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StoriesPatricia Payne

Shaping the Future of Lesley's Libraries

With a generous gift, Dean Emerita Patricia Payne envisions a bright future for Lesley’s libraries.

Exterior of Sherrill Library

A Lasting Legacy

In local library circles, Patricia Payne is something of a legend. She was the Director of Lesley’s libraries for twenty years during a time when the university was expanding rapidly and libraries were first making the transition from print to digital systems. “We had so many exciting and positive changes that happened under her leadership,” says Constance Vrattos, current Acting Dean of University Libraries.

Payne served for years as chair of the Massachusetts Black Librarians Network (MBLN) which promotes awareness of library services within the African-American community, and served as a trustee of the Cambridge Public Library for more than twenty years. On her retirement from Lesley in 2015, she was granted the title of Dean Emerita, which she describes as “an unexpected honor.” Now Patricia Payne has left a vital legacy with a philanthropic gift of $110,000 designed to support Lesley’s libraries.

Patricia Payne sitting in Sherril Library
Dean Emerita Patricia Payne

Payne grew up in New Jersey and began her career there after graduating from library school at Rutgers. She first came to Boston in the mid-1980s when she was hired as the Librarian for the College of Public and Community Service at UMass Boston. During a time when Boston was still reeling from years of racialized social and political turbulence, Payne found a niche. “It was the first time in my career that I was working primarily with colleagues who were African-American. My typical students were women with children who were working menial jobs. It was enjoyable and challenging to empower women to go to City Hall, to advocate for themselves.”

Coming to Lesley

She came to Lesley in 1995 as Director of Libraries, her first position in a private institution. “Lesley was so small!” she remembers, laughing, recalling the later acquisition of the South and Porter campuses. She helped shepherd the university through several major changes including the move from the joint library with Episcopal Divinity School and the incorporation of the Art Institute of Boston’s library into the Moriarty Library at the newly formed Lunder Arts Center. It was also a time when library technology was undergoing a revolutionary change, leaving card catalogues and printed reference materials behind in favor of new approaches to accessing and storing information. 

“Academic libraries have gone through a lot of changes—databases, the internet,” Payne muses. She attributes Lesley's successful shift from print to digital to her fruitful collaboration with “wonderful” staff and the support of then-University Provost Selase Williams, who engaged in heartfelt discussions with faculty, staff, and students about how to help the academic library embrace new technologies.

In the age of Google and smartphones, she believes that the human element in libraries is more important than ever. “The function has gone from curating collections of books to how to work with individual students—they may know how to use a database but not how to do research or write a complex research paper.”

Redefining the library

Creating the library of the future, her successor agrees, will require a balance of technology and hands-on human connections. “There’s a nostalgic concept about a library being a building full of books, but that’s not what libraries are today,” says Vrattos. “Libraries now are more about outreach and service. We still maintain that role of housing material and I don’t think that will ever go away, but our main purpose is to provide that research support to students, faculty, and staff, to provide that gathering place. We really hope that the library provides that sense of community, is a learning center, and we hope that the new design will foster that.” 

A gift like Payne’s will play a big role in supporting the transition. “She’s really structured it in such a way that the gift can be meaningful in every year and can vary depending on the needs of the staff and the library. It’s multi-layered and very thoughtful and it’s going to make a big difference.” 

In retirement, Payne projects an incandescent optimism about the future of libraries, praising recent renovations to Cambridge and Boston public libraries that have made them warmer and more welcoming to a wider range of users. “All of these libraries have these huge, wide-open entrances now. They have colorful community spaces, restaurants, public radio stations. They’re doing more community outreach.”

She hopes that planned renovations at Lesley will achieve the same goal, breaking down the barriers of access that still afflict libraries and other academic institutions. Developing stronger relationships with nearby academic and public libraries, she believes, will help create a kind of healthy ecosystem that will help all libraries thrive, enabling them to share resources, cross-promote author readings and events, and serve as vibrant community spaces. “Libraries are so much more than books.”