The librarian who spoke out: Irene Padilla steps down after 22 years as Md. state librarian

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Irene Padilla saw a lot of change in her 22 years as the Maryland State Librarian. She is retiring after June 30.(Maryland Matters/Elijah Pittman)

Librarians are supposed to keep quiet. Irene Padilla made her career as a librarian by speaking out.

Padilla is retiring Sunday, ending a 22-year run as head of the Maryland State Library Agency, where colleagues say she has been a voice against book banning, created a fund that has revitalized or renewed dozens of aging libraries around the state, advocated for readers with disabilities — and fought for the creation of the agency itself.

“The biggest achievement really was transitioning our library services for the state out of the Department of Education and establishing and having the Maryland State Library Agency established as an independent unit of state government,” Padilla said in a recent interview.

When she first started as Maryland state librarian, the agency was a division of the Maryland State Department of Education, which librarians said did not give it the attention — or the funding — it deserved.

“Because libraries were not identified as being curriculum-driven, or whatever, the Department of Education just either completely ignored libraries, or worse, used the resources coming in to MSDE that were earmarked for libraries for their own other purposes,” said Lynn Wheeler, the Carroll County Public Library director emerita.

Wheeler said the agency was not always getting the funding that was earmarked for it, which pushed Padilla to advocate for making the agency independent of the department.

“Irene got very very upset about this. Watching resources, being told no all the time, not given any leeway to help libraries,” Wheeler said. 

“So she really, with great guts, came to the directors and said, ‘Look, as long as we are tied to, and really under the foot of the Maryland State Department of Education, libraries can never realize what they could realize if they could be an independent department,’” Wheeler said.

The agency won its independence in 2017, when a law created it. Padilla deflected credit, as she did repeatedly during an interview, checking off a list of other state agencies — the comptroller, the Office of Management and Budget, the Department of Legislative Services — that she said helped the agency get on its feet.

Even before the agency was on its own, however, Padilla was able to secure more consistent funding for the state’s libraries, pushing for what would become the State Capital Grant program, which now brings $7.5 million annually to renovate, build, and expand public libraries. The grant started in 2008 with a $5 million appropriation that grew to $7.5 million, which is allocated to counties on a sliding scale based on what each county can afford.

“So, wealthier counties have a 50% match, but some of the poorer counties have almost up to a 90% match,” said Al Martin a former library agency board member. “Which is really quite extraordinary and has certainly helped all of our various local area jurisdictions.”

The fund has allowed for renovation of libraries across the state as well as the construction of 21 new libraries, according to the grant’s site. Three have opened in the past year: Twin Beaches in Calvert County, Riviera Beach in Anne Arundel County and Middletown in Frederick County.

The progressive funding model ensured that low-income communities were not harmed, a value that Martin said is important to Padilla.

“She also just has been a wonderful person on bringing people together,” he said. “Like any family, not everyone agrees with each other all the time, but it’s in everyone’s best interest to be there for each other and to support each other.

“She’s done an excellent job of coordinating and bringing consensus building, to create a shared common voice for libraries in Maryland,” Martin added.

Padilla also worked to protect the blind and “print-disabled” community. The Library for the Blind and Print Disabled employs assistive technology, provides resources for students, operates an accessible textbook program and more.

“One of the programs we started under my tenure was a program whereby we translate textbooks for college and university libraries for students with print disabilities, into either Braille or digital material,” Padilla said.

Her latest fight was to protect Maryland libraries and librarians from the threat of book bans.

“We are so thrilled that the Freedom to Read Act passed in the General Assembly this last session,” Padilla said of the law that prohibits the removal of library materials for “partisan, ideological, or religious disapproval” and bans retaliation against librarians who defend materials against being removed.

“As the Maryland State Library Agency, we have been charged with making sure that the regulation that would go hand in hand with that (law) is put together,” she said.

After working with stakeholders around the state, the agency proposed regulations to enforce the Freedom to Read Act. The regulations were approved June 12 by the State Library Board, she said.

“We want to make sure that our librarians have at their fingertips the resources they need to defend their collections and protect their materials, their books, reading materials and all kinds of resources from dissenters,” Padilla said.

Cecil County Library Executive Director Morgan Lehr Miller will take over for as the new state librarian, according to a statement from the agency. Miller has been with Cecil County libraries since 2005.

“I’m extremely honored and inspired by this opportunity to lead the State Library Agency into the future, and to build on our shared commitment to uplift the lives of all Marylanders through transformative library services,” Miller said in the statement.

Padilla, who has worked as a librarian for 35 years, may be retiring but she’s not giving up on libraries.

“I hope that they know that libraries are open to everyone and that we are here for them, and we want to help them,” she said when asked what message she had for Marylanders. “So, if there’s any hesitancy, please don’t hesitate to come to the library because we can make a lot of things happen between the two of us.”

Maryland Matters is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Maryland Matters maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Steve Crane for questions: Follow Maryland Matters on Facebook and X.

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