Virginia Baeckler, director of the Plainsboro Public Library, was happily working as an arts and education lobbyist for the New Jersey State Council on the Arts when someone threw her resume into the hat during Plainsboro’s search for a new library director. Before her interview, though, she told the board chair they had the wrong person. “If I were to come back to the library world, I’m a different sort of librarian,” she told the board member. “I don’t think this is the right place.”
But the board knew about Virginia Baeckler and her dedication to making a library a pulsating, living experience, a true community center, and that’s who they wanted. Baeckler’s first library job — as director of the Mercer County Library in Ewing in the 1970 — holds the key not just to why Plainsboro was so intent on hiring her but also to why libraries today are different institutions from when she got started.
Baeckler talks about the Latin root for library, which might serve as a metaphor for her career. As early as the 21st century BCE, there were libraries of clay tablets, and she figured the word for book must have come later. She discovered that the Latin root “liber” refers to the thin membrane in a tree between the wood that is growing internally and the outer bark that is dead. “The membrane carries the entire life of the tree,” says Baeckler, “and I got fascinated with the idea that libraries are pictures of life that went past and life coming in the future. It is the gateway.”
Baeckler grew up in Ramsey (her father an engineer at Bell Labs), and studied medieval Russian at Cornell University, where she received her bachelor’s degree in 1964 and her master’s in 1967. While Baeckler was working on her doctorate, she realized that academe was not for her. Though others urged her not to throw away her graduate education, she says, “Something inside of me said there has to be more. I felt stifled and useless and silly.”
She moved to Princeton to head up the Slavic order section of Princeton University and met her husband, who encouraged her to pursue a library degree.
So she went to library school at Rutgers University and got a job at the Mercer County Library’s headquarters in Ewing. There she came up against a traditional establishment that believed a library was primarily a repository of books. That wasn’t good enough for Baeckler, who wanted to bring the library in synch with the root of its name. “I wanted to bring to the community the fact that the library was an alive, growing, changing place,” she says.
Baeckler planned a medieval music performance, a guitar player singing Hispanic music, and Israeli dancing in the park. “They brought out new, excited, energetic, enthused people,” she recalls. “What we were doing was bringing alive the books, learning, and culture that are contained in a library but are not very visual.”
When friends noted that no one else was planning the types of attention-grabbing programs Baeckler was, they encouraged Baeckler to write down her ideas. About to have her first child, Baeckler retired in 1975 and wrote “Go Pep and Pop,” a book for librarians based on the types of programming she had implemented for Mercer County. She followed that up with two books on the nitty-gritty of program planning upon realizing that librarians needed more than just bare-bones ideas. “They would look at an idea and not have the remotest idea of what to do with it,” she says. “An idea isn’t enough for the average person.”
She went back to work in lobbying and public relations before joining the Arts Council, but then the offer from Plainsboro Library came, as someone had read her books and wanted to bring the activities she had described to Plainsboro.
Two years after she was hired, in 1993, the library moved to its current facility, which it has already outgrown. The next building, scheduled to open this year, will have a dedicated art gallery, a science center, and a community room and will foster arts, science, and cultural exchange within the diverse Plainsboro population. The library will be part of the new town center being created off of Schalks Crossing Road across from the Superfresh. Plainsboro officials are hoping it will be a gateway to success for the Village Center.