Matt Finch and Bronwen Gamble

Steve Thomas: Matt Finch and Bronwen Gamble, welcome to Circulating Ideas. 

Bronwen Gamble: Thanks, Steve. It’s nice to be here. 

Steve Thomas: Matt, you have been on the show in the past and I’m going to start with you just to kind of set the table for the discussion we’re going to have a little bit later. Can you tell listeners about the kind of work you’re doing these days?

Matt Finch: Sure. I’m an associate fellow at the Saïd Business School at Oxford University and alongside teaching people about scenario planning, which is a way of looking at the future when we’re uncertain about what’s coming next or when the times are turbulent, I also work with organizations and communities to help them come up with plans and policies and strategies to deal with those kinds of uncertainties.

So you can imagine since the outbreak of the pandemic, lots of calls for that kind of work, sitting with people, looking at their situation, helping them to think about what comes next and challenging some assumptions that we’ve relied on in times that seemed more stable. 

Steve Thomas: And Bronwyn, you are the executive director of the Reading Public Library in Pennsylvania, but I wanted to go a little further back and see what got you interested in the library profession in the first place? 

Bronwen Gamble: Well, I did not come to it as a first profession like many of us. My background is really in social services. It was one of those I helped out in my kid’s school library, had worked in my college library, and never thought of it as a profession because in new England, there were only two library schools: one was in Boston, one was in Albany and I lived in Vermont and so none of those worked until we happened to move to New Jersey and Rutgers was an hour away, so I took advantage of that opportunity. 

Steve Thomas: What made you interested in it? Like why did you go, oh, well, that sounds like a great job! 

Bronwen Gamble: Actually it was a school librarian who kept pushing me to do this. I think she wanted me to take her job and she gave it to me and said, I’ve already signed a letter of reference. And I wanted to, it was just the right time and the right place for a change. So I went back to school after having been out for 20 years, and I’ll tell you that math portion of the GREs. Oo, tough, tough, tough, tough. But here I am. 

Steve Thomas: You got through it, so… 

Bronwen Gamble: I did. 

Steve Thomas: Well, now that you’re at Reading Public Library, can you tell me a little bit about the community that you serve? 

Bronwen Gamble: So Reading was established way back in the 1700s. It became a manufacturing town, now a Rust Belt manufacturing town. So in 2010 Reading was named the poorest city in America, behind or ahead, I guess, depending on how you look at that, Flint, Michigan, Detroit. And we are clawing our way out of it, but we’re still in the bottom 20. So, very poor economically, very low education attainment. We have in our school district, kids come from 34 countries and speak 30 different languages, so it’s a huge immigrant population. So lots of room for service, lots of scope for activities and making a difference. 

Steve Thomas: I think we’ll focus a little more on post COVID here in a little bit, but can you talk about some of the services that you guys offered to the community pre COVID then we’ll talk post COVID?

Bronwen Gamble: Sure. Well, pre COVID there were ESL English as a second language classes at all four of our branches. We have computer classes that assume that you do not know that a mouse is not a rodent. You know, here is a mouse and here’s how you move it, here’s how you use it. We really start with assuming you know nothing.

Just having free internet and free computers is huge. We have something called an e-card. So if you don’t have any kind of documentation, as long as you live, work or attend school in Reading, you can get an e-card, which is good for all of our digital media and computer use. And this was prior to COVID. Thank goodness it was in place. We have two mobile tech vans, so not a bookmobile, but little tracker vans that we take laptops and wifi hotspots. They go to senior high rises, they do STEM and programming in the parks. We go to homeless shelters, just wherever somebody asks for our services. We really try not to expect people to walk in our doors.

Steve Thomas: That’s great. Yeah, that’s really a part of the modern library is not staying within your walls. It’s getting out there in the communities. In 2018, you guys won the IMLS National Medal for Museum and Library Service. How did that make you feel when you heard that you were one of the winners of that?

