It was her first week on the job, and already Jennie Pu was busy. As the new Hoboken Public Library Director, she was sworn in at City Hall, attended multiple events, and met a multitude of officials.
This marks a new era for Hoboken’s public library system as the first new director in 20 years. Pu, who is Chinese American, became the first Asian American woman to hold the position in the city’s history, starting her new job on August 9. “It’s been wonderful and very welcoming,” Pu said.
Her new role comes amid increasing diversity in Hudson County, including a population growth in the Asian American community. It also comes at a time when Asian American representation, identity, and visibility have become more important than ever before.
A Jersey City resident, Pu was born in Connecticut, before moving to Seattle, where she grew up. She also spent time in China.
Pu takes the place of former director Lina Podles, who retired in June after serving 20 years. She was recommended by a colleague, went through the application and interview process, and was unanimously approved by the library’s board of trustees.
Becoming a librarian is her second career; before, she worked in technology. When her father died, she had to take care of the family business, and from there she was met with choices: either continue gin network security, or do something where she could make a difference.
“We moved from Seattle to New York for some family reasons, and I started to think about a career that could marry my love for tech and my love for service,” she said. For her, librarianship was where the two roads met.
From there, she enrolled in library school, landing a job at the Metropolitan Museum of Art early on while earning her degree. Afterward, she worked for a multitude of libraries in New Jersey. Her position before Hoboken was as Dean of College Libraries at Hudson County Community College.
As the first Asian American in the role in Hoboken, Pu’s experience shaped her views. “I think having that kind of visibility in libraries as an Asian Pacific American is so important, because it shows that we are part of the conversation,” she said. “Not only that we’re leading the conversation, and that these voices that were traditionally not represented are going to be heard, and that we elevate all voices.”
Her experience working with the Asian American community stretches way back. In Seattle where she attended the University of Washington, she met Connie So, a professor at the university who currently teaches American Ethnic Studies. “She was my first Asian American woman teacher,” Pu said. “Going through school, most of my teachers were white. So was tall, extremely smart, sharp witted, and because of her, I majored in American Ethnic Studies.”
So brought her to the Wing Luke Museum, which documents the Asian Pacific American experience. After college, Pu interned and eventually worked at the museum under Ron Chew, a famous journalist and community leader, who was executive director of the museum at the time. At the Met, she worked for the Department of Asian Art.
Pu’s role comes at a time when violence against Asian Americans has been brought to light, primarily because of the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s been hard for our community,” Pu said. She encountered a hate crime in Jersey City, and grew up seeing it happen to her parents. “This is not new. Hate against Asian Americans has been around since as long as we’ve been in this country. It’s just become a lot more visible.”
The cases have become more visible, highlighting the racism and stereotyping that has affected the community for a long time.
“Jennie is always a very intelligent, inquisitive student,” said Connie So. “But she grew up in an area where she didn’t learn a lot about Chinese or Chinese Americans. She thought she had a lot of understanding. But I think the narratives that she was taught and that she embraced; when I asked her why she believes these things, how she knows these things to be true, that’s what the conversation really opened up.”
So’s advice to her students comes from the civil rights activist Audre Lorde: use your anger, don’t be furious, because that won’t let you do anything, but use your anger constructively to make positive changes.
So said that Pu believed in certain stereotypes back then. But using anger constructively was motivating Pu to get involved in Asian American organizations, helping her friends.
“I think that’s a key thing,” So said. “If you don’t think you’re doing enough to try to resolve these issues, then go ahead, it’s never too late to do something. I think that’s the stuff that Jennie knows in terms of what to do about it.”
Pu is aware of how overwhelmingly white the profession is, but she notes the push to diversify. “It is a heavier question because it’s something that I live with daily, and I look through those eyes,” said Pu. “I think because of that, I’ve always been very committed to ensuring that the people I work with reflect our community.”
At HCCC, she helped increase the number of staff who speak Arabic and looked to hire bilingual staffers. At the Hoboken Public Library, she’ll look into recruiting staff who reflect the community, as well as diversifying the library’s programs.
“People talk about ‘Oh, it’s so hard to find librarians of color’,” she continued. “Yes, and no, it has to be intentional. So I think my lens as an Asian Pacific American is that I’m very intentional about recruiting talent that’s diverse, going to forums that were not traditional like job forums, going to these ethnic affiliates and having these relationships.”
Pu will oversee the continuing renovations to the Hoboken library. Her goal is for the library to be ubiquitous and everywhere; being more like the center of the city, and creating satellite locations.
“I think it’s really important to bring our personal experiences, especially as the first Asian American Hoboken Public library director,” she said. “I think we have a lot to learn, and we have a long way to go. But with the right leadership and staff, the library is just going to get better and better and more vibrant.”