Elizabeth Stokes was hired at Riverhead Free Library in December 1985, intending to stay for just a few years in a part-time position.
Instead, after 34 years as the library’s patron services coordinator, the Riverhead resident, who was the News-Review Public Servant of the Year for 2008, officially retired Dec. 27, 2019.
Within eight months of her hiring, Ms. Stokes was offered a full-time position supervising circulation staff, maintaining patron files and completing annual state and monthly statistical reports for the library’s Board of Trustees, among other things. She decided to take the job because, as she put it, “I got to see how this could change people’s lives.”
I consider her a pillar of Riverhead because she goes beyond the Riverhead library. She goes into the schools, she goes into the churches, she goes into the community to help people.Marilyn Banks Winter
“How somebody could just walk in the door and look for an answer and that answer, we could help them find,” she reflected. “I got to see the library evolve many times over as we went into electronics, no more card catalog, we went into internet … It’s still changing people’s lives.”
Over the years, Ms. Stokes has worked with nine directors, and seen not only the library’s digital evolution, but also innovations like the issuing of library cards to the homeless. She says she doesn’t worry about the future viability of libraries because people still come in for educational programs, the career center, downloadable books and magazines and new technological offerings like the library’s 3D printer. She acknowledged that libraries struggle with budgets, given the state tax increase cap, but said, “They’re still doing it, so I say, ‘More power to ya.’ ”
“I would say 50% of Riverhead still comes in for the paper material. The other 50% are doing the downloadables. When it was decided that we had to get rid of the card catalog and go into technology more and computers, 50% were for it and 50% were not. They didn’t stop coming into the library; they came in with an open mind. It sort of formed a bridge between the age groups and, again, it changed people’s lives.”
Ms. Stokes said she is grateful for the changes over the years because she appreciates change, adding that there are few other jobs that could give anyone the gifts she received.
“We have a thousand people a day, almost, come through the doors of our library,” she said. “It really is where the heart of Riverhead is.”
Ms. Stokes said she felt it was time for her to retire. Looking ahead, she awaits the library’s next 10 years, while hoping to travel and visit some of the 50 states. She may even join a volunteer organization, as she’s been inundated with requests, due in part to her 12-year record of volunteering with a women’s empowerment group at the county correctional facility in Riverside. She would bring books from the library into the facility to help the women find careers. That volunteer work was done through the Riverhead chapter of the nonprofit Council for Unity, through which she also helped children learn to lead nonviolent lives and stay out of gangs.
Library trustee Marylin Banks-Winter said Ms. Stokes has always been helpful in community outreach, helping people find resources — “especially for those kids who people feel are at-risk. She never saw, nor do I see, those children as at-risk. They just want someone to help them and maybe to hug them or just to talk to them and find out what their story is.”
In 2004, Ms. Stokes organized the library’s annual Food for Fines program, in which library fines are forgiven for those who donate perishable food items to local food pantries.
“Liz is a beacon here,” said Ms. Banks-Winter, “and also, I consider her a pillar of Riverhead because she goes beyond the Riverhead library. She goes into the schools, she goes into the churches, she goes into the community to help people.”
Ms. Stokes also supports local Kiwanis and Rotary chapters and received a proclamation from the Riverhead Town Board in June for her role on the town’s veterans advisory committee, which she helped found and co-chaired for five years.
Leaving, she said, didn’t quite hit home until the night of her retirement.
“That night, there were some tears and it was sort of like saying goodbye to an old friend,” she said. “It’s so much more than what people perceive it to be. Sometimes it’s a safe haven for a kid that doesn’t want to go home after school.”