Bronwen Gamble: Oh my gosh, the caller started out by saying, we had a lot of really great entries. And when you hear that, you think, all right, “they’re letting me down gently,” and then she said, “but yours was unanimous.” And it was like this moment of disbelief. There may or may not have been champagne corks popping in here, but yeah, it was great, very validating of what we’re doing. 

Steve Thomas: That’s great. And congratulations three years later, but… Okay. So we have all that, and then it’s March, 2020 and COVID comes. I assume like most libraries across the country, you guys have shut down for a certain period of time.

Bronwen Gamble: Yeah. Yes, we shut down totally from March 13th, and we did not reopen to the public until July 6th. We did have the curbside service in June, but all of the staff except for 10 were furloughed and those 10 kept all of our digital media going. All of our youth services pivoted to digital because we already had an app. We already had a YouTube channel and an IGTV channel. It wasn’t seamless, but it was pretty darn quick, just to keep that going. And then of course we have done Go Packs through the free lunch program in the parks and playgrounds. So over the course, we handed out something like 6,800 Go Packs from April through December, which had had everything you need for a STEM or an art activity. Plus the QR code to get into the channel, plus a free book. Every Go Pack had a free book because we know Reading as a book desert, and if they couldn’t get here, all of our funding for programs went toward that. 

Steve Thomas: How did you and the remaining staff keep connected with each other and support each other? 

Bronwen Gamble: A lot of Zoom calls. We had little staff meetings and, just kept in touch. You did what you had to do, right, Matt? 

Matt Finch: Yeah. Entirely. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re eight miles away or on the other side of the planet, we’re all still in these little digital boxes.

Steve Thomas: So when throughout COVID does Matt enter the picture? 

Bronwen Gamble: So Matt was a consultant with the Office of Commonwealth Libraries for Pennsylvania, and he did a three-part scenario and foresight planning training which I thoroughly enjoyed. You know how many of those Zoom meetings like you really fight to keep your eyelids open and, you just think, “oh my gosh, when is this ever gonna end?” But not with Matt. It was really fun. And we were due for a new strategic plan. In fact, we were actually late, which, you know, things have a way of working out correctly because if we had done a strategic plan in 2019, when we were supposed to, it would have been shot to pieces. So I went to our board and I said, look, this is really unusual. I really enjoyed working with Matt and his scenario planning. Can we give this a look? Will you let me reach out to him and find out how it would work and what he would charge and all of that. And they said, yes. And I reached out to Matt and he made it work. So that’s how we got connected. 

Matt Finch: And from my side, it was great because I could see that Bronwyn and her team had this track record of doing amazing things in a city that had faced some challenges and were sort of bouncing back from having had this label applied to it in 2010, 2011. But when you’ve worked with libraries for awhile, you look at the public stuff, that’s out there, you get a sense of what’s going on behind the scenes. You can see these are people who are creative and dynamic and willing to do things that are different and a bit challenging. And so there was a kind of moment with a meeting of minds.

And the thing that was really significant is like, my job is really to help people plan for the future. But the best way to do that is to teach people to fish. This isn’t the work where you go away, look at the future and come back and give them a plan or a recommendation like a lot of consultancy is. One of the things was really that Bronwyn and her team were willing to take on that part of, we’re the people whose mental model needs to be challenged and stretched by this process so we’re actually going to be really active partners co-creating these scenarios and working on the strategy. So it was more me sort of coming in along the way with bits of technique and methodology, but this was very much home grown or home cooked futures instead of somebody taking a future off the supermarket shelf. 

Steve Thomas: It’s more like you’re a facilitator for the process. You’re not just telling them what to do. You’re just giving a framework.

Matt Finch: Yeah, precisely. And so it was really important in the early stages that we had some conversations back and forth, and I could see that Bronwyn’s actually the successor to a tradition, quite a long tradition in Reading over its 250 year history, of dealing with turbulent times.

There are times in the 18th and 19th century, when really there were issues of funding and, you know, will we be part of the city and who’s going to bankroll our building. You know, like they’ve gone through seasons of having to find creative solutions. And I think even in 2003, there was an issue around funding where the director at the time removed books from the shelves and put black drapes over the shelves in the new book section, this is what’s going to happen if we don’t sort this out, talk to the legislators.

