Person of the Week
Lew Daniels: ‘A Lucky, Lucky’ 40 Years
For four decades, Westbrook residents have been able to rely on Lew Daniels to helm the Westbrook Public Library. He’ll resign his post in June, creating a gap to fill that’s almost as large as the legacy he’ll leave. (Photo by Aviva Luria/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)
When Lew Daniels retires at the end of June, he’ll have served as director of the Westbrook Public Library (WPL) for 40 years. That means there’s an entire segment of Westbrook residents who haven’t known their library without him. And there’s no doubt he’ll be missed.
“People have been very nice” since his retirement was announced in Westbrook Events, Lew says.
“Very thoughtful. It’s kind of nice to hear positive feedback. I’m sure there’s some negative feedback out there, too, but they’re not likely to come in and tell you that,” he says, laughing, and then adds, “But it’s nice to hear the good stuff.”
June is “the end of the fiscal year, so it’s a logical time” to retire, he explains. “And then I did promise the board that I’ll be available to help and smooth things over if there’s any question about ‘Where did that guy file this?’
“Radar O’Reilly’s filing system,” he jokes, referring to the clerk in the TV comedy series M*A*S*H.Beginnings
Lew, who grew up in Middletown, has childhood memories of coming down to Westbrook in the summers with his parents and siblings to visit his grandmother. His mother’s side of the family, boat builders by trade, had owned a homestead on Seaside Avenue since the 1840s.
The family subdivided the property and, in 1968, his parents purchased a back lot and built a summer house on it.
After graduating from Woodrow Wilson High School, Lew majored in Latin at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania.
“And I realized that I wasn’t that good a Latin student—that you’re going to be actually teaching people?” he says with characteristic modesty.
“I had a half a semester abroad,” he remembers. “I studied in Rome at the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies. I was lucky enough to be with some of the brightest people I had ever met. These guys were smart. Men and women—they were just smart people.”
One of his fellow students in the program told Lew that he planned to become a librarian.
“I had never thought of that,” Lew says. “I always enjoyed going to libraries when I was a kid. I used to go to the Russell Library in Middletown.”
And he’d usually spend part of his Christmas break each year in Wesleyan University’s Olin Memorial Library, working on papers and assignments.
“I came back from that experience overseas my junior year and I spent my senior year working at the Dickinson College library,” he says. “And it came to dawn on me that, ‘Oh, this is what these people do.’
“Particularly, they had a wonderful reference librarian and she was very helpful,” he says.
Lew remembers writing a paper on the Chinese Nationalist Commander Chiang Kai-shek.
“It was a very interesting paper,” he says. “She helped me research that. And it gave me some insight: They don’t just stand there and check the books out.
“And of course my job was to put the books away and that kind of stuff,” he continues. “Then at the end of the day I’d be on the loud speaker: ‘The library’s closing in five minutes.’ Typical student worker kind of thing.”Becoming a Librarian
Lew was accepted to the graduate library sciences program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“[A]nd darned if I didn’t like it,” he says. “It was wonderful. I enjoyed everything about it. Even the detailed work learning how to do card catalogs, learning how to catalog the books, all of that level of detail. One would have thought that was mind numbing. But it wasn’t. For me, it was fun.
“Of course, the whole reference thing was fun. Just every aspect of the work seemed to be appealing,” he says. “And I pretty much at that point figured I’d like to try the public library.”
He graduated from the program during the recession of the 1970s, however, when it wasn’t easy to find a job.
“I had a little bit of school debt, but not...the way the poor kids are today,” he says. “I was able to pay my debt in one year working at Chesebrough-Pond’s.”
He rented his parents’ Westbrook house while keeping an eye on his elderly grandmother next door, all the while searching for a library position.
“It was tough,” he recalls. “I finally had an opportunity in Hamden and took a civil service test, of all things...I did pretty well. I got in for the interviews, but I didn’t get the job. The gal who did get the job—brilliant lady, by the way. She went on to a wonderful career at the Cheshire Public Library. But she got pregnant and took maternity leave...They went back to their candidates and in the second go-round, I got hired...as a beginning librarian.”
