Cheryl Ashley, the director of the Verona Public Library, will be checking out at the end of this month. She leaves behind many beloved books–and six years of work that have brought Verona’s 96-year-old library firmly into the 21st century.
Ashley joined the Verona Public Library as its children’s librarian in 2011, after the passing of Rebecca Burkhart. In 2013, when the library’s then director left the position after only 14 months on the job, Ashley became interim director and then, in 2014, the full-fledged director. She inherited a task that former Director Jim Thomas had tried to accomplish for most of his 30 years on the job: Thoroughly renovate the library. The library, opened in 1923 thanks to a grant from steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, had accumulated more than its fair share of peeling paint, mold, and cramped book displays, which were bad for books and uninviting to borrowers.
In July 2016, Ashley took the wraps off the first chapter of the library’s renovation story, the Children’s Room. The brightly painted room sported new shelf and display space, and comfortable seating, as well as a computer station for early literacy content. Then it was on to the old reference room in the library’s north wing. Ashley led its transformation into the home for the library’s young adult collection, which had been stuffed into the hallway by the Children’s Room. The new room has an expanded collection, dedicated computer stations and charging stations, and a Makerspace complete with 3D printer funded by a grant from Investors Bank. Ashley hired a librarian specifically for young adult content and activities, Precious Mack. “Her expertise put us on the map,” Ashley says.
To complete the final chapter, the entire library would need to close for 18 months and much of its adult fiction and non-fiction collection would need to go into storage. To keep patrons in books, videos and audiobooks, Ashley brought Verona into PALS Plus, a lending consortium of 20 municipal and academic libraries in Passaic and Essex counties, as well as into the Hoopla and OverDrive digital download services. Verona library patrons could then borrow a book even if it wasn’t physically on our shelves. But going digital wasn’t easy. Verona’s librarians had to scan some 50,000 items into a new database. “We each took a letter of the alphabet, and saved $10,000,” Ashley says of her staff.
In April 2017, with a skeleton collection of materials installed in the Verona Community Center Annex, the library closed for a gut rehab of its core building and the addition of a new, handicap-accessible wing. Ashley ran the Annex location while keeping close tabs on the work at the main building. The project was delivered on time and on budget, despite the discovery of a structural issue that could have compromised both: The metal bookshelves that held the library’s fiction collection were also found to be holding up balcony area above.
Town Councilman Kevin Ryan was mayor during the renovation, and praises Ashley for her leadership. “She and her team did an outstanding job in a very difficult situation,” he says. “They moved into a temporary space to to keep the library open. The library could have lost its focus, but it didn’t.”
The numbers confirm it. From June 2014 to June 2019, library circulation is up 27%, and digital downloads of library materials has almost tripled. The library has also gained 428 new members since the building was reopened in December 2018.
Ashley won’t take credit for it all. “Lenny directed this project,” she says of Len Waterman, the head of Verona’s Buildings & Grounds Department. “He was there every day.” Display decor? “Everything pretty that you see in this library was Catherine’s doing,” Ashley says of Assistant Director Catherine Adair-Williams, who Ashley had brought in from West Caldwell’s library a few years ago.
“I wish her well,” says Mayor Jack McEvoy of Ashley, “and I thank her for her service. Every time I met her I was impressed by her energy.”
Ashley is still deciding how she will channel all that energy once she has completed a long trip to Ireland and spent a few more hours practicing her beloved Celtic harp. But she wants to send a message to all of the library’s users as she departs: “I have never worked in a town with such delightful patrons.”