Providence Public Library Welcomes... Unicorns!?

Executive Director Jack Martin is doing things differently


“I think people should come into the library to research important things, but they should also know that you can have fun at the library. It should be a place that can be inspiring and also silly sometimes.” So says Jack Martin, Executive Director of the Providence Public Library, who just wrapped up his first year at the helm of our urban library system’s flagship. He intends to do things differently at PPL, making it a vital cultural center for downtown. “I want to shift from the grocery store to the kitchen library model,” he says.

At a grocery store, we go in, get what we need, and leave. A kitchen, on the other hand, is a place of interaction, discovery, creativity and shared experiences. Traditionally our relationship to our libraries is more like the former: it’s a place where we go to borrow books, movies or music, do research or maybe use the computer. A stop at the library is often more like an errand than an experience. Jack Martin wants to shift our perception to the kitchen model. “We want to be perceived as this major cultural center where people can attend learning programs, and experience exhibitions and programs inspired by the exhibitions,” he explains. “We also want to create a beautiful community space where people can access technology, gather and learn together, read together.”

Martin’s ascent to the head of the Providence Public Library is a bit of a homecoming. The Georgia native worked for PPL from 1999-2001, before leaving for the New York Public Library, where he served as Assistant Director for Public Programs and Lifelong Learning, managing 60,000 programs in 90 libraries. So what brought him back to tiny Rhode Island, to run the one branch that remains of the Providence Public Library? (The nine neighborhood branches are managed by an independent nonprofit called the Providence Community Library.) “It was clear that the library wanted to do something very different and go in a direction other public libraries throughout country should be exploring and aren’t,” he explains. “That’s why I’m here: to do something different with this building.”

Indeed, the building itself is a key ingredient in Martin’s “kitchen” model. Constructed in 1900, very much in the “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” Renaissance style, the building is on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s a beautiful public space that has been both underutilized and under-appreciated for its aesthetics. That changed in early 2013, when renovations to the Grand Hall and several other sections of the Washington Street side were completed, and the library opened for business as a special event space. A partnership with Russell Morin Fine Catering positioned the library as a venue for weddings, fundraisers and other special occasions that merit an air of grandeur. Proceeds from those rentals go straight back to the library to support programming and services – a crucial source of funding for an institution that no longer receives money from the City. “We’re a private nonprofit, so it’s vital to us. We couldn’t carry out a lot of these ideas if we didn’t have that funding,” Martin says. “When people have events here, they’re essentially donating to the library.”

Renovations continue to transform the space. An ongoing expansion of the fifth floor, which has always been staff workspace that was never open to the public, will turn it into a learning lab and maker space for innovative and educational programming. Martin points out that PPL’s 112,000 square feet of learning library make it a physically larger cultural entity than even AS220, which owns three separate properties downtown.

The kinds of uses Martin imagines for this valuable public space are already happening. He points to examples like last summer’s Teen Tech Squad, a 10-week program that gave nine teenagers experience in history, journalism, video editing, coding, curating exhibits and more. They were provided with iPads and sent out to document places like the Castle Theatre on Chalkstone, the North Burial Ground and the Carrie Tower at Brown University. They then edited that footage, and used PPL’s Rhode Island Collection to research the neighborhoods and digitize what they found. They built websites that matched the library’s documentary material with the students’ own, which were then showcased at the John Brown House Museum during Gallery Night and are now part of the Rhode Island Collection.

Martin is excited to launch more, and even more innovative, programming and exhibits this year, and to connect them with more experiences both inside and outside the library. For instance, in the spring PPL will launch a major exhibition on the history of local music. Much of the programming around it is still taking shape, but there is no shortage of ideas: things like inviting local musicians to come in and create from the library’s collections, either in the form of musical compositions or recreations of famous past performances in Providence; creating a digital timeline of Rhode Island’s musical history; unearthing sheet music from local composers and finding musicians to perform them, some for the first time in their existence; a showcase of the city’s ‘90s alt-rock scene; and much more.

The silliness that Martin referenced arrives at the library in March, in the form of Unicorns in Residence, an exhibit based on the fictional creatures that will find PPL working in partnership with Brown and RISD’s libraries, the RISD Museum and artist Camomile Hixon. It will begin with a “Unicorn Stampede” of 32 pink, sparkly unicorns displayed at the building’s entrance. “At end of March those unicorns will be released from the library and will go live in various institutions across city,” Martin promises. Brown and RISD will pair up for an exhibit on unicorn iconography at the former’s Hay Library. The Providence Children’s Museum will feature a phone booth where kids can call and report unicorn sightings.

These are just two examples of Martin’s vision for innovative, robust public programming that provides people new and interesting ways to interact with their downtown library. They’re the kinds of things that will move the library off your to-do list and on to your calendar. “There’s a percep- tion that libraries are just book repositories. That’s something libraries across country are struggling with,” Martin summarizes. “We want people to think about what libraries can do differently.”

PPL’s Special Collections are the coolest stuff you never knew was at the library

In addition to several thousand books on the subject, the Nicholson Whaling Collection contains 750 manuscript logbooks detailing 1,000 whaling voyages. It also boasts scrimshaw, a narwhal tusk, ship models and, arguably the library’s single coolest item, a harpoon gun.

History of Printing (pictured right)
The Daniel Berkeley Updike Collection on the History of Printing began in 1910 with about 1,000 duplicate books from the St. Bride Library in London, and has since swelled to include 7,500 books, 600 letters, hundreds of prints and even three printing presses. The collection’s backbone is its hundreds of type specimen books illustrating early printing fonts. In a design-centric city, this is an underappreciated treasure.

The 1,200-plus volumes in the Percival Collection of Books about Magic cover subjects like magic tricks, ventriloquism, spiritualism and gambling.
Highlights include A Magician Among the Spirits, an exposé of fraudulent spirit mediums penned by none other than Harry Houdini, and Will Goldston’s Exclusive Magical Secrets, which is fittingly secured with a lock and key.

Checkers and Whist
These two collections document the history of one of the world’s most famous games and the card game from which bridge evolved, respectively. The Haynes Checkers Collection encompasses over 500 volumes, the earliest dating from 1572. The Barney Whist Collection is thought to be the only one of its kind in the country, containing over 500 books.

Civil War and Slavery
This is PPL’s largest special collection, spanning more than 10,000 books, pamphlets, newspapers, manuscripts and more. It contains many editions and translations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as well as letters written home by Rhode Islanders serving in the Civil War.


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