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50th Anniversary Ceremony
June 21, 2011
Ray Lembo, President
East Islip Historical Society

Good evening and welcome to MY library. I say MY library because that's how it’s been since I was six years old. The East Islip Public Library has been a home away from home for me, and on more than one occasion a refuge. I remember the sights and smells of the first building on the other side of town, right next to St. Mary’s church. It smelled of old wood and musty books... a great smell, a comforting smell, and one of my favorite smells to this day. When they figure out how to make a kindle or any other electronic reader smell like that, I'll buy one. Nah.. I probably still won't. As kids we always looked forward to a trip to the library. It didn't hurt that the Candy store was directly across Main Street! I learned to love reading there. And I learned to love books there. I remember all the ladies being very at tentative and smiling and always suggesting fun books for me and my sister to take home. They knew us by name back then.. it was a MUCH smaller town. It's a big deal when you're 7 yrs old and everyone calls you by name. Mrs. Schweibish always remembered my name too, which always amazed me because she was always seemed so busy and distracted; rushing around. They all made it MY library.
When the time came for a new library we were all excited. They built up the excitement in the elementary schools leading up to the new building being opened. We couldn't wait. It was such a big deal for us and the entire town. I have a hazy memory of all the kids participating in the move. Somehow we were all marched single file thru the stacks of the old library and given one book. We were then transported to the new building and marched thru the stacks at the new library in the same order and the books were put back on the shelves adhering rigidly to the good old Dewey decimal system.

When the new building opened it was futuristic to us. 1967 was a futuristic kind of year. You could listen to record albums with headphones at listening stations. It was very cool. No one I knew had headphones in 1967. There were literally a hundred different magazines to look at, every subject you could ask for and a lot you never even heard of. We were getting a painless education. No teachers, no structure. It was just pure imagination. I sat there on many occasions for hours on end reading, reading, reading. As cliché as it may sound, this was the place where I first learned about the world outside of my family. I went around the world on a regular basis sitting here. My favorite place to sit was up on the balcony overlooking everything. This was MY library.
One day I noticed a mimeograph on the wall advising that a Historic Slide show would be held and it just so happened that it was just starting. I went down the stairs next to the water fountain and met Ethel Urbahn, a tiny, white haired, squeaky voiced, wildly enthusiastic bundle of energy and Knowledge. Her Slide show fascinated me. Photos of East Islip 100 years ago. There’s a line to be drawn there somehow between that day and the fact that I am now the current president of the East Islip Historical Society!! Ethel Urbahn has been an integral part of this library since the beginning. The board members and director at that time had the foresight to give her Office space and sometimes film and a camera. The work she did out of this library was phenomenal. This was HER Library too.

Ethel's collection of slides numbers over 4k that I know of. That's an incredible number of slides. This library has 65 hours of her oral histories. In the mid sixties there were many great estates still intact in this area. Little diminutive Ethel would knock on the doors and chat with the owners. They invariably invited this sweet little old lady and her camera in, a lot of times for tea and a chat. Most often than not they allowed her to copy incredible family photos right on the spot. Photographers know how hard that is without additional lighting and other equipment yet all her photos are formatted and crisply focused, no matter what the lighting conditions or subject. These people would tell her their life stories and family histories, and lore. She caught it all on tape. Later on she would transcribe them to printed text. This audio work is still ongoing, as is compiling and digitizing her slides and prints. It is my very greatest pleasure to carry her work forward into the future doing this work. Our Society is proud to be the overseers of the bulk of her collection. Bay Shore and Islip Historical Societies own the rest. It is without a doubt the best record we have of the south shore from Bay Shore to Great River. She was our Mathew Brady, our Ansel Adams, our Stieglitz, and our Weegee all rolled into one sparkplug of a remarkable woman. The display running on the monitor downstairs features her work as does the great photo gallery currently on display. This summer we will be bringing back the Ethel Urbahn slideshows to this library for all the public to discover and enjoy. A future Historical Society president may be in the audience. They may even be thinking this is THEIR library. They would be right.

Ray Lembo

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Last updated: November 12, 2011 3:25 PM