New Jersey State Librarian is Tops in the Nation

Norma Blake '71 on the cover of the Library Journal. (Reproduced with permission from the January 1, 2008 issue of Library Journal. Copyright 2008 by Reed Business Information.)

Every state in the union has a state librarian, and for New Jersey, that title belongs to Norma E. Blake ’71.  She has been the State Librarian since 2001 and if being one of only 50 state librarians in the country were not enough, Blake was recently recognized by Library Journal as the “Librarian of the Year,” perhaps the most prestigious national award a librarian can receive. 

“This award is all about role models, and Norma Blake is a model for state librarians and librarians everywhere,” said Library Journal Editor-in-Chief Francine Fialkoff in bestowing the award. “She has energized librarians throughout the state, empowering them to develop and deliver better library services and marketing those services to New Jersey residents.”

Although Blake has gained national recognition for her innovative work in the library sciences, she did not always want to be a librarian. In fact, as a young woman growing up in New Jersey, she was not even sure that she wanted to go to college. However, she listened to her parents’ advice to take some business courses before looking for a job and enrolled at Montclair State as a business major.

“I soon found that wasn’t what I wanted to do,” Blake laughs. “I loved English so I thought I would be an English major but the major was full and I couldn’t get in.” Thanks to some lobbying from an English professor, she was admitted to the major and graduated with a B.A. in English and a minor in reading.

Blake first worked as a teacher in private adult education in an urban area but after a harrowing incident—“I was robbed at gunpoint,” she recalls—she decided to work for public enterprises.  Blake earned a master’s in library science from Rutgers and has worked in libraries in New Jersey ever since.

Of the many groundbreaking programs Blake has instituted during her tenure as state librarian, she is most proud of the New Jersey Knowledge Initiative, a collaboration of government, business and libraries that provides thousands of small businesses, entrepreneurs, researchers and students with free access to expensive published research sources in the fields of business, technology, science and medicine.

“Through this program, in two years we have spent just $6 million for $74.5 million worth of licensing,” she says.  “The program has helped everyone in the state—libraries, schools and businesses. It was the first time we were able to show businesspeople that libraries were important to their success.”

Other programs Blake has spearheaded include the outreach program featuring the hugely popular comic book character Super Librarian, and the pioneering “Trading Spaces” program which helps libraries create new spaces to encourage greater usage.  Blake wants to build on this successful program by instituting “Senior Spaces,” which will help libraries create spaces especially for seniors, the fastest-growing demographic.  “People are used to seeing Children’s Rooms in libraries, so why not Seniors’ Rooms?” she asks.

Blake is characteristically optimistic about the future of libraries saying, “Our future is very bright.”  Detractors who say that the Internet will make libraries obsolete do not faze her. Blake maintains that libraries provide a social environment and personalized services that the Internet cannot.  “After all,” she adds wryly, “do you want 50,000 hits or do you want the right answer? No, I can’t imagine people will stop coming to libraries any time in the near future.” 

Spoken like a true Super Librarian.