Long-time PPL Children’s Librarian Bonnie Lilienthal (“Miss Bonnie”) shares a little about the highlights of her career and what she loves most about her job. Read her whole story below.
From an Interview — December 2023
A Born Librarian
I always say that I was born to be a librarian. My mother read to my sister and I from when we were babies. There were always a lot of books in our house. We went to the library every week. People were always reading all around. So, I knew that books were very important and I took to them immediately.
When I was 14, fortunately, the local public library hired me. I was so excited. They used to have to tell me to take a break. Not only did I learn how libraries work, but I also learned a whole lot about the world. Every day that I was in there, I was learning a new thing about not only how the library was organized, but also what’s in it.
When I came home during college break, my local library would hire me back, even for only three weeks! I was promoted from shelving to deskwork during the summers. So it was pretty much destiny when I finished school. I moved to New York to be with my sister and got a job at the NYU Library. By then, it was quite obvious what I was born to do. So, I went to Columbia and got my Master’s.
How did you come to be at Providence Public Library?
I always knew I wanted to live somewhere between Maine and New York. So I sent out resumes to libraries. Meanwhile, my mother was the director of our early childhood center and president of the New England organization. She was inviting a lot of people from big libraries and children’s services to come to their conference.
She sent one to a couple of libraries, including Providence. Unbeknownst to me, she let them know she had a daughter looking for a job. And they actually called me! I didn’t train to be a children’s librarian, but that’s what came up. I enjoy children, so I interviewed and they hired me!
After 20 years working in the PPL branches, I was asked to come downtown and be the children’s librarian here. They wanted somebody to be completely in charge of collection development for children’s, and felt I had a lot of expertise, a great deal of passion. So I came, and was not only in charge of the room, but I also bought books for the entire system.
I’m a very traditional librarian, and it’s not that I don’t think that programming – story hours and other programming we do — are very valuable. But what I’m best at is collection, development, and reference, and what is called traditional library services.
What do you like best about working at Providence Public Library?
Well, the collections, and the people I work with. One of the most amazing things about being here is the enormity of the collection. I mean, this is the largest collection in the state. To be able to develop such a collection and to work with that is quite thrilling for sure.
But I always say the reason I’ve stayed so long is because PPL has always had a real family feeling, you know, caring about the people that they employ. Also, I’ve never been micro-managed. They hired me, trusted me, and given me a lot of independence, and I appreciate that.
What do you think is your favorite thing about being a children’s librarian?
Well, for one, I don’t have children of my own, so this gives me a chance to be with children. I particularly enjoy very young children. And, you know, you can have a lot of influence on their development as readers. I’ve tried very hard to make them feel comfortable in the Library. I mean, that’s one of the most important things to do, is to make them feel like it’s an enjoyable, safe place because you’re trying to build in each person a sort of a lifetime habit of using the Library.
And the impressions that they get when they’re very young are extremely important. Children are open to all kinds of new things. They’re not jaded. I’ve just started to develop a program called Young Creators, which is a four-week program in all different kinds of areas. We’re doing puppet making and writing and dance and drumming. We’re trying to give kids an opportunity to experience different things, particularly in the arts, thinking that this might spark an interest and then they would pursue it. So we’re giving children a lot of opportunities.
What changes have you seen over the years?
Well, I would have to say that the role technology plays is a lot greater than when I started. We didn’t have any computers when I first started. Not for checking out books or anything. We had an old-fashioned card catalog. So technology gradually has taken on more and more importance and more and more space, shall we say.
And there was always programming. But, you know, the library put more emphasis on what I call traditional library services. Book reference, circulation of books, the collection of books, and probably puts more and more emphasis on programming now. I mean, something like a makerspace was not something that you ever would have found.
Not that we didn’t do arts and crafts programs. And we always did story hour you know; there has always been programming, but as I said, I think it’s shifted more towards technology and what to do with it.
It was interesting during the pandemic. When we finally opened, we didn’t allow people to use computers or play with the toys for sanitary purposes. The thing is, no one complained. But because those things weren’t available, what did people do? They read to their children.