So there’s always been a degree of creativity.

Steve Thomas: How do you start thinking through it when it’s something as unprecedented as the time we’re in now? How do you get started?

Matt Finch: The same way as with almost any challenging circumstance, you only do scenarios work when there is turbulence or uncertainty. So you’re already thinking, okay, I don’t know what the future holds. I can’t gather any data from events that haven’t happened yet. And I don’t feel confident that it’s just going to be a repetition of what’s gone before.

And of course COVID just really underlined how much we’re living in unpredictable uncertainty. So Bronwyn and I gathered a group of staff from across different levels of the organization to actually map what was going on at the moment. The different actors, every different entity, the Reading Public Library interacts with across the city and Berks county, which it also serves.

And then we said, what difference is that relationship making in each direction. So I spent a morning with the team just working on that process and we had a shared electronic whiteboard, but then they actually went out and did further research and developed that board as well. And I’m sure Bronwyn can say more about what that was like on day one.

Bronwen Gamble: It took a while I think, for the staff to get it because it was so different. We started with literally a photo of our main branch in the middle, and then people just started all right, there’s the boys and girls clubs and there’s the YMCA and there’s, oh, there’s this funder. And there’s the state government and the city government and pretty soon, we had quite a circle of entities and it took us several weeks, but by the time we were done, it looked like a really complicated spider’s web, and we realized even when we thought we were done, one of our board members pointed out a whole industry, the healthcare industry that we had forgotten about, you know, so it’s never done. It’s always evolving. 

Matt Finch: And I guess it’s in the nature of any map that, like you make a map that’s good enough to steer by. So we had upwards of 80 entities on this map and as Bronwyn says it wasn’t exhaustive. It was just good enough to start making decisions or thinking about the future. 

Bronwen Gamble: Yeah. And the phrase that kept popping up is I can’t believe we work with this many different organizations and people. How are we even keeping our head above water? 

Matt Finch: And one of the things that happened in the workshop was you had to, then if you’re thinking about what difference does that relationship make to the library? What difference does that make to the other organization or to that kind of user? You have to put yourself in their shoes because if we’re working in libraries, we understand that we’re being of service, but the library is our universe.

We’re kind of at the center of the map, but of course, to a ten-year-old who visits on a Saturday or to the senior services or to the local newspaper, the library might be out on some sort of far-flung orbit of their diagram. So it was also an exercise in thinking outside of where we are and the idea that the way the center of the universe. It was giving us a sense of our place in the ecosystem.

Steve Thomas: So once you have this map, what do you do with the map? You start charting courses? 

Bronwen Gamble: You mean after we panicked? Matt had us start thinking about the future. So Matt, I’m gonna have you tell them how we arrived at 2040. 

Matt Finch: I was so proud of this group because of where they went to with the year. We had this map with all the relationships, all the actors on it, and then around the edge, we kind of treated the map like it was an island and around it, we did the sea of all the uncertainties that shaped decisions on that island. Like what we’re driving the decisions of the state of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. What are driving the decisions of the local media? What is driving the decisions about Alvernia University, which provides higher education?

To try and think how those forces in the sea, around the library’s ecosystem, they could wash ashore in the future and change things. And so when we do scenarios, the whole point is we imagine a number of possible or plausible futures that are different from the future we’re currently assuming. Like every plan, every strategy has an assumption that it’s going to inhabit a future even if it goes unspoken, we’re making a plan because we think tomorrow is going to be like this. So, what we do is help people to create different tomorrows that challenge those assumptions. It might prove the assumptions are true, but it might be that we need to rethink them. And so we look to those uncertainties and how they might play and redraw the map of the island.

And then the thing is you want to go far enough out into the future, you see something really different. You see how things could really not be the way you’re currently assuming. And that meant we weren’t just thinking about immediate COVID response, even though these were definitely post-COVID scenarios.

