Paula Kiely has had a lifelong love affair with books, so it’s only fitting that she should hold the City of Milwaukee’s top library position.
“Growing up on Milwaukee’s Southside, we didn’t have a lot of money, but I remember visiting the Tippecanoe Library with my mother and siblings. At the time, the Tippecanoe Library was located in an old firehouse, then it was moved to an old dime store and it was even temporarily located in a water tower on Sixth Street, while they were building the new library. This habit that my mother helped us all develop—not just going to the library, but reading together as a family—became a part of who we were. Even as young children, my mother would read to us from picture books. My father would tell us stories at bedtime, so there was a lot of sharing stories through their imagination or books,” said Kiely, who has been employed as the City Librarian for 12 years.
After graduating from Bay View High School at 17, Kiely, who also had an interest in art, attended the University of Wisconsin—Stevens Point, with the intent of pursuing a career in art. With three years of schooling under her belt, she returned home without graduating.
“I was still young and unsure of what I wanted to do, so I returned to Milwaukee and worked at various jobs while attending the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee part-time,” she said.
Kiely received a bachelor’s degree from UW-Milwaukee in Fine Arts and took an academic staff position in UW-Milwaukee’s Human Resources Department.
“I worked there for five years, helping with faculty recruitment and learning about many other aspects of employment and recruitment. It was during this time that someone suggested that I consider library work and that’s when I had one of those ‘light bulb’ moments. Within days, I applied to UW-Milwaukee’s graduate program and spent the following three years working full time and studying part-time for my master’s degree in Library and Information Science,” she said.
Kiely’s goal was to work at the Chicago Art Institute until she discovered she had another calling—working with children.
“Brookfield Public Library hired me for a part-time position as the children’s librarian and that’s really where I learned my trade. I had a wonderful supervisor and mentor who helped me develop my skills. I knew that to build a career, I needed to move back to Milwaukee. After two years, I interviewed with Milwaukee Public Library and was hired as a librarian, specializing in young adult services and assistant to the children’s librarian. I was assigned to the Martin Luther King Branch Library for two years. At this point, there was no question that this was the only place for me in terms of a career. I had a job doing what I loved and a career working with other professionals that I admired,” said Kiely.
She is especially grateful that she had the privilege of working with Jane Botham, coordinator of children’s services, before she retired.
“Jane had a national reputation and I am so fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with her. I spent three years working at branch libraries and then I came to the central library, and was able to work under her leadership. I was also able to work with the former City Librarian Kate Huston. She was another important mentor and I continue to seek her advice and counsel,” said Kiely.
Coming into her own, one of Kiely’s priorities is to help prepare young children for school success through early literacy programs and activities that increase literacy rates of children through the age of five. She is especially proud of the Books2Go Program that she developed for children. Books2Go is an outreach program created for childcare providers in the City of Milwaukee.
“Books2Go introduced a new way of serving children, particularly in at-risk communities. Since traditional ‘story time’ is not always successful in every neighborhood, we saw an opportunity to work with daycare providers. We developed an outreach program where trained educators go into day care centers with instruction, encouragement and books. Over the years, the program has grown and a major focus of ours is reaching children birth to two years old. Literacy consultants visit centers in the central city and provide a one-hour mentoring session weekly for the center’s teachers on subjects such as early literacy, brain development and social-emotional development. The program also supports childcare providers by offering continuing education workshops at our neighborhood libraries at no cost,” said Kiely.
Books2Go, which is primarily funded through private donations, also receives support from the City of Milwaukee. Early literacy outreach statistics show that there are currently nearly 500 Books2Go card members, and the program has reached more than 2,000 children.
Kiely is also proud of the work that’s been done to rebuild branch libraries through mix-used development. To date, three libraries have been rebuilt and are open for business, and three more are scheduled for redevelopment.
Faced with increasing costs to maintain outdated and inefficient branch libraries and continued budget pressure, Paula and her team saw mixed-use development as a strategic and innovative solution to provide quality service at a reduced cost to taxpayers. Milwaukee Public Library and developers share ownership of the property, and the City is also able to utilize New Market Tax Credits to reduce capital outlay for the purchase of the library space.
“By 2020, we will have replaced one half of the branch libraries with mixed-use developments. In addition to the cost benefits, we are also anchoring neighborhoods with development projects. It’s a win-win,” said Kiely.
Kiely has found her niche and is enthusiastic about the work she is able to do and the difference she is able to make in the lives of Milwaukee residents.
“My experience with the library and with reading as a child really developed my love for the library. Growing up, we had one book in our home—the dictionary! Working with young children and families and sharing that experience is really part of what has driven me all these years. I believe that if you can read, you can do anything. I grew up with that mindset. If I want to know about anything, I can read a book and learn about it,” said Kiely.
While she agrees that today’s trend is for people to use electronic resources because they are so accessible, Kiely believes that books are still strong tools that will never become obsolete.
“All forms of accessing information are tools for us to draw from, so they balance each other out. I hope that I am helping to set the stage for the future. I have been given the opportunity to make a difference in this community, and I truly see this as an opportunity, not a given. I feel that I’ve grown up in the library. It’s not just a job; it’s a part of my life,” she said.
Through the years, Kiely credits her husband, James Plate, now retired from a career in the telecommunications industry, with encouraging and supporting her, and helping her pursue her passion.
“We don’t have any children, but I consider every child in this city as part of my family,” said Kiely.
In this Year of the Child, Milwaukee residents are fortunate to have such a caring, enthusiastic, passionate and compassionate person at the helm of its library system, helping to prepare future readers and leaders.