Since the beginning of its history, there have been and are so many fascinating people who shape Port Washington into what is is becoming. Their seemingly small contributions to the hamlet on a daily basis instantly become the fabric that weaves this cooperative effort to make it such an enjoyable and sought-after place to live and work.
One of those people in a sea of thousands is Vanessa Nastro, an archivist and special collections librarian at the Port Washington Public Library. Nastro holds a master’s degree in library and information science from Queens College with a certificate in archives and preservation of cultural materials. Her previous work involving photographic collections include the Aperture Foundation, Phillips Auctioneers and Adelphi University. She is the author of Along Manhasset Bay (Arcadia Press) with accompanying walking tour app (now available for Android and iPhone) and a committee member for the Preservation of Local History for the Long Island Libraries Resource Council.
Working so passionately for the good of Port Washington, we had a chance to speak with Nastro about her experience.
Q. How did you become a librarian?
A: I had worked in a public library while in college. After I graduated, I moved to Italy to focus on working in the arts. When I returned, I was fortunate to mentor with a reference librarian at the Freeport Memorial Library who convinced me to go to library school and specialize in archives and art librarianship. So much about what I loved about working in museums and the art world was linked to the archives profession. Library school was a great foundation for this and prepared me to work in a variety of professions including art publishing, auction house and academia.
Q. When did you begin working at the library?
A: I began working at the Port Washington Public Library a little more than five years ago. Before that I was working as a photographs cataloger for an auction house in New York City.
Q. What do you do at Port Washington Public Library?
A: I am the archivist for the local history center where I work to maintain the preservation of our large collection of archival materials, promoting their importance through digital initiatives and exhibitions. I am also the liaison to the library’s Art Advisory Council who sponsors monthly art exhibits in the library’s Adler Gallery.
Q. How did you get drilled down to your specialty?
A: Well, to become an archivist you need additional training and certification in addition to a master’s degree in library science. This is where the profession of “librarian” and “archivist” diverge significantly. I was required to complete a certain number of hours working in an established archive.
I chose to work in a university archive where I gained significant hands-on experience as well as learned proper protocol for accessing special collections and rare books in an archive setting. I implement many of those same policies in the local history center. For example, researchers are asked to only use pencil while they are accessing items such as historical documents. Also, eating and drinking are not permitted in the research room as a way to limit potential damage to these one-of-a kind items.
As an archivist I learn to establish and maintain control, both physically and intellectually over records of enduring value—in this case, records that pertain to the history of Port Washington as well as institutional records of the library. In order to process these records it requires an understanding of the historical context in which those records were created and the uses for which they were originally intended. So much goes into this planning—they are arranged and described using acceptable standards to help ensure their long-term preservation. Many times the original items will be digitized so that we have a digitally permanent record which can be accessed in lieu of the original item. Thus, prolonging its preservation.
Q. Why is what you do important to the community?
A: I think what I do is important to the community because right now libraries are the only institutions that are saving local history at this point, at least at a community level. That is the reason I do what I do and why I chose to implement projects like our COVID-19 Public Memory Project, which documents the pandemic on a local level. To date, we have gathered images, oral histories, poems, letters, drawings, memoirs and other ephemera from dozens of community members. I believe projects like this teach us so much about where we’ve been and where we need to go as a community.
Q. Tell me about Port Washington as a community? What makes it unique?
A: On the surface Port Washington is similar to most other close knit North Shore communities—but if you look closer you will see how important local history is to this community—whether it’s the hard working volunteers at the Cow Neck Peninsula Historical Society who fight for landmark preservation of Port’s historic structures through their plaque designation program or our own volunteer community here at the library working to preserve our nautical history. Our community members are so invested in our town’s heritage. I regularly receive local donations of materials for our collection. The very foundation of our archive was established by community members. Over the years they have entrusted us with the important task of preserving their family and their town’s history.
Q. Why is the library important to Port Washington?
A: I think the library is important to Port Washington because it fosters community exchanges. The identity of a public library is so different from what it used to be. Where else can people go where most of the services provided are free. There is so much support here and it doesn’t discriminate—everyone who comes here is entitled to the same level of service. I think, now more than ever, communities need this type of beneficence.
Q. What’s the best thing about being a librarian?
A: I think of myself first and foremost as an archivist which is very different from a librarian—interestingly, what I love the most is that I essentially do two professions in one. I think being an archivist in a public library is a truly unique experience. Historically the role of an archivist is a solitary one. But here at the library I get to work with so many wonderful organizations and community members. It’s actually a very public role. I also love working with photograph collections. Collectively our archive houses thousands of photographs, negatives and lantern slides. I have always enjoyed working with these mediums—they all require different levels of attention in terms of how they are stored and accessed.
Q. Has anyone in Port Washington inspired what you do at the library? Do you have any fun library previews to share?
A: I’m inspired by our volunteers, both past and present. They have brought so much knowledge, experience and dedication to our library and the local history center. People like Virginia Marshall Martus who helped create our collection of nautical oral histories and has donated so much of her personal collection of nautical ephemera to the library. Also Dr. George Williams who has written numerous publications on the history of Port Washington. So many times I find myself going back to his work when I receive in-depth history questions.
Nastro leads the library’s Art Advisory Council and is behind many of its successful art exhibits and installations. She is also behind the curation and creation of the upcoming Columns Gallery exhibit (opening July 1) which will be the cornerstone of the “Along Manhasset Bay” series and will be on display in the library through the end of the year. This exhibition celebrates the launch of the library’s first app and digital walking tour, Along Manhasset Bay Historical Walking Tour as well as the publication of Nastro’s local history book, Along Manhasset Bay. This exhibit draws on research collected by the Local History Center and the Nautical Advisory Council and will showcase a variety of well-known and never before seen images including aerial images of Manhasset Bay photographed over the span of four decades. This exhibit is made possible by a generous gift from the Virginia Marshall Martus Estate.