Gail Roberts, the Joseph Plumb Memorial Library director, met with the Rochester Select Board on November 15 to announce her intentions to retire on June 30, 2022, the end of Fiscal Year 2022. Roberts has been at the helm of the small but mighty community library for 15 years, but now she believes it’s time to give herself some space to pursue other passions.
A 1972 graduate of Old Rochester Regional High School, Roberts studied library sciences at Drexel University, later spending 17 years as a children’s librarian in Philadelphia, Brookline, Marion and New Bedford.
“I didn’t know you could be a children’s librarian,” said Roberts, smiling at the thought of her long career guiding young readers.
In that role, Roberts would become a storyteller and develop afterschool programming. She credits a cousin with suggesting that she pursue a career in library arts. Roberts rather casually agreed it might be worth exploring, and the rest, as they say, is “history.”
Roberts’ career has found her in big cities such as Philadelphia and metropolitan Boston, as well as small towns. “When the position opened up here, it seemed right. … I always wanted to work in a small library,” she confessed. “I’ve been happy here.”
Of modern libraries, Roberts said, “At first it was just books, then slowly libraries added other types of materials people could check out like cake pans and VCR tapes.”
Today with the advent of computers, Roberts says the entire world has opened up. So where does that leave libraries? She believes the relevance of libraries is stronger than ever. “In order for libraries to remain relevant, they will have to continue to find ways to embrace technology,” she said.
Roberts said that people depended on the library and its flexibility to provide services during COVID-19 restrictions. “E-books, movies, TV programming, we have been able provide a lot of services … it has been a lifesaver.”
And what of Roberts future plans? “Well, I live in a 200-year-old farmhouse so there’s always something to do,” she said. In fact, Roberts’ roots are in that farmhouse, her grandmother’s home at one time, Minnie Tinkham’s home.
Roberts doesn’t say so, but it is evident in her expression that she is very proud of her heritage. She spoke with great fondness of her grandmother, a woman of many talents including music. The Tinkhams and the Roberts, along with other extended family members, could have their own orchestra given the amount of musical talent that runs through their genes. Yet, like a true perfectionist, Roberts is still taking piano lessons despite playing since she was a small child.
One of the annual events that Roberts helped to maintain over the years was the Christmas sing-along at the Tinkhamtown Chapel. Following in her grandmother’s footsteps and with the help of family and the entire tri-town community, this coming together in celebration had been the cornerstone of the holiday seasons for generations. Roberts has for many years taken over the job of playing the antique pump organ for the holiday show. Sadly, the pandemic has for now put a stop to gatherings in the petite chapel, but in memory of that much-loved seasonal event, we share these comments from an earlier interview with Roberts.
“Roberts, one of the committee members for the annual sing-along, has generations of Tinkhamtown DNA flowing through her veins. Roberts’ grandmother was the locally well-known Minnie Tinkham, who for decades coordinated this annual event. ‘My grandmother played the organ, which she had to pump back then, and we had to sing all the verses of every carol, too,’ said a smiling Roberts. She said that despite the organ requiring strong untiring legs, her grandmother insisted that each and every verse of each and every carol be fully played. Nowadays, the pump organ is connected to a vacuum pump that pushes air through the aging machine.”
It is that kind of New England backbone that has helped Roberts keep Rochester’s library strong. Looking towards the future, she believes Rochester has been very supportive of the library, something she said not all towns can say.
Roberts said budgets are always tight and that “a library will either have money and no space or space and no money,” but overall, “the library is a good bargain for the money. … We serve everybody.”
And what of her hopes for the library after she is gone? “I hope it remains the warm, welcoming place it’s always been.”
By Marilou Newell