As the CEO of the Hartford Public Library, it's no surprise that Matt Poland loves stories.
In fact, there's one in particular he's been telling to Hartford residents and the business community since assuming his leadership role in 2009.
It's about a 21st century learning center that supports public education for all ages, economic development, capacity building, access to technology, the arts and community discourse
It's the story of his vision for his 119-year-old hometown public library.
It's a vision that Poland and his staff are slowing turning into reality, as the library collaborates with businesses and area nonprofits to increase services to city residents.
Poland knows first-hand the importance of Hartford's libraries. As a child, he frequented the Park Street branch where, he says, he developed his love of learning and reading. It was, in part, his childhood connection to the library that led Poland to accept his new role after nearly 30 years of private sector executive experience in the region. "I wanted to be involved in service to my fellow Hartford residents," Poland said. "The library was that opportunity."
And his fellow residents are responding. In fact, participation in the library's core programs — ranging from language and technology classes to job training and career workshops — are up by double digits across the board. In 2010, a record 860,000 visitors went to the downtown library and nine branch locations, a 5 percent increase from the previous year.
The library's preliminary success under Poland's leadership is in stark contrast to the organization's image in 2008 when a Hartford Courant investigation revealed ongoing safety and security problems at the library, including theft and threats of violence. Poland has helped address those problems, in part, by expanding security measures including installing surveillance cameras, anti-theft devices, adding security personnel, and implementing safety and security training for all employees.
Equally important, Poland has increased services that are in demand among constituents, including more access to technology. A study by the Gates Foundation found that in poverty-level households nationwide, 61 percent of adolescents and young adults relied on public libraries for internet access; among seniors living in poverty, the figure was 44 percent.
Poland sees those demographic realities in Hartford and understands the value that his organization can uniquely play in the broader community. "Urban libraries need to be centers of information in a digital age," he said. "They should serve as a major player in social equity, helping citizens acquire 21st century skills to help them lead successful lives."
But the library's resurgence has been about more than computers and free books. It's been about programs like Teen Leaders, which provides employment opportunities for Hartford teenagers at the library and has attracted the attention — and financial support — of corporate partners, including Travelers, Bank of America and Wells Fargo.
"Our support of the library recognizes the incredible important role it plays in the community, particularly with Hartford youth," said Kevin Cunningham, Bank of America Connecticut President. In fact, attracting corporate and business dollars to support the library's $9.8 million annual budget is one of Poland's strategic focuses and a necessity as municipal budgets become less stable in a difficult economy.
Two years ago, the city funded 90 percent of the library's cost, Poland explained, noting that figure is down to 80 percent today because of accelerated development efforts.
"We looking to reduce the impact to taxpayers in this economy without cutting essential services," he said. That has meant expanding fundraising efforts and corporate outreach and the results to date have been positive.
Since 2009, corporate sponsorships of the library's summer gala have grown from five to 23. "We've been able to tell our story to the business community from the perspective of the people we serve and they've seen the value in what we are doing — and can do — for the community," Poland said."
That has meant additional program funding from new corporate supporters like the Lincoln Financial Foundation, which has provided program funding since 2010 to support adult education and GED programs, critical services in a city where adult illiteracy, Poland estimates, may run as high as 60 percent. Last year, nearly 26,000 people — a quarter of Hartford's population — participated in literacy activities at Hartford Public Library.
"We see the Hartford Public Library as a critical education resource," said Bryon Champlin, program officer for the Lincoln Financial Foundation. "Its programs can help prepare learners and can serve as a stepping stone to a better job or full employment."
That's a big part of the story that Poland will continue to trumpet about his hometown library, as he moves the institution further into the 21st century.