Newport Beach Library Services Director Cynthia Cowell, who helped oversee the more than $11 million expansion of the city’s central library during the construction of its new civic center, will retire Oct. 5, according to a news release.
Cowell said Tuesday that she plans to join her husband, who works in Nashville, Tenn.
“We just wanted to start planning for retirement, and then a job opportunity came up for him in Nashville, back in late winter,” she said. “We just said, ‘Let’s start looking for a house.’”
That she and her husband were able to find a home close to his family, coupled with the end of the library expansion project, made for “a good time to jump.”
The decision, she added, was “absolutely not” tied to a recent dust-up involving the way the department keeps track of the city’s art inventory. Several pieces totaling about $675 in value were unaccounted for, and the city has since made changes to its record-keeping process.
City Manager Dave Kiff called Cowell’s tenure “a success story — how she kept libraries relevant in 2013, when some libraries are not.”
He said in a statement that Cowell’s “expertise, vision and, of course, her Texas charm are a winning combination.”
Cowell, 62, took over the Newport Beach Public Library in June 2008, after working in libraries around her native Texas, then spending about a decade as the Moreno Valley Public Library director.
She said she has made keeping pace with the new ways people read and get information a top priority, adding e-books and tablets to the library’s collection.
“Certainly if you think about libraries, from papyrus and scrolls to books, things change for libraries, and they always have,” she said. “The way of the world is electronic now.”
That, she said, meant drawing more people to the library as a destination.
“It’s that thing: Build it, and they will come,” she said. “If you dream it, it can happen.”
Cowell recalled a meeting soon after she came to Newport, when the expansion plan was just a twinkle in her eye — or a drawing on a cocktail napkin, as the case happened to be.
“I had said I want to add on to the Central Library, and everybody laughed at me,” she said.
But Cowell saw a literal opening with plans for the Civic Center, which involved a bridge connecting the unbuilt city office building to the library.
“‘You’re going to cut a hole in this building, you might as well add on to the library,’” she recalled telling Councilman Ed Selich during a meeting.
He had been having trouble grasping the idea, so he told her to draw it and pushed a napkin across the table.
“I’ve wished a million times I’d kept that dang napkin,” she said.
In any case, she said, the 17,000-square-foot expansion is “an amazing space, just like I envisioned.”
Jill Johnson-Tucker, chairwoman of the Library Board of Trustees, said in a statement that Cowell “became library director at a particularly important time for the Newport Beach Public Library system,” adding that Cowell was a “key player in instigating and planning for the expansion of the Central Library.”
Cowell said that while growing up in a small town south of San Antonio, Texas, reading was her way of expanding her environment.
And when she moves to Tennessee, she plans to continue expanding those experiences by working on genealogy research she’s put off until now, teaching others how to needlepoint — even staying up all night reading “if I want to,” she said with a laugh.
Her favorite book, she said, is one that encourages hope — though many school kids might remember it as a tear-jerker: “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes.
“In the end, [main character] Charlie got to experience a part of life he never would have,” she said.
Cowell said she doesn’t plan to apply for another job, though she might volunteer for local libraries in her new home.
According to the most recent city data available on its website, Cowell’s salary was $158,665, plus about $51,000 in benefits.
The city will begin an open recruitment process to fill Cowell’s position, Kiff said. As city manager, he will select a new director, subject to the library board’s approval.
He estimated that an appointment may be made in “mid- to late fall.” In the meantime, a staff member will serve as interim director.
That person, he said, could then apply for the permanent position.