MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Sarah Lester, director of Maplewood Memorial Library, has seen the world — from her birth in Tabriz, Iran, to Washington, D.C.; Parker, Colo.; San Francisco, Calif., and then Brooklyn, N.Y. The “natural curiosity towards different people and different ideas” that she has developed as a result of her travels helps her be a better librarian, she said, but she found her passion for libraries when she was a teen in Colorado.
A new director was appointed to her local library when Lester was in high school. She recalled him as “incredibly dynamic” and “more than a librarian.”
“He was a community leader,” Lester said in a June 18 interview. “When I was able to see what he would be able to do to the library, for the town, for the surrounding areas, it really changed my view of the role of libraries and librarians.”
In Maplewood, Lester has become a community leader herself.
She was honored by the Maplewood Chamber of Commerce on June 15 with the Distinguished Service Award for her dedication to providing unbarred access to information and the library’s services to the diverse community.
“The Distinguished Service Award goes to someone who has demonstrated commitment to the community through their work or through their volunteer activities and Sarah Lester really exemplifies that,” Maplewood Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Lorraine Labonne-Storch told the News-Record. “She has really brought the library into the 21st century. She has modernized it, she has made it accessible to all … she has brought the technology up to date and her vision is inclusive to everyone in Maplewood.”
Chamber of Commerce President Rick Gilman highlighted Lester’s leadership in “driving growth and participation” in the library and throughout the community.
“The work she is doing in renovating and bringing continuous and long-term relevancy to our library, and modernizing it will result in benefits for generations to come,” Gilman told the News-Record.
Since her appointment as library director in 2012, the library has launched the annual Ideas Festival and the Maplewood Literary Award, created a digital archive of local history and joined the Bergen County Cooperative Library System.
Lester has had to adapt to the changing and technologically advancing library industry; she graduated from San Diego State University with a library science degree just as the internet was “heating up,” she said.
“Almost all of my classmates went to work for internet companies. I was one of the very few graduates to go to public libraries,” Lester said. “But I always had this passion for working with people and making sure people had access to information and, in my mind, the library is really the best place to do that.”
While Lester said the library continues to be used as much now as 10 years ago — if not more — unlike many libraries nationwide, she said she now has to be mindful of providing technologically advanced services to meet changing needs.
Under her leadership, the library currently offers a large collection of ebooks and emagazines, and provides Wi-Fi hotspots.
Lester said she plans to continue her work to ensure that the library keeps growing, serves the community’s needs and adapts to changing times, all while remaining accessible to everyone.
“Libraries are free and open to the public and it seems like such a simple thing to say but if you really think about it, there are very few places left that are,” she said. The people who walk through the doors of the Maplewood library “rub shoulders, end up talking to people that they never would have otherwise. They meet people or they just see people different than themselves and that’s how you build community.”
Photos Courtesy of Carl Ellis