AUGUSTA — In her 28 years as executive director of Lithgow Public Library, Elizabeth Pohl would not be shushed when it came to advocating for a high-quality library able to meet the diverse needs of all members of the community.

The most visible sign of that is the renovated and expanded library building, which reopened two years ago after a year-and-half of construction that nearly tripled the size of the library while restoring much of the original, 1896 building.

Before the $11 million project was approved by voters in 2014, the need to expand and renovate the library was discussed for many years, and even went to a vote in 2007, but voters turned down the proposal. Undaunted, Pohl, who retired Friday, continued to advocate for a library worthy of the capital city, citing the need to build a facility with adequate space, accessibility for people with disabilities, and room to dramatically expand programming for children in a safe, well-lit space.

As other civic-related building projects were completed in Augusta — a new Cony High School and new YMCA in 2006, and a new MaineGeneral Medical Center in 2013 — advocates for expanding the library were told to wait their turn in line. Pohl and other library supporters, however, kept pushing, with the Friends of Lithgow Library contributing $3 million in privately raised funds. The library renovation proposal went back to Augusta voters in 2014, who approved the city borrowing $8 million for the project in a landslide, with 82 percent voting in favor.

“You didn’t necessarily play nice with the boys, and I mean that in the highest regards of compliments,” Mayor David Rollins said to Pohl earlier this week when city councilors recognized her upon her retirement. “The road ahead of you was steep. You weren’t always encouraged. You were told to wait your turn. But you wouldn’t take no for an answer. Whenever I drive by that library, I’ll remember you’re fierceness in accomplishing that.”

City Manager William Bridgeo said he quickly realized when he came on the job that Pohl would be a force to be reckoned with; the pair ended up working together for 20 years.

“She’s been, to me, both an inspiration and a giant pain in the butt,” Bridgeo said of Pohl. “From our first professional interactions together, it was clear the library director for the city of Augusta, this community I had just come to, was dynamic, passionate, committed, professional and determined we were going to have the best library, best library services and best staff that you could ask for anywhere in America. And boy did she deliver on that over her almost 28 years here in the city.”

Pohl is quick to note the library renovation and expansion didn’t happen because of her work, crediting numerous others for making that happen. She said she’s proud of the community for coming together to renovate and expand the library.

Elizabeth Pohl in April 1991 when she first took over leadership of the the Lithgow Public Library in Augusta. Staff file photo by David MacDonald

Over her decades in charge, Augusta’s own library has changed, but so have libraries in general. Once simply a place to go to borrow books, libraries have integrated technology and, in Maine, were among the first places people could use computers to connect to the internet.

Local residents now come to the library to access the internet, seek jobs and work on resumes and do research both online and in books. They also attend workshops and presentations on everything from yoga to fermenting food, and bring their children in for frequent programming for children of all age groups, including reading and learning groups.

“People used to come to libraries to check out materials, and that’s still true — our circulation is up,” Pohl said. “But they are also checking out experiences. We’re helping people explore new skills, new experiences. More and more, we’re helping people enhance their lives, one way or another.”

Pohl, 60, said she’s not retiring from work permanently. She plans to take a “sabbatical” for a few months, until the end of the year, to spend time with family and friends, exercise and do a fair amount of reading, things she hasn’t had much time to do while working at the library full-time. After that Pohl plans to seek either volunteer work or paid employment, because she feels she still has something to contribute. She said she wants to do something other than library work, for a change.

The Augusta resident said she plans to stay in the city, and also plans to come to the library as a citizen to check out books and other materials. But she said she plans to keep a discreet distance, rather than interfere with how the library is run by the current library staff. She said she’s leaving the library in the hands of what she describes as a great staff, and she looks forward to seeing the direction it will take into the future.

Bridgeo said Sarah Schultz-Nielsen, assistant library director, has agreed to step in as interim director of the library. He said a process to pick Pohl’s successor has not yet been finalized, in part because he has faith in Schultz-Nielsen’s ability to run the library in the meantime.

He said it would be impossible to estimate how many kids have benefited from the library during Pohl’s tenure, which she said spanned three city managers, three community services directors and five mayors. Bridgeo said being the director of a library is a hard job, as you are constricted in funding due to limited public resources, and libraries are institutions where all people are welcome — even some people who might be turned away from other facilities.

She feels the future of libraries is strong, with circulation at Lithgow reaching new levels since the library reopened. Pohl also noted the institutions serve as places where people from all walks of life can access technology, and meet in person with others for workshops and to pursue whatever interests they may have.

One thing Pohl said is hard for her to let go of as she leaves the library is her role, for nearly the last three decades, of picking what adult fiction books to order for the library. That work involved researching books and researching what authors and styles of books have been popular with local readers in the past.

Pohl said things that have taken place during her time at the library that she is proud of include: Conversion of the old card catalog system to a computerized one that spread to include local school libraries; the positive impact the library and its services and staff have had on area children, including helping them learn to read; and bringing world-class authors to the library such as through the A Capital Read program.

She also highlighted the community coming together to renovate and expand the library, and the recent restoration of the ornate original Reading Room of the library, which was completed with privately raised funds.

“The reading room restoration was really the cherry on top of that project,” Pohl said. “Every citizen in Augusta should be very proud of that and very proud of our heritage, and future.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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