Jeff Heuchert, Gazette staff
Julia Merritt will have her hands full when she assumes her new role as chief executive officer of Stratford Public Library next month.
Merritt, presently the acting CEO of the North Perth Library system, is taking over the top administrative position at a key juncture in the library’s strategic planning process.
The library has undergone extensive public engagement to better understand the community’s expectations of what a library should be in today’s digital world. One of Merritt’s first duties will be to work with her new staff to review the feedback and develop an implementation plan for the next four to five years.
Library board chair Geoff Williams said in an interview last week he believed the hiring team had found the ideal candidate to take on such a challenge.
“We’re very excited about Julia. She has a variety of different experiences and I think she has a leadership style that is going to be very beneficial to the library,” he said.
Williams added the library wanted someone who has the ability to look at the services provided through fresh eyes and develop new ways to better serve the community during what he expects will be “tough financial times” in the years ahead.
“Stratford’s not going to be awash in money, and the bulk of our money comes out of the taxbase,” he added. “I think it’s prudent to assume that we’re not going to be seeing increases over time and we’re going to have to operate within a fairly tight envelope.”
Merritt, whose first day in Stratford is June 18, previously worked at Wellington County Library, where she started as a page and moved up to assistance branch supervisor, and at Pickering Public Library as branch supervisor.
In North Perth, which includes branches in Listowel, Atwood and Monkton, she oversaw the library’s introduction into the Perth County Information Network (PCIN), a computerized system where people can now access the resources of all libraries in the county as well as the Stratford-Perth Archives.
“It’s given me the opportunity to get to know all of the libraries in Perth County,” Merritt said of the PCIN, “and get to know the broader context of what issues are facing Perth County and Stratford.”
Merritt said she was familiar with Stratford’s strategic plan and has had some preliminary consultation with outgoing CEO Sam Coghlan, who retires June 21 after 33 years in the public service sector. But she added it would take time before she could comment on specific issues and courses of action.
Speaking in general terms, Merritt said libraries need to be cognizant of their changing role in communities.
While they remain a place to come and interact with other people and gain knowledge – free of charge – how people access that information is different than even 10 years ago.
“We have a real role to play in making sure technology is available, and that people have the opportunities to learn new ways to access information, new ways of interacting with their economies and communities that didn’t used to exist,” Merritt said.
Just like online banking hasn’t made physical banks irrelevant, Merritt said a push for more digital services isn’t going to spell the end for physical spaces where people can sit with a book or search on a computer.
“People want to have multiple ways to access things,” she added, “so they can say, ‘I want to read an e-book now but next week I’m going to have time to come into the library and get a physical book.’
“And they want to be able to put the physical book on hold at home so they can pick it up next week.”
Looking ahead, Williams said the library will face ongoing challenges related to accessibility and a lack of space at its Carnegie building.
As the library continues to develop into a “hub” for the community, Williams said changes will have to be made to free up additional space inside. He noted one option currently being looked at is to store parts of its collection off site.
“The library is really kind of stretched for that kind of space ... and Julia will work through this with us.”