How far out do we have to go to see things really different in Berks County? And as I said, this group I was working with, sometimes you really have to push people to go what, two years? Five years. And you’re like, no, no think really big. And we went out 20 years into the future because when we dug down to the underlying forces that were really shaping the future of Berks County, we were looking at cooperation versus fragmentation in society.

And as you’ll know, Pennsylvania was an enormously contested state in the presidential election. There is a lot of political uncertainty there. And then the bigger question of does civic life return to physical space post-COVID or do we continue to do most things digitally? And the question is not, what does that look like in summer 2022? The question is how does that redraw the future in a lasting way? What is going to stick at that level of an entire county? And I wonder, Bronwen, if you’d say a bit more about what that conversation was like, we had quite a lively discussion about what mattered.

Bronwen Gamble: We kind of ended, we had four different scenarios that we condensed into three. So we had Paris on the Schuylkill. The Schuylkill River is Reading’s river. And so everybody loved Paris on the Schuylkill. You know, we become this vibrant art town. It’s a destination, restaurants, gallery, our old architecture is restored and people really want to live here and visit here. So where would the library fit into a scenario like that? It was great. It’s life is in-person, you know, digital is around, but it’s a supporting role, not the major factor.

But then there was Life in the Cloud, which is also very cooperative, very pleasant, but much of it is digital. So you’re attending city council meetings digitally. There’s a lot of participation in government and the arts and culture and education, but it’s mostly online. Everything would be connected to your place of employment: Team Google, or Team Amazon. And there’s a universal income, again, a pleasant scenario. And then the third and the fourth, we ended up just calling the Wild West. It was mostly digital, very fractured, very mistrustful, people live in silos and they don’t go out of them. Very polarized and you only trust certain institutions and you get your news, your views, your food, everything, from only trusted individuals. So those are pretty much our three scenarios, right, Matt? 

Matt Finch: Yeah. And one other thing is it might sound when you first hear them as if it’s very clear which ones are utopian or which one’s dystopian, but in fact, each one of them had complexities and contradictions and its implications for the library.

So like in Paris on the Schuylkill where we go back to physical life and society cooperates again, in that world, the library might be almost more affiliated with higher education. It might be more like an arts venue. If everyone’s on universal basic income and Reading evolves into a college town, then it’s much more about supporting people to make their own things. It might be more the library’s a performance space. Whereas in the Life in the Clouds one, one of the staff members said the library becomes like a public informatics commission. Like it’s actually about the infrastructural aspect of digital access, as well as other kinds of digital inequality and maybe the kids who grow up doing Zoom schooling on COVID now, by 2040, they’re super comfortable with living through telepresence and actually it’s seniors, it’s people of our age still going in 20 years time. And we’re the ones who miss having real life hugs. So there was always an ambivalence to each one wasn’t there? 

Bronwen Gamble: There was, and the Wild West was very much a safety. People felt safe doing that. You’re right. Each one had positive and negatives. 

Steve Thomas: Well, number one, I didn’t hear flying cars than any of those until I’m a little upset with that. Back to the Future already lied to me about that one of 2015 having flying cars. But, the second thing, what you were talking about, coming at it from a completely different direction reminded me of a PLA session with Stephanie Chase and Hillary Ostland from the Hillsboro Library in Oregon, and one of the exercises they went through was look at your organizational chart right now. Now create an organizational chart that is nothing like that, like, create it from scratch. You can’t use anything that you’ve currently got, and then the next stage is, okay, now you have to do another one that doesn’t look like either one of those other two. And so it really just makes you really have to think through these things.

And so, like you said, you’ve got these different scenarios of thinking, what if good things happen and what if bad things happen? You’re just kind of thinking through the good timelines and the darkest timeline. 

Matt Finch: Absolutely. And it’s so much about dismantling assumptions and making a space where people felt safe to talk about 20 years into the future and felt safe to talk about things that were challenging or uncomfortable. The future is light or dark depending on where you stand in it. I’m sure there’s some people who would much rather be in a stockade in the Wild West, only with people who think like them 20 years in the future, and there are some people that would hate to live the Life in the Clouds where everything’s digital.

