Judy Bell retires after 24 years as library director
With that book now complete, a new chapter in her life can begin. “It just seems like it’s the right time,” said Bell while sitting in the library’s Museum Room, just one aspect of the library that came to fruition during her tenure. “I could probably stay for a few more years, but it’s best to leave when the music is playing. And right now, there is a whole orchestra playing behind me.”
Although Bell has been in charge of the quietest place in our island town since 1986, she considers herself a city girl by nature. Bell grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., a far cry from Jamestown. She attended high school at St. Michael’s Academy in Manhattan. Her city way of life was put to the test as early as college when she left New York to attend Southern Illinois University, where her father grew up. She majored in history.
Following college, Judy and her husband, Robert Bell, whom she met in college, moved to St. Louis where they lived for a couple years. Bell spent two years as a runner at the St. Louis Public Library.
The couple moved to Rhode Island in 1968 and Judy began taking classes part time to earn her Master of Library Science. While living in South Kingstown – where the couple would stay for the next 33 years – Robert landed a job in the biochemistry department at the University of Rhode Island. In 1973, Judy began working for the Peacedale Library. The Bells had two sons: John was born in 1969 and Gabriel was born in 1973.
For the next 13 years, Judy was head of reference and technical services in Peacedale. In 1986 – two years after Robert passed away – a position opened up in Jamestown. The new library on the island was being built and it needed a new director. Judy applied.
Needless to say, she got the job, and began her new career on Nov. 4, 1986. One of her first major contributions to the library was updating it for the next generation. During the late 1980s, Judy oversaw a complete reconstruction of the cataloging system. The Jamestown library began replacing card catalogs with online systems.
“It seems like a million years ago,” Bell said. “Those older computers weren’t very userfriendly. They were only text.”
After the technological advances, it was time for structural enhancements. In 1993, Bell and her colleagues began planning and discussing an addition to the building on North Road. The taxpayers paid nothing for renovations; the state paid half, and the other half came from private contributions.
“It was amazing,” Bell said. “It was a very exciting process because it was an entire community activity. It is great to have a community that is so vital and so supportive of its library.”
Bell’s professional dignity stems mainly from being part of the community and being a civil servant. “I’m proud to be a public servant,” she said. “It’s really hard to sit back and hear bad things about public servants like we’re chopped liver. It’s something I’ve been honored to be.”
As for the timing of the retirement, Judy says that there is more than one reason, but that her grandchildren, Cassidy and Andrew, are major factors in the decision.
“I really need to be free for my grandchildren,” Bell said.
Along with her grandkids, who live in Massachusetts with their father Gabriel, Judy has other plans to keep busy. She already volunteers with the Jamestown Historical Society and plans to continue her participation with the group. She is also interested in other volunteering opportunities.
One such prospect in helping out at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center in Newport, a facility that offers nutritional, cultural, educational and social services for people of all ages in Newport County.
But first, she has a little unfi nished business: “What I think I’m going to do first is work on my house,” she said, referring to the place she shares with her second husband, Bill Knapp, just two-and-a-half blocks from the library, her home away from home. Knapp, who is president and a percussionist in the Jamestown Community Band, worked in Judy’s hometown at the Brooklyn Public Library. He moved to the island four years ago.
Obviously, Bell is emotional about her departure. She will miss a lot of things about the job that she considered great for so many years.
“I’m going to miss the stimulation of my work,” she said. “All of the book selections. Reading the review media. Every day there are new things to learn. My job is intellectually stimulating. Every day is different. That’s what I’ll miss the most.”
She acknowledges that the timing is perfect because the library staff is excellent and the library is “going extremely well.”
“I’d find it hard to leave if we had a terrible children’s librarian, for example,” Bell said. “But we don’t. Our children’s librarian [Lisa Sheley] is incredible. So is everyone else. It should really be a good transition.”
She said that Donna Fogarty, her replacement, is going to be a perfect fit for the job. “It’ll be nice to have some new ideas, and she already has some great ideas.”
Bell won’t disappear completely. She will continue to lead discussions with the Library Book Discussion Group until May, and she will also continue to help the historical society with its “Jamestown and the Silver Screen” project.
Bell explains that even though she is leaving her career, she will always have a purpose to keep on going. “I can’t just wander around with nowhere to go,” she said. “If I walk somewhere, I need a destination. If I have somewhere to be or something to do, I can walk for miles.”