In 44 years, the music librarian has seen all the changes, from print to digital; when she first arrived, there were no computers.
“Everything was through card catalog,” she said.
Montalto was on hand to celebrate the library’s 50th birthday Wednesday morning with elected officials and library staff and patrons. While reflecting on the library’s history, speakers at the celebration also looked to the future, with renovations to the main floor public space and the addition of a cafe now complete.
Queens Library president and CEO Dennis Walcott was a freshman at Francis Lewis High School when the library opened in 1966. He said he has fond memories of his time there.
“I wish I could say I was coming to learn and look at books, but I can tell you exactly where I was hanging out, all the way in the back there,” Walcott said. “It was a great corner to sit and learn other things in life and interact with people.”
The Central Library originally occupied a building on Parsons Boulevard, but it outgrew the small facility. When the new building opened, it was the largest library building in New York.
Today, annual usage has nearly tripled from when the library opened 50 years ago.
As a child, Public Advocate Letitia James and her family lived in southeast Queens, so she knows the importance of this particular library.
“Public libraries like Queens Central have served as the cornerstones of our communities for decades, the truest forms of community centers for all,” James said. “They are the great equalizer, providing essential resources to all New Yorkers, no matter their income or background.”
James’s mother dropped out of school at an early age, but when she was in her 60s she went to a library to study for and eventually receive her GED. James said she felt empowered seeing her mother graduate.
She noted just how much libraries have changed when she first started going to curl up in books and get away from the world. Now, she said, libraries are safe places where children can embrace noise and activities and explore their imagination.
Despite technological changes, they still serve as a place where students can prepare for college and where immigrants can use resources to learn English.
“Queens Central has been one constant in his ever-changing and expanding neighborhood,” James said. “The investments we make in libraries today will pay dividends now and in the future.
“I stand before you as a testament to that dividend,” she added.
Borough President Melinda Katz spoke about the library from a different perspective. In her first year as the borough’s leader, she removed then-president and CEO Thomas Galante and seven other board members after accusations that Galante spent library funding on lavish renovations to his own office and other personal expenses.
Two years later, Katz said, the library system is bigger, better, more professional and with more services.
“At the end of the day, the library’s charge is to fulfill the educational purposes of the city,” she said. “We have managed to do it so well.”
Katz said she’s invested $25 million in libraries over the last two years, and she’s still looking at other investments. She credited the longtime workers at the individual libraries for keeping them running.
“All of you kept these places going through thick and thin,” she said. “You really keep the engine going.”
Montalto said after all these years the main focus and mission of the library is still to support the city’s educational system. She said one of the important aspects of the job is to create warm relationships with not only staff, but with the customers too.
“They rely on us and have faith in us and we enjoy it,” Montalto said. “This is what we do.”
Montalto, who majored in music in college, boasted that the Central Library has the largest collection of sheet music in the city, about 88,000 pieces in total. She said they get requests from all over the country and the city, from conductors and musicians to just people learning how to play an instrument.
She said the library was supposed to be a temporary stop. She worked at Queens College Music Library after graduating from the college. After she took a job at Queens Central, a position in the Fine Arts Division opened in 1987, and she’s been the music librarian ever since.
“When you work at Central, it’s not like working at a little neighborhood branch,” Montalto said. “There’s so much involvement with everything.”