July 25, 2018

Susan Conlon, PPL Youth Services Head; “There Are So Many Things Happening Here”

“BOUNDLESS ENERGY:” Susan Conlon, head of Youth Services at the Princeton Public Library, finds her days full of surprises, cultivating creativity, growing ideas, and juggling multiple events and responsibilities. There is “no expectation of silence” on the third floor of the library. (Photo Courtesy of Susan Conlon)

By Donald Gilpin

From her first day of work at the Princeton Public Library (PPL) 19 years ago in July 1999, Susan Conlon realized she was in the right place. “I knew this was the place where I wanted to work. It’s hopping. There are so many things happening here.”

A “day’s work” for Conlon? Impossible to predict. “No day is ever the same as any other day,” she said. “It’s exciting and dynamic.” And with Conlon now leading the Department of Youth Services with a staff of 12, there’s more going on than ever before in her third floor realm.

“One of my favorite things about working with Susan is how supportive she is when it comes to cultivating creativity within her staff,” said Youth Services Librarian Katie Bruce. “No idea is too crazy or off-the-wall, and she loves to discuss and brainstorm with you until the idea is even bigger and better than you could have ever imagined.”

Bruce cited last week’s Princeton Student Film Festival, founded by Conlon in 2003, and the Princeton Environmental Film Festival, which Conlon initiated in 2007, as two examples of long-running annual events that continue to grow under Conlon’s guidance.

Eager to credit her colleagues, Conlon insists, “I really want to emphasize that this is not about one person. There are so many people here excited to come to work every day, and they have fantastic ideas. The Youth Services department is the top — excellent, friendly, and kind. They are committed to parents and kids.”

She continued, “We all work well together. It’s so collaborative, and everybody is conscientious. We all love the work. We love the library. We love the community. And another thing, everybody is so creative. Work here is a creative process, every step of it, from the programming to the staffing to the story times to the visual component of what you see here, the layout of the space and the displays.”

Describing the library as a favorite place of so many different people in Princeton and beyond, Conlon added, “It’s not an accident. There’s a continuing vision here. People are really committed to seeing this place succeed. There is a place for everyone here. There are no barriers.”

Conlon emphasized the accessibility of the library and described its commitment to children, supporting them and their interests and at the same time fostering their independence. Every child known, she said, is more than just a slogan. “In a community the idea that every child feels known is important.” “Kids can come here and people know their names. People say ‘Hi’ to them by name.”

The third floor with its welcoming attitude, “no expectation of silence,” and many different, flexible areas conducive to various activities includes a teen center, a storytelling room, a new STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math) Center, play areas, and a nursing room for moms.

It also contains Conlon’s small office and desk, but she is not a librarian who will be often found behind a desk. There’s too much going on elsewhere. “The idea that we sit behind a desk is not true,” she said. “We’re always running around.”

“Every day here we have so many exchanges with kids. There is an ongoing opportunity for them to learn how to talk to adults, to learn how to be polite, to learn how to trust adults. We always remind them that we’re here for them. Kids just want to be treated fairly.”

Her Own Youth With Books, Then Computers

Conlon grew up in Pennsylvania, and her family moved to New Jersey when she was starting middle school. “From the time I was a very young child, I loved going to the library,” she said. “My father used to take me on Saturday mornings. I loved books. I’m the youngest of four, so there were always a lot of books in the house, but as much as I loved libraries, I couldn’t see myself working in a library. I didn’t see myself meeting that expectation of silence.”

She explained how libraries then were different from libraries now, how a shift took place in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and how that shift helped to encourage her interest in her future career. “I not only loved books, but I was also an information hound,” she said. “Even as a kid I loved almanacs, baseball statistics, and finding out information.” She recalls buying her first computer in college in the 1980s, and adds, “Computers have been a part of my life for a long time.”

Conlon lives in West Windsor with her husband Joe, who is a videographer with his own video production company. Their three adult children all live and work in the New York City area.

Patterns of Activity

Despite the unpredictability of life in the PPL, Conlon described some “patterns to the days, a rhythm we can anticipate.”

Parents with young children and babies seem to predominate in the mornings, with numerous storytime opportunities for different age groups and in different languages throughout the week. There are also baby playgroup times and ample space and opportunity for parents to read to their children or play with them. “When you come here in the mornings, there’s often a line of strollers, and many babies crawling around,” Conlon noted.

From September to June, there are “the really robust after-school hours” when the Teen Center and other areas are full of school children, but summer is sometimes even busier — “a whole different thing,” she noted.

The PPL Summer Reading Program requires many hours of planning, with the creation of colorful displays and numerous extensive book lists. “This year we broke our record for summer reading,” Conlon said, “More than 1,600 teens registered and are participating.”

Outreach programs are a vital part of the work of PPL Youth Services, with staff members visiting nursery schools, all the Princeton Public School elementary schools, and twice a year making presentations for each grade at John Witherspoon Middle School (JWMS). The JWMS and kindergarten classes also came to visit the library this year.

Among other programs Conlon highlighted were the Teen Advisory Board, with its “I Read This Book” event; The Children’s Book Festival coming up on September 22 this year, in partnership with JaZams; and the Chess Program.

“I have boundless energy,” Conlon said. “We have to do a lot. There’s so much potential. I feel there’s always more we can do — new and exciting things.”

What lies ahead for Conlon and PPL Youth Services is difficult to predict. “I’m also excited about things we can add to the young children’s section to make it even more fun and engaging and stimulating in a way that really promotes learning and exploring,” she said. “I feel like there’s no limit to that. This isn’t a project that has an end to it.”

She added, “People really love this library. They really appreciate it. It’s great to be here.”