Island Library Faces the Future

Written by Alex Marshall.

Nicole Nelson’s favorite read is a book with no pictures. That’s what you might expect, right, from the manager of Roosevelt Island’s library? Did you think maybe she’d be reveling in Marvel comics?

Ah, but this isn’t just a book without pictures. It’s B.J. Novak’s The Book With No Pictures. “I love it because when I read it aloud to the kids I get to act all the words,” says Ms. Nelson. Words like “GLuRRR GaWOCKO” and “BA-DOONGYFACE!!!!!”

(Go to or just google YouTube to see B.J. Novak in action.)

OK, maybe you have to be there. But the bottom line is, the kids love the book, and they love to hear Nicole Nelson reading it. According to Nelson,“They love to see the librarian acting silly,” Some of us remember when the only word you’d hear out of a librarian was “Shhhh!!” – with an icy glare over the top of the horn-rim glasses. Truly, librarians are not what they used to be.

For that matter, libraries aren’t what they used to be either. At the library on Main Street (the Roosevelt Island branch of the New York Public Library) there are programs for kids of all ages, including parents and grandparents. You can bring your baby (Monday mornings) or toddler (Wednesday morning), let them listen to stories, get their noses into books and hang out with their pals. Older children and adults can play board games, bring their knitting, learn how to Instagram; download ebooks and MP3s, borrow DVDs, even wrestle their new tablet into submission, with one-on-one help. You can do your homework, improve your English, learn arts and crafts, watch a twice-monthly movie, join a book discussion group. From January to April next year, you’ll be able to hear lectures on Island history, courtesy of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society.

You can even borrow one of those square, hefty things with pages full of print and no pictures. You remember – books! On the Island, as elsewhere, people love all sorts of books; but the most popular here, like everywhere else, are romances, Danielle Steel and her ilk. Among younger readers, Judy Blume still reigns, as immovable, apparently, as the Queen of England.

People come to her branch from all over, says Nicole Nelson, who commutes every day from the Bronx. “You don’t even have to be a Public Library member, you can come in, use the wifi, print your resumé, whatever.” If you’re having trouble putting together your resumé, she and her staff of five are there for you too. “Whether it takes five minutes or three hours, doesn’t matter. We’ll help you,” she says.

What makes Roosevelt Island unique, says Ms. Nelson, is the feeling of being part of a community, even a big extended family.“When you cry, we cry. When you laugh, we laugh,” is how she puts it. It’s not at all like her previous gigs, for instance at the Grand Central branch on E 46th St. Her love for her job, her delight in being here on the Island, and her enthusiasm for her clients, young and old, comes across in everything she says – and it doesn’t hurt that it comes with a big smile.

She’s been here for three years, but the library has been around a lot longer than that. Herman and Dorothy Reade started it in the Westview community room, with whatever books they could find and a bunch of bookshelves they liberated from the old nurses’ home where Southtown now stands. It moved to Main Street in 1980, still independent and staffed by volunteers. (Some people still have their lifetime membership cards, $25 – serious money back then). It finally became part of the NYPL system in 1998, and it hasn’t looked back.

Nicole Nelson is looking forward. In 2017 the library is slated to move across to more spacious quarters in 504 Main Street. What will happen there? More of the same, says Ms. Nelson, only bigger and better. More staff, a wider range of programs; and best of all, access to the full resources of the NYPL, unmatched in the USA and maybe in the world.

Meanwhile, there’s money to be made. As announced in our last issue and on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show, nominations are invited for the third annual NYC Neighborhood Library Awards. A $20,000 prize awaits the branches whose users make the best case for it.

How do you use the Roosevelt Island library? How have its books, its programs, or its people changed things for you? What stories do you have to tell about this little space and the great people you find there?

For more information about the awards go to:

For the nomination form go here: But don’t delay – nominations close on December 18.

Tags: Roosevelt Island Library Island Life Alex Marshall

Contact Info

The Main Street WIRE
531 Main Street #413
New York, NY 10044
Tel: 212-826-9056