Community partner spotlight: Mayor Liz Lempert

To extend our community outreach, the library partners with the many municipal, non-profit, and business organizations that make Princeton such an extraordinary town. This month, we spoke with Mayor Liz Lempert, as she winds down eight years of service as a mayor, to talk about some of the work she has done with the library over the course of her tenure.

How long have you served as mayor and have you been on the library board for the entirety of your mayorship?

I have served eight years as mayor and have been a member of the library board of trustees during that entire time. Before I ran for mayor, I served on the Friends of the Library board and volunteered in the Friends’ bookstore, including time in the library’s “penthouse” sorting through books for the store and annual book sale. 

What is something about you that people might not know?

One of my first jobs out of college was as an “ontological engineer.” I was part of a team of engineers attempting to build a massive knowledge base of common sense to empower computers with human-like reasoning. The project was called “Cyc,” short for encyclopedia, and was one of the big early AI efforts. 

Why do you like partnering with the library?

I’ve found that partnering with the library is one of the most effective ways to expand the reach of municipal government to connect with residents who may not otherwise come to council meetings or get involved in the more traditional ways. My monthly “Meet the Mayor” open office hour sessions really took off when I switched the location from the municipal building to the library lobby. I also loved partnering with the library and Code for Princeton on a series of hackathons. It was an opportunity to collaborate with young people and local tech professionals, and to look at municipal challenges through a totally fresh perspective. The library has also become an important partner when it comes to crisis response, from serving as a cooling or warming center during widespread power outages, to taking the lead in developing the website practically overnight at the start of the shutdown and maintaining it as the community’s COVID information hub throughout the crisis. At the end of the day, the library is such a great partner because the librarians are amazing magicians at getting stuff done effectively and creatively, and almost always find a way to say yes to whatever the idea or project may be. That is how several years ago I found myself running in a plastic garbage bag to celebrate “Silver Linings Playbook” being the Princeton Reads selection of that year – because it’s impossible to say ‘no’ to partnering with the library!

Has your understanding about libraries changed over the course of your tenure? How would you recommend other municipalities partner with libraries?

Libraries have expanded their mission far beyond being a community repository of physical books or even beyond being the community’s “living room” where people can come for engaging speaker programs or meet a friend for a cup of coffee. Our library offers computer programming courses, connection to social services, and a natural convening space for community dialogs. Digitization and the proliferation of online reference materials have made projects like the reimagining of the second floor possible. With less space needed for encyclopedias and other reference books, the library was able to dramatically expand the number of private study rooms and meeting spaces. My appreciation for the library has grown even stronger over this past year when it had to close its doors for several months because of the pandemic – something I could never have imagined. Even without access to our stunning library building, the library staff demonstrated how integral they are to the community – especially in times of crisis – and I have been blown away by the creativity and flexibility of the staff to jump in and continue to provide exceptional programming and informative resources, and continue to be the hub of the community, even in a virtual format.

Is there any project or event that you are particularly excited about at the moment?

There are so many! I’m excited about much-needed staffing expansions in our Human Services and Health Departments. These new hires will help with community outreach which is especially critical right now to contain the COVID pandemic and ensure that residents are getting connected to available services. We post job openings on the website for anyone reading this who might be interested in applying. I’m also excited about the streetscape renovation projects on Nassau and Witherspoon streets. We have an opportunity for permanently expanding outdoor dining and usable public space and enhancing the sense of place. The Witherspoon Street project will include improvements to Hinds Plaza – including more robust internet and other upgrades that will help to make it an even more inviting space.

Any closing thoughts?

The Princeton Public Library is such an amazing institution, and we are all so lucky to have this incredible resource right here in town. I encourage everyone to take some time to explore what the library has to offer – especially online if you are stuck at home right now because of COVID. And I also encourage everyone to visit the site which includes library staff recommendations, ways to volunteer in the community or from home, plus the latest in information from our health department on things like where to get tested and advice for a safe a healthy holiday.    

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