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

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.”

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