In 11 years at Lewiston Public Library, Marcela Peres has been a 'beloved leader' and community advocate

Mar. 3—LEWISTON — After 11 years at the Lewiston Public Library and the past six at the helm, Director Marcela Peres will leave her post next month to take a position as operations manager at the Maine Humanities Council.

The library will lose a "beloved leader" who has helped it become "a place of learning, exploration, welcome and refuge," when she steps down April 5, colleagues and patrons told the Sun Journal.

Peres was hired in 2012 as a library technician working primarily with teens. In 2014, she became the adult services librarian and in 2017, she was selected following a nationwide search to replace longtime Director Rick Speer.

Prior to that, she oversaw library operations for a private technical college in Tampa, Florida.

The biggest difference between living and working in Maine versus Florida is Lewiston is a "big little town," Peres said.

Although Lewiston is the second-largest city in the state, "it is small enough that you recognize people quite often when you're out and about. And that doesn't happen in large cities. It's not the same."

This means that the library can "tailor everything much more closely" to the community and be nimble in how it curates everything from the book selection to its events offerings.

Peres said she has tried to make programming as "community-driven" as possible.

"By doing that, it wasn't just a bunch of librarians deciding what the community needs. It's the community telling us what they need, and it's just helping them get there," she said.

"Libraries, traditionally, were warehouses of books, places to do research, and we still do all of that," Peres said. But they're also places for people to meet up with others with similar interests, to learn from each other or to just get to know their neighbor.

"Libraries are one of the only public places left where you can simply be yourself without having to buy anything," she said.

Judging from patrons' comments to the Sun Journal, Peres' efforts appear to have paid off.

"Marcela Peres made an impact on my organization, Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition," Executive Director Joseph Jackson said.

"Marcela offered the library as a meeting space, even though it was on the weekend. Our first community meeting in Lewiston was a success because the library is the heart of the community," he said.

When Georgina Watson was new to town and a new parent, she said the library "had such a warmth and welcoming feeling to it I didn't get elsewhere. It helped me feel more settled as a new resident and a new parent."

Trustee Sarah Gillespie said Peres "opened my eyes to seeing the library as more than a book-borrowing entity ... (it is) a place that truly nurtures the community."

Former trustee Darby Ray, a professor and director of the Harward Center for Community Partnerships at Bates College in Lewiston, said that under Peres' leadership, the library has become "a place of learning, exploration, welcome and refuge."

Collection services librarian Elizabeth Almquist said Peres is a "beloved leader who has fostered a working environment that more closely resembles a family than a workplace."

When Peres took over from Speer in 2017, she said she saw her role as "building on the momentum and the groundwork that he laid."

Although she had "no desire to completely derail" the work he had begun, the world had other plans halfway through her tenure as director: a pandemic.

"I can't sum up my time here without talking about that because, again, we started with this focus of, how do we bring neighbors together? How do we bring the community together to almost overnight learning that we were not allowed to bring people together anymore," she said.

"And so (then) trying to reinvent the library. It sounds dramatic, but that's essentially what we were faced with," Peres said.

She and the staff had to quickly pivot to turn a physical place to gather and lean into a virtual one. Peres said they overhauled the website, made services available virtually or by curbside pickup.

The library was awarded a $121,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in May 2020 for the sole purpose of converting children's programming into virtual or remote formats. Peres said they heard from parents who wanted screenless options for their children so they put together craft kits and mailed goodie boxes filled with books and activities.

It was an "enormous undertaking," that she credits her staff with making successful.

"I'm proud of what we were able to do," she said.

Almquist, the collection services librarian, said that Peres was the library's "anchor" through the pandemic.

"In rising to meet new challenges and opportunities, Marcela has championed the role of the library as a place able to adapt to the changing needs and interests of her local community," Josh Gauthier, the technical services library technician, said.

Peres has been a "champion" of people's passions, "encouraging opportunities for growth and learning," he said.

One of Peres' personal passions was growing the library's comic book and graphic novel collection. She said when she first started, the library had maybe a couple hundred books in its catalogue. Now there are nearly 8,000 comic books and graphics novels for readers of all ages.

And for those worried that Peres will no longer be a part of the library, she said she isn't going far.

"It's been my employer for 11 years, but it's always going to be my local library," she said.