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Baltimore County’s new library director touts ‘a very democratic institution’

Sonia Alcántara-Antoine, director of Libraries and Information Services of the Newport News Public Library, stands inside in the Main Street Library Wednesday afternoon December 9, 2020. Sonia Alcántara-Antoine has been selected to be the new director of Baltimore County Public Library.
Sonia Alcántara-Antoine, director of Libraries and Information Services of the Newport News Public Library, stands inside in the Main Street Library Wednesday afternoon December 9, 2020. Sonia Alcántara-Antoine has been selected to be the new director of Baltimore County Public Library. (Jonathon Gruenke/Daily Press)

Sonia Alcántara-Antoine’s love for libraries started with her first job as a teenager shelving books at Comsewogue Public Library in Port Jefferson Station on Long Island.

The New York native, who will take the helm of Baltimore County Public Library in February, was drawn to the role libraries play in their communities “helping people get a leg up in life and provide whatever they need in terms of information and technology.”

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At the Baltimore County Public Library, for example, library patrons can access resumé-building tutorials, free Wi-Fi access and financial literacy programs.

“I was just really inspired by the work [libraries] were doing, ultimately serving the community. It’s a very democratic institution,” she said. “That’s what really drew me to it.”

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Alcántara-Antoine, who serves as the director of libraries and information services for the Newport News Public Library in Virginia and worked for seven years at Baltimore City’s Enoch Pratt Free Library, has been tapped by the county library Board of Trustees from a national search that yielded a pool of 30 applicants. She will be the fifth director of the library system since it was established in 1948 and will replace Paula Miller, the first woman to direct the library, who retired in September after six years’ leadership.

Miller is leaving “big shoes to fill,” said Alcántara-Antoine, but “my job is to pick up where she left off.”

In a statement, County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said of Alcántara-Antoine, “Her diverse experience, love for our region and unique vision are a perfect fit” to build on the library’s legacy of innovative and inclusive programs.

Alcántara-Antoine has worked in Newport News, where she lives with her husband, since 2017. She oversees four library branches and a public law library and more than 90 staff members in the Tidewater area city.

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Cynthia D. Rohlf, city manager of Newport News, said in a statement that Alcántara-Antoine “was successful in repositioning the department through a rebranding initiative and strategic planning process that resulted in new emphasis on community programs, new library facilities, empowering staff and new uses of technology to increase library patronage.”

“Sonia is passionate about the unique role that libraries fulfill to inspire the community and make positive change in the lives of all residents. She will be greatly missed as a member of our leadership team, and we wish her continued success in Baltimore County.”

Before her Newport News job, Alcántara-Antoine was the public services manager for the Virginia Beach library system from 2014 to 2017, and worked for seven years in several roles at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, including as an assistant to Carla Hayden, who served as Enoch Pratt’s chief executive officer from 1993 until 2016 when she was was nominated by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the 14th librarian of Congress, the first woman and African American to hold that position.

A first-generation American whose parents emigrated from the Dominican Republic, Alcántara-Antoine will be the first person of color to direct the county’s 19 branches.

She will receive an annual salary of $190,000 and already has begun house hunting in the county.

“The fact that [Alcántara-Antoine] was mentored by [Hayden] I think certainly contributes to Sonia’s vision and her leadership qualities,” said Maureen Walsh David, president of the Board of Library Trustees.

Her time in Baltimore also mean Alcántara-Antoine is familiar with the challenges faced by the region, David said, challenges that are often mired in long-standing racial inequities.

This year, those challenges — food insecurity, lack of adequate health care and internet access, to name a few — have been magnified by the coronavirus pandemic, Alcántara-Antoine said.

The library system has tried to meet those needs. Through a partnership with Baltimore County and Kidz Table, breakfast and lunch meals are served to minors three days a week at nine library locations.

And although in-house services remain suspended, the library has made computers available by appointment and expanded Wi-Fi hotspots to branch parking lots, a task Alcántara-Antoine also undertook at Newport News’ branches.

“We are constantly trying to meet the needs of the community with the resources we have,” David said.

BCPL has a budget of around $43 million — and last year had the largest library budget in the state at $42 million — to cover 19 library branches, four mobile vans and 650 full- and part-time staff members. Last year, library patrons checked out 9.56 million items, including books and electronic media. Two branches — Cockeysville and Pikesville — circulated more than 1 million items each.

But with the coronavirus expected to further squeeze budgets next year, David said the library system likely will have to lean more on partnerships and grant funding to support its services.

Alcántara-Antoine, who sits on the Race and Social Equity and Digital Equity action teams with the national Urban Libraries Council, a consortium of library leaders that develops new practices for library systems, says public libraries must serve “their communities through an equity lens.”

Leveling the digital playing field and ensuring residents have internet access are important to her.

“It’s digital poverty, and in some cases it’s digital racism,” she said. “Libraries, we’ve always been at the forefront ensuring residents have internet access and computers, which is great, and we do need to keep doing that. But there’s a deeper issue there, which is why do some people not have access at all?”

Alcantára-Antoine is an American Library Association Spectrum Scholar, a program that supports members of traditionally underrepresented groups rising to leadership positions within the library profession, and holds a master’s degree in library and information science from Florida State University. She is currently working toward a master’s degree in public administration from Old Dominion University.

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