EAST ORANGE, NJ — With four locations to hold its collection of 343,918 volumes, the East Orange Public Library has seen numerous changes since it first opened its doors more than a century ago. On Friday, Dec. 30, it will see another change, as Lina Belkewitch, the longtime coordinator of public relations and community outreach at the library, says farewell and retires.
Although it might seem as though Belkewitch has been at the library since its founding, that’s not quite true; in fact, she began her professional career in a different capacity entirely.
Belkewitch first started working as a communications coordinator at Alexian Brothers Hospital in Elizabeth in 1981. Almost a decade later, she became the assistant director of public relations at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Elizabeth and, finally, the public relations coordinator at Trinitas Hospital, also in Elizabeth, just as the new millennium began.
After more than two decades at hospitals, however, her position suddenly vanished and she was forced to rethink both her role and direction.
“Back in 2001, when I was laid off in the hospital, there were a lot of mergers, so I started looking to change directions and the position opened up in Piscataway,” Belkewitch explained in a recent interview.
The position was that of public relations specialist at the Piscataway Public Library and, although she had to learn some new skills to better suit her new employer, public relations proved to be the same, no matter where she worked.
“Whether you’re marketing health care or libraries or a widget, you’re still marketing a product,” she said.
Working for a library proved a comfortable fit for other reasons as well.
“I found myself drawn to libraries because of way back, when I was a teacher of language arts and literature,” Belkewitch said, adding, “I’ve always had an affinity for literature and books.”
Unfortunately, her job in Piscataway came to an end in summer 2009, but when one door closes another opens and, for Belkewitch, the new door was in East Orange.
“I was laid off from Piscataway Public Library and there was an opening in East Orange a few months later and it was interesting, because it was part-time public relations and part-time ready reference,” Belkewitch said.
“I had trained for ready reference at Piscataway. Ready reference is learning reference skills for non-reference professionals. No librarians learn library skills to work the reference desk; I had trained with the New Jersey Library Association. That was a unique position for that skill set, which I had. It was sort of back to my roots, because I had worked in behavior marketing in health care.
“I’m a book lover, so it isn’t like I didn’t know what libraries have to offer.”
Before long, she fell in love with both the library and city, finding there was much to do, noth at work and in the community.
“East Orange is a very busy library, with programs and culture,” Belkewitch said.
“East Orange is a vibrant community here. It’s a very cultural community here. We do a lot of cultural programming. It’s a very culturally diverse community. Look at Cicely Tyson Cultural Arts Center.”
A big part of the library is working with other programs in East Orange and Belkewitch has found this is true about the arts community in the city.
“We work closely with the Arts Council here in East Orange. They’re revitalizing a lot of the arts programs,” she said.
But with the advent and widespread use of the internet, is the library as needed as it used to be? Belkewitch insists it’s much more complicated than that and, for that reason, the library is more necessary than ever.
“Google can find you many answers, but the librarian can find you the right answer,” she explained. “It takes a lot to sift through the search engines.”
Another key element is the library’s programs for children, particularly those in school.
“We have a great relationship with the schools,” said Belkewitch. “The schools will require the children to go to the library. The library has a data base. It’s all computerized now. They want the kids to learn how to use the library’s resources. The teachers do work with us and encourage the kids to come here. We have a grant to provide a homework teacher seven days a week.”
Now that she’s about to leave, Belkewitch admits she will miss the library a great deal, along with the people with whom she has worked, and those who have asked her for help, especially the children.
“I remember one time, we had a young man in middle school and it was Black History Month. His teacher gave him an obscure famous person and he couldn’t find any information on this person at all. We finally found two paragraphs on an opthamologist who invented a piece of equipment to examine eyes. We have quite an extensive African-American collection here. I’m not on the desk as much, because my job is split, and he was looking for me and he told me ‘You helped me and I got an A’ and he gave me a high five. He told me some people in his class couldn’t find anything on who they were assigned, and he did. There was this big smile and all his teeth were showing. Most of time, people don’t come back to thank me when I help them, so when he came back, it made me feel good.”
Still, she insists the time has come to call it a day.
“I’m going to really retire,” said Belkewitch. “I’m going to downsize my life and move from Union County to Monmouth County.”
In the meantime, she has been cramming in as many memories as possible.
“I’m going to be doing my last cookie house during the holidays,” Belkewitch said last week. “On Dec. 19, we’re having the teen holiday cookie house. It’s sort of like the gingerbread house, only we use graham crackers. We do this with children and teens, two separate programs. Graham crackers, icing; you build the cookie house on a paper plate and then they decorate it with all the candy and you should see the structures a some of them make. They get to take home their cookie house and eat it. Some don’t even make it out the door. I’ll remember that fondly. It’s going to be hard to leave.”
When Dec. 30 comes around though, she says she will be leaving, although she may return when patrons least expect it.
“I’m sure I’ll visit some time. You make friends. My favorite customers are saying, ‘Come back to us, come back to us’.”