WESTERLY — Something happened to Brigitte Hopkins when she was working at the Providence Public Library that changed the course of her life.
“I fell in love with libraries,” said Hopkins, the new executive director of the Westerly Library. “I caught the bug.”
“I love public libraries,” she said recently from her cozy office in the basement of the 1894 historic building at the heart of downtown Westerly. “Everything about them. I love dealing with all the different age groups and with people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and I love the fact that we are here for everyone ... for the entire community, young kids, college students, older people ... everyone.”
As a youngster growing up in Norwalk, Conn., Hopkins (whose first name is pronounced Bruh-JETT), thought she wanted to be an architect, so she headed off to Bristol to study in the architectural program at Roger Williams University.
It was during her first year that she became interested in historic preservation.
“I thought I’d end up maybe working in a museum or becoming a city planner,” said Hopkins, who did an internship at Newport’s International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum, which is housed in the historic Newport Casino. She also worked for the Bristol Historic District Commission.
But following her experience at the Providence Public Library, she took a job at the Mount Pleasant Public Library as a circulation clerk. Shortly after, she was accepted into the University of Rhode Island’s Master of Library and Information Science program. After graduating, she took a job at the West Warwick Public Library as a reference librarian. She went on to become the library’s interim director and then executive director. It was during that time that Karen Mellor, the acting chief of library services in the state’s Office of Library and Information Services, first met Hopkins.
“I’ve always been impressed by her professionalism and dedication to libraries,” Mellor said. “As acting director of West Warwick Public Library during a period of severe cutbacks, she was able to navigate the library through some difficult times while maintaining programs that were invaluable to the community, such as computer training classes and the job club.”
Last year, Hopkins applied for the position held previously by Kathryn Taylor, who resigned in September after 15 years as director. She was hired by the board in early winter and officially took over on Jan. 20.
The youngest person to ever serve as head of Westerly’s library, the 38-year-old Hopkins has been in the position for a little more than a month but is already getting rave reviews.
“Brigitte Hopkins is a rising star in the heavens of the Rhode Island library world,” said Daniel Snydacker, the library’s transition consultant, who served as interim executive director until Hopkins’ appointment. “And she’s committed to excellence.”
Richard W. Constantine, president of the library board of trustees, said Hopkins had everything the board was looking for in a new leader for the 120-year-old library.
“She’s outgoing, she’s enthusiastic, she’s a hard worker and she has an open-door policy,” said Constantine. “She also works well with the staff and she’s getting to know town leaders and get feedback from them. She is fully engaged.”
“I’m all for having discussions and conversations,” said Hopkins. “That’s why we’re here. It is extremely important to me to know what people need and want from their library, and to fill those needs.
“I see the library as an essential part of the community, not as a secondary service,” she added.
After her first several weeks, which seemed like an endless stream of snow days and winter holidays, Hopkins has been settling in to her new role, getting to know the staff and the volunteers. She has the highest praise for her predecessors.
“Kathryn did a fantastic job,” she said, “and Daniel is wonderful and has been so helpful to me.”
Hopkins and her husband, Justin, an architect who works in Westerly for Hartford-based Tecton Architects, are actively searching for a home in Westerly.
The Hopkinses, who have a 3½-year-old son, Oliver, currently live in West Warwick.
“We work three blocks apart but we have a 35-minute commute,” she laughed. But not for long.
They are very much looking forward to moving to Westerly, she added.
“Everyone is so great here,” she said. “I knew it would be a perfect place to raise a family when I saw the Halloween parade. It is a community with such a sense of pride.”
Hopkins, who remembers fondly the day she got her first library card, said the libraries of her childhood always inspired her with a sense of adventure.
“I remember my elementary school and what a magical place it was with all the books and displays and things like filmstrips,” she said.
Hopkins said she has no plans for any big changes in her first months.
“I want to get a feel for what the community wants first,” she said.
Hopkins has joined the board of the Westerly Area Arts Partnership, a consortium of local arts organizations that has been meeting regularly to advocate for the arts and promote the region as an arts destination.
“I just want to work on improving what we have,” she said, “although I do think I’d like to re-institute computer classes.”
What with the importance of technology these days, she said, it’s important to focus on technology. “Not to dismiss print,” she quickly added. “Print matters.”
Snydacker said that Hopkins is on the “leading edge” of the new library. He said she understands what libraries of the future must look like.
“She knows how libraries will have to transition to maintain vital roles,” he said, “she understands the best part of library tradition but can look toward the future as far as technology. Her expertise and leadership will serve the Westerly library and park well.”
“I have thoroughly enjoyed working with her,” he added. “Plus, she helped me make good on my promise — to ensure that the next executive director will work well with staff, colleagues and the community to help everyone their dreams. I have heard nothing but rave reviews form people.”
“And,” added Snydacker, “she has one cute kid.”
For now, Hopkins plans to continue learning about the town, the library and the neighbors.
One of those neighbors is Gil Bricault at the Granite Theatre.
“I wish her loads of success,” said Bricault, the president of the Renaissance City Theatre Inc., the Granite Theatre’s parent organization.
“It was a pleasure to meet her. I look forward to working with her on the WRAP Board.”
“I feel totally blessed,” said Hopkins.