I thought one of the most unnerving things was we didn’t have flying cars, but in the Wild West, someone used this three-word phrase: second amendment playground. And we said, what if in 2040 people are allowed to have their own armed drone and the problems we already have in public libraries sometimes in terms of managing that relationship to people’s rights to bear arms. How does that play out over 20 years?

And the aim was not to foretell or to predict, but it was just to stretch ourselves. Like how far could this go? Very much like the idea of dismantling the org chart to think differently. I wondered with Bronwyn. I didn’t ask her this when we were actually doing the work, but maybe I should have, what was the most uncomfortable thing for you to entertain?

Bronwen Gamble: I think that the polarization that we have now doesn’t go away. And I actually think that’s probably true to just imagine the future where this just goes on and on and on. And things that matter to many of us of substance never get resolved.

Steve Thomas: Was there anything that was like, too crazy? Like we can’t include that or was it like everything on the table? 

Bronwen Gamble: Everything was on the table. 

Matt Finch: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s the thing, because we’re not in the forecasting business, it actually gives people license to say the unsayable. There was this great economist, Thomas Schelling, who in the 60’s said, it’s almost impossible to get someone to think of something that hasn’t occurred to them.

So, like, getting a bunch of people in the room and saying what could happen? Like explicitly the aim is to challenge our assumptions. We’re not just playing make-believe. So it’s always against, is this usefully challenging our assumption about where things are going? So whether that’s doubling down on polarization or showing a couple of potentially brighter futures, but the aim was that we all stretched each other to see something that was different, and for me particularly, I couldn’t even pronounce Schuylkill when I saw it. So I knew the scenarios had arisen from the group because I saw this word appear on a digital post-it and I was like, I’m going to need a Dutch dictionary before I open my mouth or unmute my Zoom. 

Steve Thomas: I think one of the important things about doing this kind of scenario planning is that what you were looking at now is laying down infrastructure so those things can happen. Like when the internet came all these libraries, they were not wired up for the internet. So you have these old buildings and you have to figure out, are you going to wire up these old buildings or are you going to tear them down and build a new one? You got to figure out what you’re going to do because you have to wire them up. You have to have internet. So now what’s happening in 2040 that we can not predict something that huge that’s going to change things. So, how do you encourage people to really break out of that? What are some ways that you encourage them to break through that?

Bronwen Gamble: Well, Matt is very good at asking leading questions that do not have a yes or no answer, but also it feeds on each other. Yes, we met with Matt on Zoom, but we also, as a team, met in person several times and that really jumped it. Zoom is great, but it does have its limitations. It’s too easy to feel disconnected even when you can see everybody. So meeting in person, one person would say something and you just have that group dynamic that really helped push it forward. 

Matt Finch: Yeah. Like when I was with the group, it was more like I was giving them a fishing lesson. Like here’s a new fishing rod or something, let’s have a go. And then they go on a fishing expedition without me and get to wander up into the wilds of Pennsylvania, find a stream and land the catch. And the other thing of course is that actually, because we did it with this map that we were thinking about external actors, the library could also be in dialogue with other organizations and other entities saying, we’re thinking about the future, are you? This isn’t just about what we choose to do. It’s about that whole system we’re a part of and what kind of future we want for the county.

Steve Thomas: I think you mentioned this a little bit, but what kind of people did you have on the team that was working with Matt? Was it all just library people, were the other people outside, and what kind of levels in the library did you have represented? 

Bronwen Gamble: We had 10 on our team. We had a board member, we had youth staff, we had our outreach team, we had our district consultant, we had our IT represented, we had our information staff represented, our branches represented. So we tried to get kind of a cross section. Each one of us was assigned to three outside partners to interview because we wanted to keep the group to 10, but everybody had outside influencers or people they felt were important that they had to go, as Matt said, envision the future with us. So it worked for us. It kept the group small enough to be safe and dynamic, but hopefully we got enough outside influence that it’s not too insular.

Steve Thomas: It’s not just the leadership people of the library, just making decisions like you brought in the people who were on the floor, actually talking with the people every day and doing all this work. So that’s always important to get buy-in. 

