WEST NEWBURY — For nearly half a century she’s been the heart and soul of the GAR Memorial Library. But next month Kay Gove closes the book on a storied career as library director that she embarked on back in 1967.
At 89 years, Gove says her retirement is overdue. A younger director will be more computer savvy, better able to keep up with the demands librarians face in today’s multi-media world.
“It’s time for fresh ideas, a fresh approach,” Gove says.
For so many residents, however, who view the brick building across from the Training Field as a touchstone for the community, the local library without Kay Gove is hard to fathom.
“Kay Gove is the GAR Memorial Library,” says Alexandra Guralnick, chairman of the Board of Library Trustees. “The library you see and use today was created by Kay during the past 47 years.”
Like everyone else, trustee Scott Berkenbush knew Gove’s retirement was looming, but now he finds himself dreading it more than he imagined. For the Berkenbushes — and for so many other families — it’s personal. “I went there as a kid — and Kay was there. My kids went there as kids — and Kay was there,” he said.
Sitting in her cozy office tucked into a corner of the library’s side entrance, Gove takes a moment to reflect on the early years and all the changes she has witnessed.
A native of Haverhill, Gove attended Simmons College. In 1961, she, her husband and their three children moved to West Newbury, renovating the home on Main Street she still lives in today.
Gove’s first foray into the world of library science came when she set up a library at the old Central School. Shortly afterward she was hired as the town librarian for a whopping annual salary of $1,500. Library operations were funded with $6,000; the building was open three days week, and book circulation was just 16,287. If it were’t for Bookmobile — a portable library that traveled from town to town — “we wouldn’t have had any books!” Gove quips.
In the early days everything was done by hand — cataloguing, processing, checking books in and out with cards that needed to be counted and recorded every night. Volunteers from the garden club would show up with scissors to cut the front lawn; and neighbors would drop off a batch of homemade chocolates or ice-cold lemonade for the library staff on a hot summer day.
“People don’t do that anymore,” Gove says.
A generous philanthropist in many areas of the community, Gove has been known to quietly spend her own money buying books for the library she loves so well. In fact, the first magazine placed in circulation was Gove’s own personal subscription to National Geographic.
Early on there was no children’s programming or Friends of the Library. The first book sale consisted of a few volumes lined up on the front stoop by a local Girl Scout troop. Now each May the library’s three-day book sale fills Old Town Hall across the street, a harbinger of spring in West Newbury.
Today’s library budget is closer to $292,000, the last circulation tally was 111,368 items and that lone National Geographic has grown to 191 magazine subscriptions. With a flick of a computer key, an interlibrary loan system allows one town’s library to instantly request materials from another one.
“She is always looking forward, working constantly to bring to the library all the innovations that have helped maintain its vitality,” said Guralnick.
Gove and what she describes as her “giving, efficient and knowledgeable” staff have been known to find books for patrons before they even request them, and hand deliver reading materials to the housebound in town. But Gove appears uncomfortable taking credit. “If you see a need, you try to fill it,” she says softly.
Berkenbush recalls countless Sundays he’s seen Gove’s car parked in the lot out front, with Gove and daughter Kate Gove — the popular children’s librarian — working inside.
“They aren’t getting paid for that,” he notes. “It’s so New England, that kind of dedication — a little slice of Americana.”
“I can’t help feeling a historical era has passed with Kay Gove’s retirement,” agrees West Newbury author Elizabeth Atkinson. “While the future of libraries is hard to predict, they will always be defined by professionals like Kay, who devoted their lives to free and public access to information, to the exchange of ideas, to lifelong learning and to the sacredness of stories.”
When asked what’s the next chapter for her, Gove responds, “I wish I knew. I’ve loved the job— maybe I can still come down and volunteer.”
A reception to honor Gove’s service is planned for June 16 in the Town Annex.