Shrewsbury’s Rathnam reflects on first year as SPL director in the midst of a pandemic

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Photo/submitted
Priya Rathnam at work at the Shrewsbury Public Library

By Melanie Petrucci, Senior Community Reporter

SHREWSBURY – Priya Rathnam marked her first anniversary as the Shrewsbury Public Library’s director on March 30. 

She was named director in January 2020 to carry on after the retirement of her predecessor Ellen Dolan. 

Pandemic upends normal life

Ratham didn’t know last year that the coronavirus pandemic would force her and her team to virtually revolutionize the way the library would operate for months on end. 

“Nobody anticipated the pandemic, so I had been working with Ellen, of course, and planning for regular services and planning for a transition, but things changed so dramatically and so drastically,” she said in a recent interview. “I had to come up with a lot of new strategies.”

Those strategies have kept the library in service as a “hub for community engagement” during lockdown.

Library rallies from a distance

While working remotely, Rathnam said staying positive was a challenge. However, Rathnam and her staff quickly reacted to create a “robust” online presence assisting patrons and providing easy access to digital resources.

“The library community is also a very collaborative community,” she said. “No one was working on their own. We had this collective brain power.” 

She elaborated, saying, “That’s one of the positive things about the pandemic, I think. We talk about community connections, and they have actually strengthened.”

One such connection was with the town’s Parks & Recreation department, whom the library partnered with to provide the very popular year-round Story Walks ™ at Lake Street Park in town.

Programming addresses social justice, racism

Library administrators were quick to jump onto the use of video conferencing technology and social media platforms to offer a variety of virtual programs. 

Of note was renowned Boston University professor Ibram Kendi, who joined at least 500 library patrons for an “In-Conversation” event to discuss anti-racism. That event was held concurrently with a series of social justice talks.

Rathnam said that there was a sense of urgency for these programs and the learning opportunities they provided in response to the outcry over the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. 

Rathnam carries love of libraries

Rathnam was an educator in her native India. She came to America in 2001 and taught school in Lexington. She and her family then moved to Shrewsbury in 2004, and when her children were at college, she pursued a new career.

“I had fallen in love with American libraries,” she recalled. “They are wonderful institutions. The Shrewsbury library community was wonderful.”

So, Rathnam volunteered at the library and went on to receive a Master of Library and Information Studies (MLIS) at the University of R.I. She went from library volunteer to children’s librarian, then to adult services and reference librarian before serving as assistant director during Dolan’s tenure.

“Ellen was a great mentor to me, and I learned a lot from her,” Rathnam recalled. 

Rathnam eyes future at Shrewsbury Public Library

The library is open with limited in-person services. The building is spacious and has good air circulation, Rathnam noted. Spaces have been reconfigured to serve the public with picking up materials checked out online, computer access (by appointment) and opportunities to browse a limited selection of materials for self-check-out. 

“We are continually monitoring health data; we will see if there is a continued downward trend in the number of cases, and vaccinations play a very important role,” she stated. “All of that will determine how we would reopen the rest of the building.”

On April 17, Rathnam did announce that the library is tentatively planning to expand some services starting on May 17. 

For more information about the SLP, visit https://shrewsburyma.gov/344/Library.