By Ron Leir
Whether it was listening to her mom reading to her as a small child or devouring the Nancy Drew mystery series or volunteering at her high school library, there probably hasn’t been a time in Maria LaBadia’s life that she was very far from some form of the printed word.
So it’s no wonder LaBadia gravitated toward library science as a career of study and has been an active librarian since the early ‘80s.
On March 5, the Belleville native who moved to Nutley in 2003, took over as director of the Nutley Public Library after having most recently worked at the Montclair Public Library.
The next day, members of the Nutley community – including the mayor and Township Council, Library Board, Friends of the Library, family, friends and public – came out in force to greet her at a social given in her honor.
LaBadia got a running start during her first week on the job by familiarizing herself with local library policies, interacting with her 30-member staff and meeting with library trustees and Barbara Hirsch, president of the Friends, the library’s fundraising arm.
“We look forward to working with Maria,” Hirsch said. “She’s highly qualified in her profession and committed to her community. I’m sure the library will flourish under her leadership.”
Asked what her priorities would be, LaBadia noted that the library has been outfitted with nearly 30 computer terminals and said: “The (Library) Board is very big on technology – things like e-books and I-pads – and ways to raise money. I don’t think we’ll ever get rid of books but we have to find ways to keep up with what’s new, whether it’s blue-ray or streaming, and the Friends are going to be very important helping us keep up.”
The library’s annual budget is $1.5 million, with most of that coming from the township, and just $13,000 from state aid. With its leaders still talking about a nearly $3 million expansion to accommodate a multipurpose room for 100-plus guests and storage space, the library will mark its 100-year anniversary in 2014.
LaBadia was picked for the $85,000-a-year Civil Service job from among 21 applicants from as far west as Michigan, according to library board President Anthony Iannarone. She’ll serve a six-month probationary period.
The new director replaces Sara Lester, who left at the end of 2011 to run her hometown library in Maplewood.
LaBadia has been youth services supervisor at the Montclair Public Library since 2003. It was actually her second stretch of service there. She got her first library job at Montclair, from 1981 to 1984, before moving on to West Milford Township Library for the next two years.
“I had just gotten my MLS (master’s in library science) from Rutgers,” LaBadia recalled, “and computers were just coming out and I remember our professors telling us, ‘This is going to revolutionize our world.’ Now we have kindles and ebooks here in Nutley for our patrons.”
In 1986, after her son was born, LaBadia switched to part-time work at libraries in Denville, Sparta and Pequannock before moving to Georgia for a decade where she worked for the Gwinnett County Public Library in Lawrenceville and the St. John Regional Catholic School in Lilburn.
In 2003 she moved back to New Jersey and was welcomed back to the Montclair Library where new challenges presented themselves. Administrators were searching for ways of attracting more young people to the library and the task fell to LaBadia, who experimented with ways to reach out to adolescents and teens.
“We had rock and hip-hop concerts on the front lawn of the library, comic book workshops, we had a ‘Beatles Week,’ we got a $300 grant to buy vinyl,” LaBadia said. “This was the early ‘80s so the records we got were of bands like Squeeze and Marshal Krenshaw. I also organized a movies series featuring ‘Buster Crabbe’ and ‘Flash Gordon.’ ’’
These strategies helped heighten kids’ library awareness and participation, she said.
“I’ve always wanted to be a librarian,” LaBadia said. “Most libraries are the hub of a community.” Aside from lending books, many libraries serve as a meeting place for people of varying interests, she said, whether it’s to play scrabble, join a knitting club or a “Pen-to- Prose” group – all examples of activities hosted by Nutley Library.
“I’m a people person,” LaBadia said, “so I guess that’s why I feel at home in the library. Here in Nutley, we’re definitely the heart of the community.”
As she gets to know her new constituency, which includes nearly 13,000 library card holders, LaBadia says she’ll “try to do more outreach. I want to talk to our seniors, schools and organizations to get everyone to come to the library.”
And guess what, folks? Nutley Public Library’s new boss is also a client: She’s been a member of the library’s Book Club for the past nine years.