When Nelia Decker was a little girl, she wanted to be either a brain surgeon or a librarian. Fortunately for several generations of Island kids, she was lousy at chemistry.
On Sept. 4, Decker, children’s librarian at the West Tisbury library, retired after 25 years of instilling the love of books into young readers. Taking over for her will be the new children’s librarian, Alexandra Pratt.
At a party in her honor, Decker fought back tears, saying, “This has been the most rewarding aspect of my adult life.”
When I asked Beth Kramer, West Tisbury library director, about what Nelia brought to the library, she referred to a brick she had installed on the library’s front walkway inscribed, “Nelia Decker, World’s Best Children’s Librarian.”
“I love her,” Kramer said.
Decker was originally hired by library director Mary Jo Joiner in 1993 as an assistant children’s librarian when the library was in a quaint and charming but woefully tiny building on Music Street. Moving over to the new location on State Road gave Decker a chance to spread her wings.
“At one point,” she said, “I was actually considering applying for the position of director.” Beth Kramer had just been hired as assistant director, and Decker and Kramer were both interested in applying for the position; they decided to ask Ebba Hierta, library director of the Chilmark library, what the job would entail. “Well, you’ll work more hours than you get paid for,” Hierta said, “you’ll have to make reports to the state and the town …” Decker turned to Kramer and said, “I’m out.”
Administration and bureaucracy were not Decker’s strong suits. And in 2014, when the library underwent a major expansion, she got to demonstrate what her real strengths were.
“The whole children’s wing in the new library was Nelia’s vision,” Kramer said. “It came from her sense of what children need and what would be the right thing for the community to provide; I think it’s the most beautiful part of the library.”
Decker explains that it was important that the children’s wing was on the sunny side of the building facing out onto a large deck. “It’s great for the kids to be able to go in and out; I also see a lot of parents out there snoozing in the sun.”
Inside there’s lots of room for books, areas for the younger and older kids, a craft area, “and the kids can play and feel safe and not want to run around the library,” Decker said.
Decker is also a firm believer in connecting kids with nature. She started a butterfly garden outside, and has a terrarium inside where kids can watch butterflies spin their cocoons and hatch.
The library also has backpacks available for kids with tools for catching bugs and caterpillars. “It’s fabulous to teach kids about nature,” Decker said.
One thing you won’t see are computers. “Parents actually requested that,” Decker said. “When kids come in they go to the brightest, shiniest thing, and that tends to be a computer with games — we say, C’mon, let’s read a book, or do a craft.”
Decker also borrowed the idea of umbrellas and tables situated outside on the lawn from a library she saw in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico — “It’s so civilized,” she said.
“Nelia created the children’s collection, which is one of the best collections anywhere … she curates all of that,” Kramer said. Decker laughs at the pomposity of the word “curate,” but that’s exactly what she does.
Decker purchases and maintains the collections; she’s a student of children’s books and young adult literature, and is on top of who’s coming out with what new books, and if it’s someone she doesn’t know, she checks it out.
“In a bookstore they buy lots of things, but in a library, the books are carefully chosen … not just chosen to sell, but chosen for children and for families to use,” Decker says. “You have to be thoughtful in what you buy; we don’t have much space, the books are going to be here for a while, and we want families to have good experiences.
“I don’t read everything. I read a lot, and read reviews, but I have my favorite authors and favorite genres, and pass those along. I have this expression, ‘I don’t want to bury you in books, but here, try just one more.’”
For Nelia Decker, sharing an enthusiasm for reading is the best part of the job. And part of that sharing has been going on Ann Bassett’s interview show on MVTV for the past 10 years, giving recommendations for summer and holiday reading.
“Nelia just genuinely loves people,” Kramer says, “and I think she sees in each child the potential for sharing her amazing love of books. She’s gentle, and she doesn’t talk down to kids; she expects that children have the intelligence to understand what she is saying.
“The amazing thing about Nelia,” Kramer said, “is that she knows everybody who comes in, she knows the kids’ names and the parents’ names, she knows what they’ve read … when they come for the summer, before they even go to their house, they come here and say ‘Hi’ to Nelia, get some books, and then go to their house. Who Nelia is and what she brings is just part of people’s Martha’s Vineyard experience.”
Decker gets Christmas cards and birthday cards from kids; some even send her love notes. Her desk was strewn with little gifts that children and families have given to her over the years. “She’s just that special,” Kramer says; “it’s not just her knowledge, it’s the fact that she cares.” And her caring is not just limited to the West Tisbury library: In1996, Decker was part of the group that started the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School.
This year is not only Nelia’s 25th year at the library, she’s celebrating her 65th birthday as well. So all in all, she looks forward to moving on.
“It’s really been a satisfying run, I can’t think of a better job,” Decker says “but I’m at that time of my life when I want to try some new things and enjoy my grandchildren.”
She says that working with Beth these past 15 years has been amazing; she’s the best boss, such a good manager — she supports people, and lets them try new things.
“I’m going to miss the staff, the kids, and all the books and literature,” she says; “in fact, I already do. I just ordered some new books, and I thought, This is the last time I’ll be doing that. From now on, when I come back to the library, it will be as a patron and a grandmother.”