Librarian looks back — and to future

The director of library services for the Newport Beach Public Library may soon be retiring, but she still has a few items left on her to-do list.

Speaking to the Corona del Mar Residents Assn. board on Thursday, Cynthia Cowell reviewed the major changes that have occurred during her five-year tenure and addressed the goals she hopes still to accomplish.

"Where to start, gosh," Cowell began. "In five years, we've had quite a ride."

Her largest task was overseeing the library's recent expansion. The library grew by about 17,000 square feet in conjunction with the construction of the new Newport Beach Civic Center next door.

With the project now largely complete, Cowell said she plans to vacate her post on Oct. 4 to join her husband, a healthcare industry consultant, in Nashville, where his family lives and where he has been working.

"I had planned to stay," she said, "but my heart's in Nashville, and my boots are on the ground here in Newport Beach, and guess which pulls stronger?"

Tim Hetherton, the current library services manager, will fill in as Cowell's temporary successor while a national search for a permanent replacement gets underway.

During her remaining days, Cowell awaits the reinstallation of the framed display of the names of past library board members that used to hang in a library stairwell. The stairwell was removed during the expansion and the piece went into temporary storage.

Cowell also eagerly anticipates placing an order at the library's new snack shop, which will be operated by the catering company 24 Carrots. The opening has been delayed, but she hopes the shop will be up and running before she leaves.

If not, Cowell joked, she will go inside and make herself a sandwich.

The two pending items suggest a library that blends the old with the new. And in fact, come October, Cowell will leave a library system that supplies much more than just books.

Nooks, the e-readers sold by Barnes & Noble, can be checked out just as a physical book might. E-books and magazines can be downloaded to personal computers.

According to data provided by Cowell, the overall number of electronic items that have been checked out falls just shy of the number of physical books checked out from the Corona del Mar branch alone.

"It's a different world from when I came here," Cowell said.

Though emphasizing the importance of giving kids the traditional experience of reading a binded, hand-held book, she also explained how the new library space was developed to meet the ever-changing needs of users. The library now boasts a media lab, complete with sophisticated computers and software, as well as study rooms, a children's center and restrooms on the second floor.

"That library functions better than most large, successful businesses," said Jerry King, a director at large for the residents association and vice president of the library board of trustees.

Receiving additional praise from City Councilwoman Nancy Gardner, Cowell said she could not have imagined any better workplace.

"This is the place where I got to try things," said Cowell, who previously worked for libraries in Texas and spent about a decade as the Moreno Valley Public Library director.

Then, as her half-hour speech wrapped up, Cowell noticed the time, 8:15 a.m., and exclaimed that it was time to get back to work.

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