The St. Joseph County Public Library (SJCPL) in South Bend, Indiana, recently said farewell to their highly regarded director of thirty seven years, Donald Napoli, who retired on June 30th. Napoli was only the fifth director in the library’s 126 year history and during his tenure saw many changes. The biggest trend when he started in 1977 was the move to “give them what they want,” which emphasized popular materials over wellrounded collections. This patron driven idea was pioneered by Dr. Ernest R. DeProspo at Rutgers University and wholeheartedly embraced by Napoli, who believed that public libraries should reflect the communities they serve.
While Napoli was certainly an innovative thinker in terms of collection management, he was a trailblazer when it came to technology. It is because of Napoli’s leadership that SJCPL was the first public library in the United States and the second in the world to have a web page.
Therefore, it is no surprise that when asked about the future of libraries, Napoli sees technology continuing to play a major role in how libraries serve their communities. He states that while technology is changing too rapidly for him to try and predict very far into the future, “I would guess that the digital age and the wearable computer, all in one, personal device for communicating with everyone everywhere at anytime will accelerate unabated.” While he recognizes the importance of embracing new technologies, he believes that equally as important is a knowledgeable staff who can guide patrons through the rapidly changing online environment.
Napoli is rather excited when he speaks of the role technology will play in public libraries in the future. Perhaps because he has already seen firsthand how libraries have learned to adapt when facing an uncertain future. This is apparent in the chapter he wrote for The Evolving Virtual Library II: Practical and Philosophical Perspectives, published in 1999, in which he posed the question. “What does the future hold when the most creative minds in the world can talk to each other, instantly and constantly, at any time and can share their thoughts with the rest of the world? No one can tell. Everything will certainly move even faster as this creativity feeds on itself.”
As Mr. Napoli reflects on his many years of experience working in public libraries, he advises those facing new ideas to “be very excited about it yourself and you will spread that excitement to those around you. Immerse yourself in the excitement of the new initiatives. Let them become your energy!” Although he is optimistic about the future of libraries he knows that there will still be challenges ahead. When asked what advice he would give to someone considering a career working in libraries his advice is encouraging, yet realistic. “Go for it! Embrace the pain!”
It is because of constant evolution of thoughts and ideas that he has conditioned his staff to not be afraid of change. It is this ability to adapt that allowed Napoli to retire with a happy heart, knowing that SJCPL will continue to thrive despite his absence. It also helps that he has turned the reins over to longtime assistant director, Debra Futa, who he is quick share credit with for many of SJCPL’s successful initiatives. “She knows what she is doing, is very excited about the future, as uncertain as it is, and is ready to lead the way. This is the day I’ve been waiting for and it is a pure joy to see her excitement. She already is and will continue to be a great leader!” Ed. note: Look for an interview with Don Napoli in the July/August 2015 issue of “Public Libraries.”