Arlene Nevens’s passion for libraries stems not only from her love of literature and learning, but also from her love of people. As the director of the Sea Cliff Village Library, she has spent the past 13 years providing residents with a sense of community and a place to stimulate their minds. It’s these opportunities to help people that Nevens, 75, said she would miss most following her retirement on Jan. 30.
After graduating from Far Rockaway High School in 1961, Nevens began studying education at Queens College. Although her own education was delayed when her children, Judah and Karen, were born, she earned her degree in 1972. A year later she completed a master’s in library science.
In 1973, Nevens and her family moved to Great Neck after she took a job in the community’s library. She spent a majority of her career in the Great Neck Library, first as a librarian. She said she loved talking with people and helping them discover books and other media that helped them.
Nevens eventually became the library’s director. While she was excited to take on her new role, she said it had some disadvantages. Because the facility is so large, she rarely interacted with the public, and when she did, she said, it was almost always to deal with patrons’ complaints.
She retired in 2006, but realized that the non-working life wasn’t right for her. When she learned that the smaller Sea Cliff library needed a new director, she jumped at the opportunity, and she said she quickly took to the facility’s more intimate setting.
“Because of the smallness, it brought me back to what I love,” Nevens said, “which is to interact with people directly . . . You get to know everybody as people, not just as patrons of the library.”
One of her favorite things about her work there, she said, was that she could see patrons progress through their lives based on the books they checked out. She recalled one who reserved books on pregnancy. Then she began taking out books about having twins, and finally chose one out on helping babies get to sleep. “In addition to talking with people about their lives and their reading,” Nevens said, “you see some of their life events, and you really become friends with the community.”
Ann DiPietro, who works in the children’s library, said that Nevens’s years in a library as large as Great Neck’s gave her more advanced and extensive experience than anyone DiPietro has worked with. “She brought a level of sophistication and technological expertise that was very important during this time,” DiPietro said. “Libraries are changing so much, and it was so good to have Arlene at the library at this point in time.”
Nevens’s expertise came in handy in Sea Cliff, whose library was a quiet place without much public engagement before she arrived. Collections were outdated, and there was a limited amount of programming, she said, something she sought to change.
Updating the library’s collection of books and DVDs was one of her greatest accomplishments, Nevens said. She added that she was proud of her work to expand the facility’s programming, develop a calendar for those programs, reinvigorate the Friends of the Library group, refurbish the adult library and restore the children’s library.
Camille Purcell has worked beside Nevens through most of her tenure in Sea Cliff. She has taken over as the library’s director, a role for which Nevens has been grooming her for years. Although she is ready to take on the challenge, Purcell said she greatly admired Nevens and would miss her presence in the library.
“She’s very kind, infinitely patient, very smart, always willing to share and very funny,” Purcell said. She also noted that Nevens has extensive knowledge of library and educational policy, and is an expert at explaining why things in the library have to be done a certain way, according to state and federal regulations. She is also great at working with the public, Purcell said, able to assist anyone in need and defuse any problems.
Nevens has made the Sea Cliff community aware of what a public library can do, Purcell said. Patrons now know that it is more than just a place to pick up a book or a movie; it’s a place where people can attend programs and foster a sense of community. Purcell said she would do her best to follow in Nevens’s footsteps.
Nevens is reluctant to take all the credit for the library’s improvements. “Everything that I’m attributing to me accomplishing, I’m attributing to us accomplishing as a team,” she said. “I’m looking forward to [Camille] accomplishing it even more.”
In retirement, Nevens said, she plans to sleep late, read more and travel with her husband, Michael. She said she would stay retired this time, but would visit the library from time to time, so it seems clear that the village hasn’t seen the last of her.