After 30 years, ‘library ambassador’ Irene Young steps down from post
|Former Riverside Public Library director Julia Faust (left) greets Irene Young. Friends, colleagues, and patrons celebrated Young's 30 years of service to the library at a retirement reception in her honor on Nov. 9. (Staff photo by Bill Ackerman)|
When she reflects on her 30 years working the front desk at the Riverside Public Library, Irene Young thinks back to the time when a man donated books without knowing his wife cut a hole in one of the volumes to store a canary diamond ring. So posters were made and taped throughout the library, asking the person who borrowed the treasure-loaded book to bring it back.
There was the time — two times, actually — where people died in the library.
And there was the time she punched her boss.
Looking back on three decades, Young’s seen the world evolve from her post at the front desk. She started when the facility used date stamps and card catalogs, systems that evolved to electronic data and e-readers. The building itself evolved — nearly doubling in size during an expansion in the mid-80s. She’s hired and trained staffers who moved into management jobs, and she’s seen boys and girls grow up and bring in children of their own to check out books.
She saw the man whose wife stored her diamond ring in a donated book get it back, and she continued working after playfully bopping her boss on the shoulder during a discussion — a moment some of her coworkers still talk about.
All the while, something else happened. Irene Young found a second home.
“I so enjoyed working with the people through the years,” she said. “I really just feel like this is part of my extended family.”
Now, after years behind the front desk serving as the first and last face visitors saw as they came and went, 70-year-old Young has retired to focus on her health. She planned to step down quietly, but her coworkers weren’t going to let that happen. Instead, staff, board members and guests crowded into the library Friday night to say “good-bye” and celebrate with some of Young’s favorite things — beer, pretzels, mustard — while wearing jewelry ensembles that would make their retiring friend proud.
Young’s a self-proclaimed jewelry fanatic — a passion that led her to the library 30 years ago.
Back then, she was a married, stay-at-home mom of two. She always enjoyed books, but spent five years working as an X-ray technician at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chicago before settling down.
But in October 1982, a friend who worked at the library called and asked Young if she wanted to work with her for a couple weeks doing data entry. She suggested she could use the money to buy jewelry, “which was the magic word for me,” Young joked.
Young accepted the offer, and it wasn’t long before the job became a full-time position.
“By that time,” she said, “I was hooked."
In some ways, working at the library was a more natural fit than her premarital job at the hospital. She liked the ambiance better, as well as the fact that it allowed her to interact more with people.
In fact, working with visitors was one of her strengths, said Library Director Janice Fisher, who’s known Young for 18 years. She said Young is a good listener, could calm anyone down and knew nearly every kid’s name.
“I would say Irene was the ambassador of the library. She could talk to anyone ... . So many people know Irene. She knows their stories,” she said. “It wasn’t just a job for her ... this consumed her. She liked being part of it.”
And Young’s job involved more than checking out books. She had to learn data entry and master the library’s computer systems — Fisher estimates there have been at least five over the years — and she was responsible for hiring and training circulation staff.
One of those she hired, Sharon Shroyer, eventually became Young’s boss. For some people, the situation could have been awkward, Shroyer said, but with Young, that was “never, never, never a possibility.”
After Young hired her in 1989, the two bonded over a shared sense of humor and a love of books about serial killers. Young became someone Shroyer could talk to when she had problems, or needed help or support. Today, even Shroyer’s mother knows she refers to Young as her second mom.
“Everybody loves working with her,” Shroyer said. “I talk to her all the time on the phone, but it’s not the same ... . We really will miss seeing her every day.”
After so much time at the library greeting people, answering calls and multi-tasking the day away, Young said giving up her post is bittersweet — for her, it was a job that never really felt like work.
Following her party, she planned to leave for Europe with an old friend she travels abroad with nearly every year. They’ll see Switzerland, Amsterdam and Germany before arriving home just before Thanksgiving.
But Young doesn’t think it will be long before she visits the library again.
“We’re all pretty much friends,” she said. “I can’t imagine staying away from there all together.”
About Irene Young
RESIDENCE La Grange Park
COMING TO AMERICA Young is a native of Germany and came to the U.S. when she was 11, but her accent is still audible today. She said her father was executed during World War II and when her mother later remarried, she moved in with her grandparents, then came to Chicago to live with a distant relative. As a child, she remembers being in awe of the busy city. “I used to stand at (the intersection) of Lincoln and Belmont with my mouth open,” she said. She also quickly developed a love of vanilla ice cream.
TIME IN THE SUBURBS Young lived in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood until she got married, then moved to Riverside, where she gave birth to a son and a daughter. She and her husband are now empty nesters living in La Grange Park with their dog.
WORK EXPERIENCE Young worked as an X-ray technician in a Chicago hospital, but quit when she got married because she said her husband was “old fashioned” and didn’t want her to work. But by the time she was hired at the Riverside Public Library in 1982 after a volunteer gig at the St. Francis Xavier School library in La Grange, she joked he was “happy to get rid of me.”
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