eight months to come to terms with Zoe leaving,” Sondra Murphy, the library director, said. “But it’s still very hard. I’m losing my cohort, my number two, my best friend. We can never replace Zoe, but at least I know the type of person we need.”
When sitting with Sondra and Zoe, in the sunshine-splashed second floor of library, one gets the sense of being in the company of sisters, or rock band members, a dynamic duo who have created something, survived something, and shared something far bigger than themselves.
A native of New Jersey and longtime Chilmark resident, Zoe began her professional journey in literature as the owner of Riley’s Reads, a children’s bookstore in Vineyard Haven. “I loved interacting with my customers, especially the children,” she said, “but the economic side of the business? Not so much.”
She became primed in children’s and young adult genres through her retail experience, but the finishing coat was applied while earning a Masters of Library Science degree from Simmons College in Boston. Dividing the week between the city and the Vineyard, Zoe planned to “garden or volunteer until I could get a job at one of our libraries once I graduated. As it turned out, I was hired by Sondra three days after I completed my studies.”

Requisite to any great partnership, the symmetry of timing and affinity between Zoe and Sondra was evident from the moment they met. “I remember leaving Zoe after her lunch interview,” said Sondra, also a MLIS graduate of Simmons. “I saw hearts and stars swirling above her head: we just clicked, I knew she was the one to head our children’s library.”
As the newly appointed and young library director, Sondra took the reins determined to reinvigorate the organization with progressive policies and a makeover of the library’s image. “I started by redesigning the logo, the website, babysitting in the community to gain trust from the moms. I made it my goal to get people back into this place, and we did it.”
With the imperishable energy of the toddlers and teens they support, and the courage to break down the “old school vision of what libraries should be,” the two women worked with the ethos, “if you build it, they will come,” said Sondra. In 2010, Oak Bluffs Library offered a mere 143 programs and recorded just 2,012 attendees; in 2014, under their dynamic domain, “We offered 284 programs and recorded 7,654 attendees,” Zoe said.
Adding dependable and thoughtfully curated story-time programming for babies and toddlers several times per week, children’s yoga and music instruction, and diverse events every single weekend, Sondra explained the propagation of their success. “The momentum increased because the more we offered, the more people expected. For example, we instigated a baby program that started with six moms and grew to nearly 25 moms and their babies, and those kids will keep coming to programs for the next several years.”
For the two literary muses, what began as a push to increase library patrons bloomed into the cultivation of a community of patrons who come to spend time, interact, and discover what literacy can offer. “I look around this room and ask: how can I catch someone’s eye, how can I capture their imagination?” Zoe said. “There’s got to be a different approach to library service than hushing kids and obsessing over the collection. I want to engage them on multiple levels and greet them by name. I love the collection, of course, but it’s not more important than the personal relationships.”
In the quick repartee of a Shakespearean couplet, the two librarians expanded on what defines a progressive approach to the place the library now holds within our culture. “You don’t become a public librarian if you want the intellectual discourse, the research, the answering of legitimate academic queries,” Sondra said.

“That’s an academic librarian,” Zoe said. “In a way, it’s become a people versus books profession.”

Sondra seconded the sentiment. “Actually, we are party planners turned librarians,” she said, referring to the last party they held, which drew drew over 100 Frozen enthusiasts.
“For me,” Zoe said, “there are two real sides to this job: the young children and caregivers who come to our planned programming in the mornings, and then the middle school set who show up after school. These kids walk here or are dropped off because they have no place to go, their parents work or they don’t have home computers. Soon you realize you are the only adult they have to really talk with… not just to help with homework but with struggles they face in their lives and at home, serious issues. Often I wished I had taken classes in social work, because that’s what has been required.”
Having lived up Island for more than 10 years, Zoe said she was amazed by the diverse community in Oak Bluffs.” I wasn’t previously exposed to that before I took this job. In a sense, this is an urban library plopped onto our Island –– both economically and ethnically.

“I would often go home emotionally exhausted, sometimes crying on the drive back to Chilmark, because there is a real gap in the services provided on the Vineyard for the various communities. It was a real shock to me.”
In response to the challenge, Sondra and Zoe innovated with creative and daring programming. Collaborating with Zoe was essential to Sondra’s development goals. “The two of us stayed up until midnight with teenagers in here, anything we could come up with to remain relevant to this community was worth doing,” Sondra said. “Being young ourselves, there is a certain passion and desire to try new things and then study events that worked, log them, and try the next. You have to a have a partner in crime for that, you can’t pull that off alone.”

Zoe complemented Sondra’s leadership style. “It was so inspiring to have the support to pursue ideas, no matter how unorthodox,” she said. “It’s a lot of work to be on board to do these things, but it’s paid off. Now we’ve built a community that is really receptive, so whatever we plan, we know the community will trust us to spend their time here.”
Glowing with the pregnancy of her first child, Zoe looks toward the future with excitement. “I’ve dreamt of being the mommy at story-time with my little one for years,” she said. “It’s hard to let go of everything we’ve grown here, but I know I’ll eventually find my way back.”
As for the coming void in the children’s section of the library, Zoe has yet to be replaced. “The position is still open,” said Sondra, “but I will wait for the perfect person. We’ve put too much into this to not continue along this road; too many families depend on us. We’ll find someone awesome, innovative, and energetic. And most importantly, someone who loves kids.”