If anyone is qualified to judge a book by its cover, it's Larry Neal.
The director of the Clinton-Macomb Public Library for the past six years, Neal has worked in libraries for more than 30 years and actually helped build the current Clinton-Macomb system.
"I started working in the library in high school," Neal, 46, said. "A neighborhood friend got me the job. It was a way to earn money over the summer. I wanted to go on an exchange trip to Germany and needed to save up."
An interest in emerging technology led him to continue working at his college library and, though he graduated from Oakland University with a bachelor's in Spanish and German, and later a master's in business administration, there was never really a question of his working outside a library system.
Librarian stereotypes aside, "Every part of my career has been different and fun and interesting," Neal said. "This job really is exciting, because there’s always something new. I can always count on it that something is going to come my way that I've never done before."
Patch: What do you find most interesting about your work?
Neal: The wide range of people that we serve. That’s what I love about libraries. I just watch the endless cycle of people that come through here and every batch is different. Some are coming with their little kids, just walking or in strollers, and then there are people that are quite up in their years and everyone in between. There’s every variety of combination. We get every age of the population here and the economic scale, too.
Patch: With so much available on the Internet, what purpose will libraries serve in the 21st century?
Neal: I believe a library is the reflection of a community’s commitment to education, opportunity and culture. Schools are mandated, police and fire services are all mandated–every community has to provide those services–but in Michigan, you don’t have to have a library. Yet, there’s a very small percentage of Michigan that’s not served by libraries and to me that says we’re lucky. We live in a society that values education, that values opportunity and in this case here, when you see the size of this facility, the quality and the services offered, it says to me this is a community that values a library.
In the 21st century it’s just an evolutionary change to the traditional format we had before. We’re simply presenting the written manuscript in a different format. Our role hasn’t changed a bit, but how we can deliver our services has changed and it will continue to evolve to allow us to be a 24/7-service provider.
Patch: What is your greatest personal accomplishment?
Neal: I live in Bloomfield Hills and we had a contract with neighboring community for library service, but there was a big dispute over how much should be paid for the contract and it broke down for about nine years ago. As a result, the people in my community were cut off from library service.
I would be driving through my neighborhood and I would see kids playing and think, ‘They don’t have access to a summer reading program.’ To think that these kids would be growing up without that opportunity really bothered me. I began working with the city (to develop a new library service contract) and it took three millage campaigns in three years to get something on ballot. We finally won in November. To have it finally pass was a huge accomplishment.
Patch: What is your greatest professional accomplishment?
Neal: For one, bringing the Library for the Blind to Clinton-Maocmb. That was a really wonderful partnership with Macomb County. They came to us first as the most preferred partner for taking that on … and now we have a 10-year contract that guarantees it here. It’s a really great thing and beginning to build. The purchase of the north branch last year was another big thing.
Patch: What are some of the difficulties the library will face over the next year?
Neal: We’re really going through a pretty difficult budget time right now. We have a million dollars less than we did four years ago to work and operate this system. There’s been a tremendous decline in property tax values. They’ve begun to level out in Macomb Township, but Clinton Township probably has another 7 percent drop next year. We don’t want to cut our hours of service, or lay off staff, and people are using library more than ever. It’s figuring out how to keep the budget balanced and everything steady that has been an increasing challenge.
Patch: You hear about some libraries having to close, but CMPL continues to be successful. Why is that?
Neal: I think we’re in tune with what the community needs and as long as you do that you will remain relevant. There is just a need for a place for people to gather in the community. Macomb Township is very suburban and finding those places where community exists, a library is still one of those hubs where people like to get together.
Patch: Who is the person you admire most, either personally or professionally?
Neal: I would have to say Christine Hage, the former director here. She has been someone I’ve known for the last 30 years, who has continued to be a mentor to me. Early on she pushed me to do things. She gave me advice on going back to (the University of Michigan) for my library science degree and she’s still somebody on my speed dial.
Patch: What are you reading now?
Neal: I’m actually reading a book by Betty White, her latest. It’s called, If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won't). I love animals and she’s a big animal lover.
Patch: When you’re not in your office, where can we find you in the library?
Neal: By the travel books. I love travel as well as cooking, although I don’t spend too much time in the cookbooks.
Patch: Do you have any hobbies?
Neal: Again, travel. I’m taking my nephew on his first trip to Europe this year. I was 15 when I went on my first trip to Europe and it was an incredible experience. We went to so many different countries, and there were so many things we experienced. It really opened my perspective on the world and gave me a much better appreciation for different languages and cultures.