This was around the time that Lew married his wife, Susan. They moved to a basement apartment on Bradley Street in New Haven and Lew took the bus each morning up Whitney Avenue to his new job in Hamden.
“Hamden was a very organized, very well-run library system with some really, really smart people,” he says. “I worked my way up. I eventually became a branch librarian at the Mount Carmel branch. That was my first experience with really being in charge of a small library.
He then became director of Hamden’s main library, the Miller Memorial Library. Not long after, Susan saw an ad for the position at the WPL.
“I was just lucky enough to be offered this job,” he says. “It’s just been a lucky, lucky time for me and my wife, Sue. And my kids.”
Lew and Susan had two boys. Chris was born in 1980 and Roger in 1985.
“This is a great town to have a family, to have kids,” he says about Westbrook. “Great school system. It’s all good.”Helping People
In response to a comment about librarians liking to help people, Lew says, “That’s the big satisfaction of the job. That’s our reason for being. To help folks.”
But as the world changes, libraries and the ways in which librarians find themselves helping their patrons change, too. The biggest source of change, of course, is technology. And keeping up with it has been a challenge for a man who’s not its biggest fan.
“[T]echnology’s beyond what many people can manage,” he says. “And what’s worst about it is that it’s now the only way now to access information in a lot of cases.
“Maybe at some point these technology companies that are making money hand over fist will begin to have storefront help places instead of the public library having to be the only place [where people] can go for help,” he says.
“We’ve just been forced to provide technology assistance,” he continues. “There are so many people who need help. And they’re just completely incapacitated with these things.”
It’s “just in the last 10 or 15 years that we’ve become that community resource for access to computer stuff. So as a result, you kind of have to be familiar with it and you have to help the folks with all the different things that come up,” he says. “It’s a challenge.”
Assistant Librarian Brittany Pearson, who was hired in 2014, has a facility with technology and enjoys it, and she’s been a great help to residents and to Lew. She teaches Lew so he can also help patrons.
“We made a big jump in service level when Brittany joined us,” Lew says. “Before that it was people like me, Mr. Luddite, helping you with technology. Well, it’s okay. But she really gets it.”
Despite his assertions of being a Luddite, Lew is proud—and even a bit excited—by WPL’s online offerings. The library’s Overdrive service offers ebooks for reading on a computer or as audiobooks as well as emagazines that are accessible from any computer as long as you have a WPL library card.
“We have this resource called Learning Express and it provides access to test prep materials for a whole spectrum of careers—a lot of health care careers, law enforcement, firefighting, you name it,” he says. “It’s amazing how many careers are there. And it’s hardly ever touched. Nobody ever goes in to look at it. So we have to do a better job of publicizing that.”
WPL joined the LION (Libraries Online Incorporated) consortium in 1999, with the help of a Westbrook Foundation grant for half the entry fee. The annual cost to the library, at just under $22,000, covers the circulation system, cataloging, access to overdrive, and even its own delivery service for interlibrary loans.
“LION is a wonderful resource,” he says. “For a little library to have access to that kind of a collection, you can imagine. What’s surprising is a good number of what we have in our collection is going out to service these other libraries. Every library collection is different. We’ll have some eccentric titles where we’re the only library in LION that owns those things.”
In 40 years, Lew has overseen a major renovation to WPL’s building, necessitating 18 months in temporary quarters. He’s introduced VHS movies to its shelves, followed by DVDs and Blu-rays. In 1980, when he started the job, the library checked out 33 RPM LPs and audiocassettes. There were winters when he personally shoveled the walkways because “public safety is everything.
“There’s lots of support,” he says. “It’s not all on me. I’ve been lucky to be working with great people all these years. Great custodial staff, great general staff...I’m very grateful for all of that. A library is a team effort...Everybody helps each other.
“And the library board is awesome,” he continues. “We’ve been so fortunate to have so many committed people. They’re outstanding people. They’re brilliant and they care for the library...We’ve got support from the selectmen and the Board of Finance. I couldn’t ask for more cooperation and understanding.
“Hopefully, we’re serving the whole town,” he says. “Everybody feels welcome here. I hope that that’s the case...That’s what you strive for, anyway.”