PEABODY — If you enjoy any one of more than 100 workshops at the Peabody Institute Library each month, be sure to thank Martha Holden.
From the Banned Book Club for teens, to Open Mic Night, to Tai Chi for Healthy Aging, there’s no shortage of things to do at the 36,505-square-foot facility on Main Street and its two branches.
But Holden, 57, who has been named Peabody’s Person of the Year, refuses to take credit for making the library more than a place that lends books.
“I was fortunate to have a creative staff,” she said. “The library’s mission is to educate, but we took that in a very broad sense, not just formal sit-down drills and lectures, but more experiential.”
Unlike libraries of the past where quiet was expected, Holden who served as director for 17 years until she left last year, said they let the shhhhh concept fade.
“We have quiet spaces,” she said. “But I don’t think of a library as a quiet, reflective place. It’s a place of engagement where people meet, socialize, have coffee and participate in programs. It’s busy and active. To get a quiet place, you really have to tuck yourself into a corner.”
City Councilor-at-Large Thomas Gould, who nominated her for the award, said perhaps more important than her contribution of turning the library into a model for what a 21st century community center should be, she is a behind-the-scenes person helping to raise money for worthwhile causes.
“Martha has been a part of every nonprofit organization that succeeds in Peabody,” he said. “Her philanthropy and charitable giving is unmatched, and she’s not even from Peabody. But the Holden family, and Martha in particular, do good things for the city.”
For example, Gould said, she helped raise more than $600,000 to build the Black Box Theater. The hall has anchored the city’s downtown cultural district. The addition of performing arts to the center, he said, complements the existing visual arts activities.
“She is driven by her spirit of giving,” he said.
During her tenure as library director, the Simmons College graduate who holds a master’s degree in library and information science, is credited with managing a $10 million building and restoration project, leading a staff of 50, caring for and restoring the library’s art collection, and developing a network of partnerships with nonprofits to help deliver services such as a summer lunch program for needy kids.
Melissa Robinson, the library’s director who worked with Holden for more than a decade, said while transforming the library was a team effort, it was Holden’s leadership and vision that made it possible.
“She did have a great staff, but a great director makes everything possible,” she said. “She was instrumental in fundraising and had everything to do with increasing programs. The city pays for the building and the books, but programs are self-funded.”
Maybe most importantly, she said, there was never a time when staff pitched ideas and Holden dismissed them as crazy.
“We discussed launching the Creativity Lab with free access to tools for 3D printing, sound recording, laser cutting, and graphic design,” she said. “Her response? ‘Great, let’s do it.'”