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May 01, 2017

Renee Schwartz: Big Things Come from a Small Package

By Lori Draz

Renee Swartz blames it all on being curious, raising her hand, and wanting to make a difference. The diminutive ball of energy, who has been chairman of the Monmouth County Library Commission since 1976, started making a difference at the local, county, state, and national levels simply by raising her hand.
Ms. Swartz, who lives in Rumson with her husband, Dr. Harry M. Swartz, attended the former New Jersey College for Women, now Douglass College at Rutgers University, before transferring to Barnard College, where she earned a degree in European history and studied educational administration.

After settling back in Monmouth County to raise their family, she attended a meeting of the Barnard College Club, a charming and very articulate group of women interested in education in Monmouth County. She credits them, especially Irma Van Glahn, for her lifelong dedication to the magic of books and libraries. So when the American Association of University Women (AAUW) wanted to conduct a study of Monmouth County’s educational resources, Ms. Swartz volunteered as a survey taker. “They asked for volunteers, so I raised my hand!” She polled people at train stations, mailed questionnaires, and attended community meetings. The survey showed that though Monmouth County had a library and a bookmobile, it needed expansion to meet the needs of the growing population. The nucleus of that survey group formed the Friends of the Library, and she kept raising her hand, this time to fundraise and get petitions for a new library building in the east of the county. She started public speaking to show the importance of libraries to all ages and all walks of life.

“Today, thanks to technology, we say the library is in the ‘palm of your hand,’ but back then, we were working to ensure that the library was at your fingertips,” she recalled. With a willing board of freeholders, the Eastern Branch of the library was built and opened in Shrewsbury, and not long after, the headquarters and original library were moved from Freehold to a newly constructed facility in Manalapan, which today serves as the headquarters for the 13 branches and 14 members served by the Monmouth County library.

Her ideas and enthusiasm garnered such respect that Ms. Swartz was asked to serve on the New Jersey State Library Board. She was soon elected chairman of the board, a gubernatorial appointment she held for 30 years before it was abolished during the Governor Christie administration.

A well-known voice for education, recreation, news, entertainment, and community living through the library, she became chairman of the Board of Directors of the School of Communication and Library Studies at Rutgers University, where she served for more than 25 years.

When Congress wanted a White House Conference on Libraries, Ms. Swartz was one of the 16 delegates sent to the White House Conference, where she served as chairman of the New Jersey delegation. Feisty and perseverant, she drew up a Peoples Bill of Rights, which the New Jersey Delegation brought on its initial trip to Washington. This formal statement emphasized that the user, not the professional librarian, should dictate the needs to be met. That statement became the Preamble to the Conference in 1979 and again at the second conference in 1992, which was also chaired by Ms. Swartz.

When First Lady Laura Bush encouraged Congress to form the Institute for Museums and Library Service, Renee Swartz was named to the board by Presidential appointment in 2004. She was sworn in by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, with her five grandchildren in tow.

Her list of accolades and honors continue, but it is her daily passion for libraries to increase their activities and be recognized as community centers that makes life better for all. She sees libraries as the heart of the community, where everyone can enjoy books, diverse programs, and all types of recreation, from card games to meeting Olympiads and historians. Ms. Swartz is also chairman of the New Jersey Center for the Book, part of the Library of Congress’ Center for the Book, which is the association of public and private partnerships established by law to design and implement programs that nurture and expand the culture and appreciation of literacy and reading.

“My goal remains the same as it was when I first raised my hand,” the ageless Ms. Swartz continues. “I want everyone to feel the power of the written word, to recognize it as an integral part of their life. I encourage everyone to use the library and get to know firsthand that the wonderful world that awaits inside those library doors. Books indeed give us wings.”