Paula Miller began working in libraries at the age of 16, shelving books in the library in her hometown of Kent, Ohio. It was her first paying job and, mundane as the task was, she was thrilled. Little did she know the impact it would have on the rest of her life.
That experience led to a love of libraries, helped pay her way through college and resulted in a career of increasingly responsible positions in libraries around the country. Last August, Miller became head of the Baltimore County Public Library (BCPL), only the fourth director of a system that dates to 1948 and the first female director.
"It was a wonderful opportunity. The system has a wonderful reputation and, given the county's [820,000] population, a huge impact. I feel like I've come full circle," Miller said.
Earlier in her career, she spent four years as administrator of the Eastern Shore Regional Library in Salisbury.
To Miller, it didn't hurt that the move to Baltimore from her previous job in Colorado brought her nearer to her family. "I love Maryland," said Miller, who grew up one of 11 children in a blended family.
There are all kinds of libraries — public, college, law, medical, government. Miller has worked in many of them, including her alma mater, Kent State University, as well as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Library of Congress, the latter a category unto itself.
On a brisk winter day, Miller sat in her sun-filled office in the administration building next to BCPL's Towson branch and explained why she chose to focus on public libraries.
"I love the contact with the public. Public libraries are community-oriented, and I like that, too," Miller said.
She added that, as corny as it may sound, public libraries serve as equalizers.
If you don't own a computer, for instance, you can use one of BCPL's for free. Last year, library patrons used them for 700,000 sessions, not to mention the 300,000 log-ins to the system's free WiFi network for those who brought their own devices.
If you want to hone job skills, refine your resume and cover letter and/or fill out job applications, the system has free tutorials. Its toddler and pre-school programs fill up. Everyone from Boy Scout Troops to homeowner associations to the League of Women Voters uses their meeting rooms.
"Public libraries are increasingly important in people's lives," said Miller, 61, a mother and grandmother, a friendly, attractive woman with a shock of white hair. She and her husband of 38 years, Jay Miller, an artist and art teacher, live in Towson.
Miller got her master's degree in library science from the University of Maryland, College Park in 1979. Since then, she has seen the field evolve. It now offers more services, more programs for adults and more technology.
At BCPL, for example, you can download for free current books from its website to your Kindle, Nook, Tablet or iPad thanks to an arrangement with publishers. In the works are downloads of music and magazines from the website as well.
BCPL has a budget of $40 million, 19 library branches, four mobile vans and 750 full-and part-time staffers. Library patrons checked out 11 million items (books, movies and electronics) last year. Three branches — Cockeysville, Pikesville and Towson — circulated more than one million items each.
But even BCPL has its limits. "You can't put everything in every building," Miller said of its services and programs, an assessment she has just begun.
"We're looking for her to take BCPL the next step," said Frank Regan, a BCPL board member and head of the search committee that picked Miller. The six-month nationwide search attracted a large number of applicants, thanks in part to BCPL's sterling reputation.
Regan, a sales/marketing executive and Towson resident, talks about expanding the e-book collection, advancing a social media presence and making the library the focal point for people's interests.
Most importantly, though, he talks about creating a library for the 21st century, a project Miller has already successfully accomplished. For eight years, she was executive director of the Pikes Peak Library District, based in Colorado Springs and covering all of El Paso County. Last year, she opened Library 21c, said to be the first of its kind in the country.
Besides the usual books and audio-visual material, Library 21c, housed in a renovated building, encourages hands-on learning with state-of-the-art technology, from 3D printers to sewing machines. There is a child-sized computer area, Family Place Library and teen center.
"Library 21c is forward-focused," Miller said. "The emphasis is on looking ahead to the space within our building and the resources we provide."
Regan said, "We'd like her to bring that to us."
John Holman, president of the BCPL board, has the same idea.
"Here was a woman who rethought the mission of the library and what needed to be done. That narrative appealed to me," said Holman, of Towson.
But Miller said she is doing an analysis of county library system to determine just what needs there are and how those needs would impact an improvements or expansions. She said, at this point, it's too early to say.
But as many awards as Library 21c has won since it opened, Miller believes that a public library is more than the things in it, as high tech as they may be.
"It's the people, the connections and the services," she said.
Lisa Hughes, manager of the Towson branch, agreed. The library averages 37,000 to 40,000 visitors per month. Its six weekly children's programs are fully booked. Its weekly preschool program attracts upwards of 50 children and adults. And Towson isn't even the busiest library in the BCPL system, she said.
"We're third busiest. Cockeysville and Pikesville vie for first and second busiest," said Hughes, who, over a 30-year career in public libraries, has seen her share of change.
"We still have print circulation, mostly kids and adults. We still help people individually. But it's very different because of technology," she said, noting that the instruction may now be in computer skills and that online e-book circulation is increasingly popular.
Hughes said the BCPL staff is "very excited to have Paula." At Miller's first staff meeting, she impressed with her knowledge and inclusiveness.
"She opened Library 21c in Pikes Peak and it's been a tremendous success," Hughes said. "She's phenomenal."