April 23, 2018

Paolo Melillo | Movers & Shakers 2003

Library Ambassador


Paolo Melillo’s native language is Italian, but growing up in Montreal, he also became fluent in English and French in school. Through friends and relatives, he picked up Spanish and Portuguese as well. After he took a degree in library science he found that jobs in the profession were scarce in Canada, so he moved south to work at the Queens Borough Public Library in New York City.

There could hardly be a better place for a librarian who grew up speaking five languages. The library serves people of 160 nationalities, one third of whom speak a language other than English at home, and librarians are called on to select material and do programming in many of those languages. A jewel of the system is the International Resource Center (IRC), a “citywide resource of information and materials about the peoples, cultures, and economies of the world.” It includes books, magazines, newspapers, videos, CDs, and databases, in more than 40 languages.

Melillo’s language skills make him an invaluable reference librarian for the IRC, though he still has had to develop a repertoire of hand, face, and body gestures to communicate with many patrons. In a typical day, he might help a young woman in a hijab
with a question about Islamic law, a student wanting to know about gay and lesbian literature in Europe, businessmen inquiring about conducting commerce abroad, and a wide range of people wanting to read newspapers from their native countries.

Because the IRC is a showcase library, politicians and ambassadors and ordinary people bring visitors from all over the world to see it. Melillo is often drafted to speak with them and show off the center’s collections and services.

But Alan Wagner, the IRC manager, says Melillo is also the can-do person he relies on to take an assignment and run with it. He knows Melillo will figure out a way to deliver the goods on time, no matter how challenging the task – like building and maintaining high-quality collections in Persian, Afrikaans, Vietnamese, and other languages that no one at the IRC speaks. Melillo’s solution has been to work with university professors, consulates, and community organizations to identify vendors and essential titles.

Melillo is well suited to his job. He is personable, genuinely interested in the people he is helping, and unflappable. When he’s dealing with a difficult situation, he says, he keeps his cool by thinking of the funny story he will tell about it when he writes his memoirs someday. It’s all part of life in a city that is full of separate, distinctive ingredients.




Current Position: Assistant Manager, International Resource Center, Queens Borough Public Library, Jamaica, NY

Degree: MLIS, McGill University, Montreal, 1994