They spent time looking for books. They talked about books. There was more emphasis on the collection, which I found very interesting. I mean, it’s one thing if everybody would say, well, if you don’t have toys and you don’t have computers, I’m gone. But that’s not what happened. So, to a large degree, there are a lot of families that come in here and the kids just play, and there’s nothing wrong with that. You learn a lot through play. I believe that very strongly.
How do you hope you make a difference in children’s lives who come into the Library?
The thing is, and I think this happens with teachers too… you don’t actually fully realize sometimes the influence that you’ve had. People come up to me in the mall who are in their forties or fifties, and they say to me, Miss Bonnie — that’s what they used to call me — you’re the reason I became a teacher.
I can’t actually always remember these people. They say, “You came to the Academy Avenue School. I was in the third grade. You were wearing a green dress and you read Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel. You asked me to come to the Library. And I did, and you know I did better in school. And, then, I got interested in books and reading. I wanted to teach other children how to read. And I became a teacher and you’re the reason why.”
I have always and still love to work with teachers. I love when they call me and ask to borrow quantities of all books we have here and we can send them because I have so many books. And, they say to me, that made a huge difference in what they were able to do in their classroom.
I was always a shy person growing up. It’s strange…I think kids seem to sense that, and just seem to gravitate to me, even when they’re three. I give them plenty of room because I feel kids need plenty of room to feel comfortable. And then I try to nurture that by talking to them.
There are a number of quiet kids who I’ve been able to help find themselves and what interests them. More recently there is a young man who started coming to the Library when he was a teen and ultimately went through all our computer programs and then became a teacher here. He is now a student at Brown and also actually recently became a member of the Library’s Board. I befriended him and showed him all the library offers and I feel particularly proud to have been part of his journey.
Having been here 44 years, you must have many memories? What’s kept you here?
Well, as I said, it’s been a very, very pleasurable experience. I’ve gotten to work with really wonderful people and also the patrons I’ve worked with. You know, I’ve enjoyed my time with them considerably. I think it’s interesting that libraries are always going through difficult times financially, and I’ve seen a lot of it over my years here. From when I first started, I remember a number of gloomy periods.
But, the thing is, I have a long view in the sense that the Library’s still here, even though I think sometimes people don’t fully realize the difficulty of trying to finance a library when you don’t get strong support from the city or the state, and that’s not just in Rhode Island. It’s everywhere.
I think one of the most important and fortunate things that can happen to you in life is to find something that you love as much as I do and be able to do it your whole life long. I mean, that is just a gift. And my work keeps me healthy, physically and psychologically. It just makes me very, very happy and I don’t really want to give it up. I love that. It’s great.
What are your hopes for the future of the Library?
Well, you know, I’m always hoping. The interesting thing is whenever we’ve had difficult times, everybody comes out.
I love the library. I don’t want to see any library close at any time. The thing is, everybody loves the library, but it’s not going to be sustained by love alone. So I just hope at some point people realize how valuable they are and they support them, you know?
Why do you think public libraries are so important to the communities that they serve?
Well, libraries are one of the few places that are available and completely free and that welcome everybody. As long as you behave! But, yes, I mean, we have lots of testimonials from people about how valuable the Library has been for them…and this isn’t anything new. From immigrants who come to learn English and get help with getting acclimated in the community to all of our incredible education programs.
What do you hope your legacy will be? How do you hope to be remembered?
Well, I hope that people would think that I worked really hard to develop a good children’s collection because I am, as I said, very passionate about that. Well, I’m sure they’re going to remember that I was extremely passionate about being a librarian and that I cared deeply about that, and about libraries in general. We had a staff meeting once with someone who came in to do a workshop with us, and she asked everybody to send her their feelings about the Library. I sent something about being in love with libraries my whole life and being very passionate about library service.
When she read aloud what everyone had written and people had to guess who had said what, the entire room screamed out Bonnie when mine was read. So I think it’s quite obvious, you know, how I feel about things.
I hope that’s been an influence on helping people learn to love to read. And, also, maybe an influence on how my coworkers feel about their jobs.