MONROE – When you walk into the Monroe Township Library to borrow a book, participate in one of the many children's or adult programs, you can thank Irene Goldberg.
Goldberg is literally a groundbreaking librarian who helped to create the township’s first library and its first free-standing building in the early 1990s.
After a 30-year tenure running the township library and as its first and only director, Goldberg will retire this month capping five decades as a librarian that started in 1969 at the Johnson Public Library in Hackensack.
“My plan originally was to retire last year. And then Leah [Wagner], she’s our assistant director, was elected president of the New Jersey Library Association this year,” Goldberg said. “So I said, ‘I’ll tell you what, I can’t leave you running around running the state association and the library with nobody.’ So, I’ll stay another year. So, that’s why I stayed.”
‘I almost fell off my chair’
Goldberg came to Monroe after a brief stint as a manager with the Ocean County Library System. At the time Ocean County was forming three regions with multiple libraries. Her region included New Egypt, Jackson and Manchester.
She was on the job for about six months when she received a phone call from a friend.
“I drove by this [Monroe] municipal complex every day on my way to work and I was like, uh, I shouldn’t be driving an hour, plus my kids were in high school, I shouldn’t be doing this,” Goldberg said, who lives in East Brunswick. “If only Monroe would get around [to having a library]. I’m serious. And then one day a friend of mine calls me and she goes, ‘I’m interviewing for the Monroe job. They didn’t advertise it, but somebody asked me if I’d apply.’”
“I almost fell off my chair,” Goldberg said. “I always wanted to work there.”
Goldberg gave her friend advice and information about Monroe. But overnight and the next day, she was having second thoughts.
“I called her and her and I go, ‘I’m going to see what I can do about applying,’” she said.
Persistence pays off
Goldberg wanted to apply for the director’s position, but Monroe was satisfied with the four candidates it received and did not want to consider a fifth, she recalled.
“They didn't want to interview me because he said they would only interview four people and I would have been number five and I talked to the guy who was the, he was a library director in another town, and I said, ‘Jim, I really want to work there. Will you please fit me in?’ And he goes, ‘no, no, but if none of these people interviews, well, I'll call you back.’”
Just as she was about to hang up, she hears, "wait, wait and says can you come at three o’clock?’”
Initially, she said, the group holding the interview was “furious” learning that another candidate needed vetting.
“The recruiting team, you know, it was all political people because there wasn’t a library and they were furious to have to stay another hour,” she said. “And then they tried to catch up with me when I left the interview to tell me I have the job. I knew what I was doing, and my passion's from that. So, they got me that night and I quit Ocean County, gave them a month’s notice. That was in 1988.”
‘We didn’t even have copy machines’
In her 50-year career, Goldberg has witnessed the evolution of libraries from the times when noise louder than a pin drop was deemed unacceptable to now encouraging interaction, play, community, technology and of course books.
“We didn’t even have copy machines. We didn’t have computer checkout. We were doing the checkout with the stamp when I started,” she said. “It's changed to the better for the better. It’s wonderful. This place is like a hive. A lot of people come [to just] read the newspapers in front of the fireplace in the winter. It’s like a living room and I love that change.”
Over the years, libraries have become a center of a community, especially in municipalities that don’t have a community center. But, even in towns like Monroe, which have both, libraries have increasingly found ways to reach the residents they serve but also continuing the long-standing tradition of providing reading materials for young and old.
“It’s a different world and it’s exciting and enlightening. And I think it’s where communities are going because you need that focus when we’re all over here doing something else. You need someplace where you can come together,” she said.
Education is important to her family
Goldberg grew up in Teaneck. Her mother earned her college degree, but her father did not finish college — he was drafted into World War II and served a stint in Italy, but was not on the frontlines.
Education and higher learning were installed into Goldberg and her three younger brothers.
“My mom had a college degree, which in those days was a little unusual in the 1930s and 40s. But they were very into education,” she said. “They were very intelligent, inspiring people themselves, but neither one of them used libraries. My mother took me to the library to get my library card and she did the same thing for my three brothers. And then we had to just get there ourselves.”
She graduated from the College of New Rochelle in 1968 and then attended the Palmer School of Library and Information Sciences, at the Long Island University in New York. While in the work-study program at New Rochelle, “somebody recognized something in me and she suggested library school. Never thought of it. Never crossed my mind until she suggested it.”
After earning her undergraduate degree, she made the trek to Long Island from Teaneck to become a librarian.
“Our classrooms were in [former] horse stables. It was old. This was a very rural college at the time, and you could smell a little bit, a residual smell, it was pretty funny,” she said.
After graduating in 1969, she landed her first librarian job in Hackensack.
As a mother of three daughters raised in East Brunswick, Goldberg instilled those same values into her children. One of her daughters is a librarian and her twin is an educator at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. The oldest daughter is an interior designer, but currently working in marketing.
The library will honor Goldberg with a reception on May 17 from 6-8:30 p.m. The event is open to all. Her last working day is May 23. She then departs for a conference. Her first day in retirement begins June 1.
“I only became a librarian because I wanted to inspire kids to read somehow. I've distanced myself a ways from there, but that's what it's all about,” she said. “But it’s time, it’s time. It’s actually time to sit on my porch and watch my flowers grow.”