Bronwen Gamble: Well, not just buy-in, but they have a whole different perspective. They’re not in meetings all day or wrestling with the budget, so their perspective is vital. 

Matt Finch: Yeah. And particularly in public libraries, often, if you talk to security staff, that’s such an interesting relationship because how security staff treat members of the public who come into the library so significant for that relationship. But of course they see patrons and members of the community come in and from such a distinct perspective from those of us viewing the community from over a desk or through a series of reports, so I think it’s really good to remember the strategy is about the whole organization and the more perspectives you can get on it. This isn’t just a kind of like C suite activity for people sitting at the top table. And one of the reasons I was so pleased to work with Reading was because I could sense that was that, that generosity of being willing to bring people into the decision-making process.

Steve Thomas: At the end of the process, did you feel like this was a really valuable thing and does everybody else on the team, do you think, feel like, wow, we really did something here.

Bronwen Gamble: I think so, because we’re still talking about it. They went back to their branch or their department and talked with their coworkers and brought things back to the group to our meetings, got other inputs. In fact, I had a conversation in my office yesterday with some of the things that were mentioned as maybe legacy programs that maybe we should consider sunsetting and just people’s opinions. And I’m glad that they are willing to voice those opinions and say, “I can see why here’s my thought.” This will be a process. We’re still not done with the final document, but I know that written into it will be a way for it to be a living document, not one that just sits on the shelf. 

Matt Finch: Two of the more junior members of staff sort of facilitated that internal strategy workshop. But the thing is, 2040 is just a way of crow barring open people’s expectations about the future. Like we’re trying to make decisions now, but the trick is to look further ahead than just the next bend in the road. I think one of the things that happened was it surfaced whatever’s coming. Like, it’s good for us to think about how intentional we are in our partnerships, it’s good to think about how the staff makeup reflects the demographic of the city and how that’s going to evolve.

And so it was always about bringing it back to decisions in the present. And for me, there was a great moment where one of the staff members who completely legitimately was like, “look, I like it, but you know, actually my role is to do X and Y and it’s always to do X and Y”. They had a kind of a-ha moment at the point when we had these three stories, they were like, right, this showed me something that I can’t just see by looking around me in the middle of the pandemic in 2020 or in 2021. The whole point of standing on the vantage point of an imagined future, is it showed you something that you wouldn’t otherwise have seen. And when we took this to the board, some of the board members had alternative futures in mind that weren’t captured by these three scenarios, but the fact that they could suggest them meant they were open to this idea of like, I think Pennsylvania is going to be like this in 2040, you know, they were engaged, and that also enriched the business of making a decision for now.

Steve Thomas: It’s great that the conversation is continuing. Your job is not to come in and do something and then it’s over and here’s a package and that’s it. You’re starting something, you’re not just starting and ending something. 

Bronwen Gamble: Yeah. And that’s what has been so dynamic about working with Matt and this process is it’s dynamic. It’s been interesting. It’s been fun. It’s been stretching. And I think this thought process will continue because as he said, he’s taught us how to do it. He didn’t just hand us the fish. He handed us the rod and the reel and the tackle and said, go fish in the Schuylkill, and we are.

Matt Finch: It is always of course significant who is in a room, not just if there’s a Matt or a Bronwyn or a Steve. Of course it matters who comes to the room and their emotions and their perspectives, but it is about finding a process that lets us admit, we don’t know what the future holds it’s worth looking at more than one future, and we might need to go a little way out in order to challenge what we’re doing now and actually post COVID doesn’t just mean next year, it means what impact is this going to have for a generation? And I think one of the things we were trying to do is, scenarios are not strategies, strategy’s what you make after you’ve contemplated the scenarios and billing through the process.

So it was inviting the staff and an internal group, but then also people outside the organization to say, what do you think the future holds? And, there’s this joke, if you aren’t sitting at the table, you’re probably on the menu. All too often, public libraries are on someone else’s menu. And by proactively going out and say, look, we’re busy thinking about the future and not just the future we want, we’re thinking about futures that actually challenge our expectations. It was about demonstrating that dynamic quality as well, I think. 

