The moment affirmed the 25 years Sarah Campbell had spent promoting and working in libraries.
It happened when the Portland Public Library reopened its doors to patrons last June, after a year of curbside service made necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Campbell – who announced Thursday that she will leave her job as executive director of Maine’s busiest public library on Sept. 1 – was moved and humbled by what she witnessed.
“People were in tears coming into the library,” Campbell said. “I was by the front door and they were saying how much they missed coming to the library, how much they missed being in this place. It was absolutely beautiful. It validated the impact that the library has on people’s lives.”
Campbell has been executive director since 2015 and has worked at the library for 21 years, previously serving as associate director, a department head and head of library technology. The library’s board of trustees plans to conduct a nationwide search for her replacement.
Throughout her tenure, Campbell has been instrumental in guiding the library’s transformation of its various locations and extending community programming and engagement, said Anne Dalton, board president.
Campbell was involved in the 2010 renovation of the downtown library and led renovations of the Burbank and Peaks Island branches. She will be greatly missed, Dalton said, for her generous spirit, infectious love of libraries and incredible understanding of how necessary they are to vibrant communities.
“It’s beyond her mission,” said Dalton. “It’s her true north to see libraries as an essential place to bring everyone together to learn, to experience, to grow, to agree, to disagree.”
Campbell, 57, said her pending departure comes at a watershed moment for herself and the library, after the pandemic challenged and transformed services at Maine’s most visited cultural institution.
“The last two years intensified changes in libraries everywhere,” she said. “We continue to embrace our central role in bringing people together for learning and growth, but that has been so challenged during the pandemic. It’s a time for a renewal of strategies, and in my mind, it’s a time for new leadership.”
The library pushed through the last two years with staffing shortages, reduced revenue and limited federal pandemic aid as borrowing dropped from 431,000 items in the last six months of 2019 to 332,000 items in the last six months of 2021, Campbell said. Library services and circulation are now at 77 percent of pre-pandemic levels, with staffing relatively stable at about 70 employees and an annual budget of $4.7 million.
Meanwhile, the library’s virtual, hybrid and recorded programming took off, going from nonexistent before the pandemic to 46,000 patron engagements from July through December last year, Campbell said. In-person programming, by comparison, drew about 6,000 patrons from July through December 2019. So the library’s audience has grown tremendously.
Campbell is not saying exactly what she will do next, other than that she plans to take some time to consider various personal interests and attend to family responsibilities. A Chicago native, she’s staying in Portland, where she has lived for 30 years and has a home with her husband, Ted Rand.
Before coming to the library, Campbell was founding director of library and learning resources at York County Community College. She promises that whatever she does next, it will involve libraries, education and helping people pursue their chosen potentials.
“It’s a time of change for a lot of people,” said Campbell. “It’s a time to reflect on how I can best contribute going forward. Wherever I land, I hope to be able to continue to make good change.”