by Emma Seeley
The Free Library of Philadelphia recently opened a new office, the Center for Public Life (CPL), to coordinate cultural and civic programs for adults across the library system.
At the head of this new initiative is Andrew Nurkin. With a B.A. in English and History, an M.F.A in Poetry, a master’s degree in Divinity, and a varied job history including many different civic engagement positions, Andrew seems to be the perfect fit for a center whose mission is to "position the Free Library of Philadelphia as a leader in enriching the lives of citizens through civic dialogue, cultural engagement, community participation, and the free exchange of ideas." This mission is only a part of what Andrew would like to see the center accomplish and what he would like to get out of the process himself.
To start, he envisions the CPL being utilized as a "hub for culture in the City of Philadelphia and the region." He further explained that he would like for visitors to be able to walk into the library and "be inspired by art, literature, and culture," but also "be in dialogue with people of different perspectives."
Why is this dialogue important? According to Andrew, it all goes back to the free exchange of ideas, which he believes to be essential to any functioning democracy. As a public institution, the Free Library has a responsibility to "support and perpetuate democracy," and the best way to do this is to provide customers with the tools to "interpret and understand the ideas of others, and then communicate [their] own ideas." This task is accomplished by sparking curiosity in visitors, which might allow them to "be inspired to learn more, ask more questions, and then share their vision for our city, state, and country."
One way that Andrew hopes to tap into this curiosity is through programs that prioritize the creation of poetry and other works and ideas, likely inspired by his own poetic training.
"We will definitely have an emphasis on creating new work, whether that is exclusively poetry, or also other forms of artistic engagement, but certainly we want to be a place where people can come and be inspired by the work that others have done and create new work that reflects their unique perspectives." Current programming to these ends includes the Monday Poets Reading Series at Parkway Central Library, and the robust Author Events Series that welcomes authors of poetry, fiction, journalism, and memoir.
On top of an education in poetry, Andrew’s path to this particular career was also influenced by his education in divinity, which he called a "degree in listening."
"I use [this degree] in my daily life to listen deeply to the experiences and perspectives of other people and to make no assumptions about where they are coming from and what that means," he explained. "I hope that the Free Library is an institution where we listen to and respond to our customers and the city and the neighborhoods that we serve. I often say libraries are repositories of great stories, but also a place that people come to listen to each other."
While Andrew will certainly do well for the Free Library and its mission, it seems as if the Free Library will be just as rewarding for him.
"I think what is so exciting about this job is the work that we are taking on. I’m surrounded by smart, passionate people who share a vision of a library as a public resource for learning and civic engagement. I feel pretty lucky."
Stay tuned for more on the Center for Public Life’s new initiatives throughout the Free Library!