It started with a love of books. Add a spark working on the Trapeze newspaper at Oak Park and River Forest High School in the mid-1980s while she lived in River Forest during her high school years. Then running the Printers Row Lit Fest in Chicago, working as a bookseller and in neighborhood development. Experience in the nonprofit sector helped, as did 20 years at the American Library Association (ALA) Public Programs Office.
Now Mary Davis Fournier will take the helm as executive director of the Public Library Association (PLA), a division of ALA, on June 14. PLA focuses on the needs and services of public libraries, librarians, and the communities they serve. There are nearly 10,000 PLA members.
Much of Fournier’s work at ALA has centered on community engagement. As deputy director of the Public Programs Office, Fournier has secured grants, partnered with museums or outside organizations, and worked with teams of people from ALA and practitioners in the field. ALA serves librarians and public, school, academic, tribal and specialty libraries and brings exhibits and programming to them across the U.S. and Canada. The needs in rural areas may differ, so programming is tailored.
An example is Muslim Journey Bookshelf, funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to help “audiences in the United States become more familiar with the people, places, history, faith, and cultures of Muslims,” according to ALA’s website. Another programming grant was available for libraries — Let’s Talk About It: Muslim Journeys. Fournier said the model has changed “from outreach to real engagement” during the past eight years.
“So library workers could put community needs at the center of their service,” Fournier said, “thousands and thousands of library workers” nationwide have been trained under her leadership through Libraries Transforming Communities, a professional development initiative in dialogue and deliberation that provides tools and resources.
Fournier, who finds it impossible to drive through a town and not visit the local library, called the evolution to community engagement at public libraries a “mindful attitudinal shift.” She said Oak Park Public Library’s executive director was among the first to embrace it.
“David Seleb jumped in under the Transforming Communities initiative and it has been a sort of turning outward,” Fournier said. “… The beginning of the planning process for public libraries is community-facing rather than institutional-facing.”
The Oak Park library has integrated antiracism into its community engagement programming. Although Fournier is moving into a new role, she sees herself continuing to be involved with community engagement, especially with such critical work.
“I am passionate about the potential of community engagement, especially when it is aligned with antiracism work and diversity, equity and inclusion work,” she said. “I think that is the opportunity for all of us in the coming years.”
Programming Fournier spent time on can also be seen in her hometown, where she has lived for the past 23 years or so. She “lived in the children’s room” with her two kids for many years at the Oak Park Public Library. When “In a Nutshell: The Worlds of Maurice Sendak” arrived, or whenever the library gets anything she worked on, she is “thrilled.”
For the Sendak exhibit and programming — brought in conjunction with the Public Programming Office, Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia, and Nextbook Inc., a nonprofit focusing on Jewish literature, culture and ideas — Fournier asked her family, “Remember this thing I kept talking about, that I was so excited about?”
“Those exhibits are a springboard for related programs,” Fournier said. “… The library is able to tie [programming] into whatever their current goals are with their community engagement.”
ALA and PLA also have had to respond to outcomes of the pandemic.
“The coming months and years for libraries and across society, we’re reknitting a social infrastructure as we move from crisis to recovery,” Fournier said. “So much of the work of libraries is going to be focused on moving back, not just into physical spaces, but also really advancing the progress that has started to be made in the digital divide, which became very explicit during the pandemic, … helping people up-skill and re-skill for employment, recover from learning loss.”
As executive director, Fournier said the work of PLA will focus on moving forward, “helping the field where they are at and where they need to be.” That includes figuring out what to keep from the experience during this time, such as being able to reach association members in a more equitable way.
“There’s also a lot to be done to meet the needs of public library workers as they deal with safe re-openings and the very complicated nature of their individual lives,” Fournier said. “And the incredible efforts of public libraries have been and will continue to be affected by the hit municipal budgets are taking.”
To further the community engagement model, she has also co-edited a book that is a how-to collection of case studies, essays, theory and practice written by library practitioners from across the country. Act, Listen, Empower: Grounding Your Library Work in Community Engagement came out in December 2020.
“There has not been any sort of book or collected resource that would function both as a professional development resource for practitioners in the field as well as for the folks getting their master’s in library information science,” Fournier said.
“During the time I’ve been in the Public Programs Office, library programs have really come to the fore and the specialties of programming librarians and community engagement librarians have become actual job designations and job titles,” she said.
When not bringing programming to others, Fournier finds herself entertained by her husband John Fournier playing tenor saxophone in the Chicago Soul Jazz Collective, her son’s Oak Park Youth Baseball games, or a trip to the Oak Park Farmers Market. She also enjoys yoga and working in her garden, which has grown thanks to other local gardeners who generously exchange plants. But Fournier also benefits from the joy of her career.
“It’s wonderful to be in mission-driven work,” she said.
Fournier considers herself lucky. “I spent 20 years in one of the most fun jobs I can imagine.”