This is part one of a series highlighting North Shore librarians.
It’s hard to think about the library being anything else but a place to take out a book, but Arlene Nevens has seen these book-based fortresses through a different lens, having worked within their walls for over 40 years. She is currently the director of the Sea Cliff Village Library.
A Far Rockaway native, Nevens began her “journey to librarianship” in Great Neck, after receiving her Master of Library Science at Queens College. She worked at the Great Neck Library for 30 years.
“My first job was putting cards in the card catalogue when there still was a card catalogue,” Nevens said. She slowly moved up the ranks, going from a part to full-time librarian, heading the reference department, then becoming assistant director, and ultimately director.
But after retiring in 2007, Nevens quickly realized that retirement didn’t suit her. “I didn’t like being retired, and so I went looking for something else, and the opening for this job came up,” she said. Nevens was familiar with the village since she had friends who had lived in Sea Cliff. She thought the quaint and quiet armor of the library would be a good start for her new chapter in life. “It has turned out to be exactly that,” she said.
As the new director, she worked to revamp the library’s literary and digital inventories and develop programming. “For some time, the library had become a little moribund, a little sleepy beyond comatose,” Nevens said. “People tended to travel to Roslyn or Glen Cove for their library needs because they weren’t really finding what they needed here.”
She brought in the classics — Mark Twain, Jane Austen — along with the contemporaries, noting the importance of offering a depth of collections. Doing away with charging residents for DVDs, she expanded that collection as well. She established a print newsletter and put a sign up on Sea Cliff Avenue, so visitors could find the fortress. “When I came for my interview I couldn’t find the library,” she said with a chuckle.
Additionally, Nevens brought the idea of an off-site library to the village. “We started a program at Sea Cliff Beach where we send down book trucks populated with hundreds of paperbacks, and people can take them and read them.”
Nevens admitted that Ann Kopple, the village’s beach manager, had some apprehensions about putting books out on the beach, but now she says she couldn’t imagine summers without it. “It’s the greatest thing that ever happened,” Kopple said. “The kids sit there all day long, and it’s great for parents to be able to grab a book or two and sit with the kids.”
For Nevens, being director is more than a job, it’s an “ongoing education.”
“One of the nice things about being a librarian is the interaction with the public — people come in, they ask a question they need help with, and it could be something that I don’t know anything about, so now I have to have a conversation in order to find what they’re looking for,” she said. “Librarians could probably talk about any subject for three minutes — we know a little about a lot.”
She admitted that as director of the Great Neck Library, she lost that connection to the public, but found it in the cathedral-like space of the Sea Cliff Library. “When I came here, I found those interactions again, which personally was really a joy,” she said. “I’ve gotten to know so many people.”
Nevens said that being a librarian is like being a bartender. “People tell you everything,” she said, recalling one particular customer’s book reservations. “There’s a dad who comes in all the time, and he went from reserving books about pregnancy to now reserving books about getting your baby to go to sleep. You become part and parcel of people’s lives.”
The director believes that as technology and social media continue to take precedence over face-to-face interactions, the role of the library moves up in importance.
“Libraries have always had the role of community centers for their entire history — a place that people can come and meet,” Nevens said. “There’s a clique of people that comes every day, and they talk about politics, the news, local issues, themselves, whatever it is.”
In the same way that talking to someone face-to-face is a novelty in our digital age, more so is the feeling of a hardcover resting heavy in your lap. “There’s still something about holding a book, and the physical act of reading,” Nevens said. “Nobody’s snuggling up in bed with an iPad to read a picture book to their kids. There is still a value in books.”