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 Clinton-Macomb Public Library Director Larry Neal recently celebrated 20 years as part of the library system.

Clinton-Macomb Public Library Director Larry Neal recently celebrated 20 years as part of the library system.

Photo by Deb Jacques

CMPL director reflects on 20 years in library system

By: Nick Mordowanec | C&G Newspapers | Published February 11, 2020

CLINTON TOWNSHIP/MACOMB TOWNSHIP — Larry Neal best described his 20-year journey in the Clinton-Macomb Public Library system: “It’s been a fantastic adventure.”

Neal has come a long way since shelving books in high school in 1982. Possessing a degree in business administration and working as a facility/IT manager, he was recruited in 1999 by recently retired Christine Hage, of the Rochester Hills Public Library, to take a look at CMPL.

She told him that if he wanted to work his way up, he needed more education. So, he worked full-time at the library while also studying at the University of Michigan. When Hage took over in Rochester Hills in 2005, Neal was promoted from CMPL’s assistant director position to director in 2006 and has been there ever since.

“They say time flies when you’re having fun; I think it also flies when you are crazily busy,” Neal said. “It has never slowed down here, ever, that I can think of.”

The expansion of the system, which includes buildings in Clinton and Macomb townships, really began in 1998 when voters approved the construction and operation of a library system. It was what initially drew Hage into the system, Neal said, and she became his mentor.

And if you look at the Rochester Hills Public Library and the main CMPL branch on Romeo Plank Road, there are certainly some similarities. Both shared the same architect and construction firm, but it allowed for the Clinton Township location to incorporate different things.

The first branch on Gratiot Avenue, leased just two blocks north of the current South Branch location, opened at an old Salvation Army site. While the design was being implemented for the main branch on Romeo Plank, work also started in Macomb Township.

Neal said it was more difficult finding a lease place back then, due to the community not being nearly as built up as it is now. A building on 24 Mile Road was originally constructed to be a medical building. It was modified and repurposed and now serves as the North Branch.

In the years since, he said, the township has added probably 40,000 residents and the space is just not conducive to the population growth. In October 2019, the Macomb Township Board of Trustees approved the final library plan to commence construction on the future site, located at 25 Mile Road on Broughton Road. It is expected to open in spring 2021.

Decades of construction and accessibility don’t happen overnight, Neal acknowledged. Sometimes, you have to fight for what you believe in.

For example, in 2009, he was elected as president of the Michigan Library Association. While lying in a hammock on vacation in August of that year, he received a call saying that cuts were being pondered in relation to art, history and libraries.

Neal and a slew of others galvanized on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol, in Lansing, and protested the intentions. They were successful in saving funding and programs.

“That was a turning point at the state level for awareness for what libraries do,” he said.

From 2014 to 2016, he served as president of the American Library Association. He worked with the Gates Foundation to devise research and leadership programs that benefit public libraries nationwide.

In 2015, in what he thought was a spam email, he received correspondence from the White House encouraging CMPL to participate in the ConnectEd challenge — to get library cards in the hands of every student, no matter their background or financial standing. CMPL was the first library system in America to sign onto the challenge, which now works with six public Macomb County school districts.

CMPL issues community surveys every other year, typically hearing from over 5,000 residents in each township.

Technology has elevated society in many ways, Neal acknowledged. Still, the prevalence of apps and smartphones do make him somewhat wary. In speaking with an architect regarding the new Macomb Township location, he mentioned discussing an “Alone Together” space where individuals convene around other human beings to be involved in general activity — even if the people don’t necessarily engage in direct conversation.

Libraries are “like your original idea of recycling and sharing,” he said. He sees children, parents and grandparents routinely walk through the doors and immerse themselves. He said his favorite thing is when kids literally say “goodbye” to their books, by title, as they return them.

Neal’s impact is once again being made on a national scale. He was recently again elected to the American Library Association Executive Board — one of eight elected members for an organization with over 55,000 at-large members. The board is headquartered in Chicago.

“It helps me really be right on top of the pulse of what’s going on in the association, and libraries across the country,” he said. “The American Library Association is known around the world. It has a great reputation. To me, that’s just an opportunity of ideas and to be aware of what’s coming down the pipe trend-wise, legislatively, and to think about how I can bring that back here and translate that into great ideas for our community here.”

As it turns out, the internet did not replace libraries. Rather, it has provided humans with the ability to explore even more, while allowing library systems to offer better services, programming and opportunities.

That includes providing information from an unbiased perspective.

“There’s an increasing need to help educate people to become critical consumers of information because there is so much, and understanding the difference between opinion and fact — which is extremely difficult and is becoming more difficult,” he said.

One of his lifelong goals is improving literacy, saying that libraries play a unique and critical role in that process. He said survey results show that some 30% of parents were unfamiliar with the skills their children should possess between ages 0 and 5. Learning to read by third grade is “too late,” he noted.

As for what the future holds for him, he said he has another 13 to 15 years in the profession as long as he’s still productive and engaged. As Hage told him years ago, there is nothing better than a well-funded, medium-sized library.

“There’s no golden parachute. I’ve got to earn my keep,” Neal said. “It keeps you on your toes. I want it to be a win-win for the board and the community, and for myself personally.”