Bronwen Gamble: I think too, it’s realizing that we are going to be living with uncertainty, that going back to normal is not going to happen. I mean, we’re not going back to normal. We will have a new normal. There’s going to be another variant that you didn’t see coming, unless you tried to look 20 years out and maybe sorta did plan for that. And just to know that living with uncertainty while it may be uncomfortable, may actually be really beneficial. I think that’s the big takeaway I learned and most of us learned. One of our pillars that we landed on is to create opportunities, not just to be reactive, but to be proactive. 

Steve Thomas: Matt, you work with a lot of different organizations, but what is it about libraries in particular that you like working with?

Matt Finch: I’ve had such a good experience working with libraries of all shapes and sizes, even going back to when I used to have to remove cockroaches from shelves in the children’s section in a rural Australian public library about 10 years ago. 

But I think it’s genuinely that it’s not a didactic space. It’s a space of exploration. Any member of the community can come through the doors of the physical building or can seek information even a specialist library in government. It’s really about exploration. Like I come to you, I get ahold of the information I make meaning for myself. I think we actually need that exploratory and empowering dynamic more than ever, and I’m so wary of excessively didactic or paternalistic interventions. And I think the library represents something different. I work with a lot of very senior people and very big institutions and working on a project at the moment for the future of the European Union, which is now in its third year.

But actually the point is you can be a small city public library or serving a county in a part of the world, and it is possible to think strategically, to contemplate quite a distant future and really make a difference there amidst the community you serve. So you contemplate 2040, but then you actually say, what am I doing tomorrow?

And I think libraries are very resourceful and very creative and very deft in terms of making those changes. Like when the leadership and the bureaucracy is in place to let that happen, it’s the most amazingly, not just responsive, but anticipatory community institution, and that always draws me in.

Steve Thomas: And then Bronwyn, you’ve been at Reading for more than 20 years, but you are going to be retiring at the end of the year. Obviously you have some months left here, but, what do you feel has been your greatest accomplishment over your time as executive director? 

Bronwen Gamble: I think putting in some of the infrastructure that we had to be able to pivot. We had no digital streaming media when I became director. So added that, got an app. I’m a big believer in pilot projects. I will try just about anything for six months to a year and test it out and see what happens. Right now, we’re doing a fine-free pilot project, and we’ve just had nine other county libraries join us. So that movement is growing. Just that sense that there’s no bad idea. My job is the big picture and the bottom line and whatever we can do to advance, we’ll do. 

Steve Thomas: And do you have any plans for retirement already? 

Bronwen Gamble: I do not. I’m deliberately not making any plans. I think maybe that’s what I have learned through COVID. I’ll be ready to either first take a good long rest. My children live all over the country and the world, so I hope I can travel after the beginning of the year. And I’m sure I will be supporting libraries and Reading Public Library in particular in some way, maybe grant writing.

Matt Finch: That all sounds like a very pleasant scenario to contemplate.

Steve Thomas: Well, Matt and Bronwyn, thank you so much for coming on the show. If anybody wanted to get in touch with you all to ask a followup question or anything like that, how could they get in touch with you? 

Matt Finch: If you go to a website,, all one word, that’s the easiest way to find me. I Googled “Reading Public Library PA” and that took me right to their site, but I’m sure Bronwyn can give you the proper details. 

Bronwen Gamble: That works and yes, it does look like the word “reading” just for all of you who maybe thought you were using the Reading Railroad in Monopoly it’s looks like “reeding” is pronounced “redding”, but there are several worldwide and even in the U S so make sure you do Pennsylvania, but basically our website is And you can find us or if you reach out to Steve, I’m sure he can get in touch with me via my email. 

Steve Thomas: Yup. Happy to pass along any comments. So again, thank you guys so much for coming. I think that was a very good conversation we had and I hope listeners enjoyed it and I hope you all have a great day. 

Matt Finch: Thanks for having us. 

Bronwen Gamble: Thank you, Steve.