As a fitting commemoration to the celebration of Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month in May, Jersey City resident Jennie Pu is one of 40 “Movers and Shakers” selected this year by the Library Journal.

Pu, whose grandparents and parents were born in China, has been serving as Hoboken Public Library director for the past two and a half years.

And it was during that time that the library board, with an endorsement by the local government, declared itself a “Book Sanctuary” – the first in New Jersey to do so.

Since then, 22 other libraries around the Garden State – including Jersey City – have followed Hoboken’s lead – and three other cities (Fair Lawn, Maplewood and Princeton) – making New Jersey the fastest growing book sanctuary state in the U.S.

“It’s a real affirmation of what most Americans value … that public libraries provide access to all viewpoints,” Pu said.

It didn’t take long for Hoboken’s declaration to be challenged, the director recalled.

After the library sponsored a “Banned Book Read-A-Thon” in Church Square Park, Pu said “we were inundated” with a social media smear campaign “accusing libraries of work we don’t do,” alleging that, “we were telling kids to read inappropriate materials.”

But so many folks – “primarily from conservative groups, mostly from out of state” – phoned in to excoriate library staffers, even threatening to harm an employee, “we had to cut off service for a couple of hours,” Pu said. “The Hoboken Police Department was very supportive.”

Unhappy callers, Pu said, objected to the library displaying children’s titles featuring LBGTQIA characters and/or persons of color.

One selection in particular – “And Tango Makes Three” – about two male penguins who raise a chick (based on a true story) – has drawn the ire of protestors, according to Pu.

And some states have passed legislation to censor, what its lawmakers say, have offended their constituents.

“A parent or caregiver gets the right to choose for their own children but not for all children,” Pu asserted. “No one has that right. This is why the book sanctuary movement has come to the fore, to provide access.”

Some states have stepped in to stop censorship of public reading materials, said Pu, noting that “Illinois was the first to pass the Freedom to Read Act and Maryland just became the second.”

As part of the inaugural class of “Ban Battlers,” a Long Island, N.Y.-based Library Journal group combatting book banning, “we’ve been working on (enlisting) New Jersey,” Pu said.

News of Hoboken’s efforts to ensure open access prompted a distress call from the Paris-Bourbon County Library in rural Kentucky where a single family was fighting to ban more than 100 books, Pu said. Ultimately, Pu said, the community rallied in support of the library and the locals passed a book sanctuary declaration.

“We also heard from libraries in Mississippi,” Pu said, “about objections raised to books by underrepresented voices like Toni Morrison.

Meanwhile, Pu and other Movers & Shakers – showcased on the cover of LJ’s May issue – credited by LJ with implementing “a range of innovative (and) proactive work,” all designed to keep the library a relevant influence in the community.

To that end, Pu has overseen the first phase of a $9.25 million dollar renovation/restoration of the Hoboken Library building, at 500 Park Ave., which dates from April 1897; creation of a new “Makerspace”; a re-formatted Storytime space for kids; and the hiring of an on-site social worker, among other innovations.

Phase 1 of the renovations included an upgrading of the library’s HVAC system building-wide and restoration of three sets of pocket-doors (“one pair we found buried in the walls,” Pu recalled), wainscotting wall panels and flooring, all on the building’s third story.

To finance the 2-year project, the library tapped a grant from the New Jersey Historic Trust, supplemented by its capital reserves, Pu said.

Some third-floor space was reshaped to accommodate a multi-purpose children’s room to allow for dedicated teen activities, a new storytime/play area and tutoring, along with an inaugural public MakerSpace with 3-D printing capability where local sculptors can work on their projects. A historical footnote: the area now dedicated for the MakerSpace was originally used as a “carving room” as part of a training class in cooking. The nascent library – whose land and property was bequeathed to the city by Martha Stevens (of Stevens Institute) with the understanding that it would maintain a dual mission as a book lender and trade school.

Upcoming work on Phases 2 and 3, which will target restoration of the first and second floors, is priced at at $2.25 million.

On other fronts, Pu and the Library Board recently marked the opening of their third library “Locker Room,” this one situated outside the Hoboken Historical Museum, 13th Street and Hudson Avenue. This facility – like its predecessors stationed outside the main library and the branch library at the city Multi-Service Center, 124 Grand St. – allows borrowers to pick up and/or return books 24/7.

“A lot of our patrons’ personal schedules don’t allow them to make a trip to the library during our normal business hours,” Pu said, “so this is another way to serve our community.”

Later this year, Pu said the library will be recognizing another part of the community it serves when it applies a Connecting Communities Visual Initiative grant from the Library of Congress to recognize contributions made by the city’s Puerto Rican population and memorialize those achievements through art.

At her Hoboken post, Pu has made a point to diversify her staff with Asian/Pacific Americans. “Two and a half years ago,” she said, “we had zero. Across the country, there are so few of us. Today, we have 10% Asian/Pacific representation.”

Raised in Seattle, Pu received her B.A. from the University of Washington and her M.L.S. from City University of New York/Queens College. She and her husband – who grew up in Jersey City’s McGinley Square – have two children.

Before she was hired in Hoboken, Pu put in more than six years as a library administrator for the Hudson County Community College and, prior to that, did varying stints at the libraries in West Orange, Jersey City public schools and Hudson Montessori, among others.

In Jersey City, Pu received the 2020 Women of Action Award for activism in support of funding public schools; the 2019 Nimbus award for Service Through the Arts for advocating and elevating the arts; and 2018-2019 Parent Leadership Award for her work at Cordero (No. 37) Elementary School PTA and growth in school community.

Ron Leir has been a journalist since 1972. That includes a 37-year stint as a reporter, copy reader and assistant editor with The Jersey Journal, followed by a decade as a reporter with The Observer in...