Gardiner Library History

Written by Sharyn Flanagan and appearing in HV1 on January 27, 2015.

Unlike neighboring New Paltz, which opened its first library in 1817, and unlike nearby Highland, celebrating its library’s 100th anniversary this year, Gardiner did not have a library to call its own until the 1970s. (Like those places, however, when they did finally get a library, it was through the initial efforts of a few local women.) As former town historian Carleton Mabee pointed out in his Gardiner Library: A History (2009), from the time the Town of Gardiner was founded in 1853 until the 1975 opening of the Gardiner Library, residents had to either do without or use the libraries in surrounding towns. The following summary of Gardiner’s achievements in providing its residents with library services is based on Mabee’s book.

The Book Exchange Club

At a December, 1974 meeting of the women’s group at the Gardiner Reformed Church, two of its members discussed forming a book exchange. Five months later, schoolteacher Frances Scott and Janie Koopmans, wife of the church’s pastor, opened the Book Exchange Club in the main church building, intending to serve the entire population of Gardiner (not just the church). The club was soon known in town as the Gardiner Library. It was housed in a small room without windows behind the church’s sanctuary and only open on Saturdays, but by summer, there were 86 card-holding members. The library was staffed by three volunteers: Scott, Koopmans and local resident Margaret “Peggy” Lotvin, who eventually became the library’s first director until her retirement when the library moved to its present building.

By the end of 1976, the library expanded from its cramped quarters into two rooms in the church’s education building. The 100th membership card was issued at this time and the first library trustees were elected.

But around this time, tensions developed between the budding library in Gardiner and Elting Memorial Library in New Paltz. The problems had to do with funding — as is so often the case — and Gardiner’s desire to put its money into its own library rather than contribute to the coffers of the New Paltz library, as they had long done during the years they’d used its services. In addition to resident donations, the Gardiner Library raised funds through suppers, plant sales and bake sales, and was dependent on volunteers for staffing and maintenance purposes. The library was open on Wednesday evenings now in addition to Saturdays, and had amenities such as story hour, but legally the library was still a “reading center” because its size and the hours it was open didn’t meet state requirements.

As the library continued to grow, it was decided to move the library into a larger space, the circa-1909 firehouse in the center of the hamlet. The Gardiner Fire Department had moved out of the building in 1963 and sold it to the town for $1. (The building was in poor shape, but the price was right.) When the library moved into the space, they leased it for $1 per year from the town. 

New quarters at the firehouse

At the time, the building had only one light, a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. But within a few months, bookshelves were installed, floors were carpeted and an up-to-date electric system had been installed. What it didn’t have was heat, running water or a rest room. The library now owned 3,000 books and there were activities like film screenings and a program to deliver books to shut-ins, but volunteers had to wear extra sweaters and fingerless gloves to function in the cold building without heat. A community service grant from IBM was finally obtained with the help of a trustee to install heating in January of 1978.

As the ’70s came to a close, the Gardiner Library joined the Ramapo-Catskill Library System, which allowed them access to an inexpensive means of ordering and cataloguing books. There were now 540 card-holding members and approximately 5,500 books on the shelves.

There were some minor renovations to the building carried out with the help of another IBM grant, fundraising efforts and hands-on work from volunteers, but it was a continual struggle to keep things going in the space. The small library continued to grow, however, acquiring more books and offering a variety of activities throughout the 1980s, including a computer course from the community college and assistance filling out tax forms. Hospice training was even offered by a local registered nurse.

By the end of the ’80s, Lotvin — who had become the Gardiner Library’s director by this time — proposed that the library apply for a state charter as a legislative district library. The advantages would involve paying lower fees to the Ramapo System and would make the library independent, with its own budget apart from the town budget that residents could vote directly on. Applying for such a charter required a special act of the state Legislature.

Then-town supervisor Mike Moran had misgivings about the process, however, and feared that the library proposal would create “a whole new layer of government,” according to Mabee’s account. Moran favored the library becoming a municipal library, with the Town Board controlling the finances, and since the Town Board’s approval was necessary to become a legislative district library, the library temporarily acquiesced and applied for a municipal library charter, which was granted provisionally in 1990 and permanently in 1996.

But a year earlier, then-Governor George Pataki had signed a new law authorizing municipal libraries like Gardiner’s to go over the heads of their Town Boards, if they wanted to, to ask the town’s voters to approve their budget. So by 2003, the Gardiner Library decided to present their first budget to town voters, and it was approved, setting the stage for future financial independence.

Structural issues

By 1991 there had been issues raised about the safety of the former firehouse that the library was housed in. The wheels were set into motion all throughout the decade to find a larger and safer building, but the process went on for years, with numerous buildings proposed and rejected for various reasons. Gardiner’s population was growing, and along with it the library’s membership, but by 2004 the library had been actively seeking a new home for 12 years without success.

Finally, in December of 2004, town supervisor Carl Zatz signed over the almost-two-acre property formerly the location of the highway garage to the library, at $1 cost, and advised the board to cut through red tape to get a new library built. The transfer of land was provisional on a new library being built on the site; if not, the property would revert to the town. The library accepted responsibility for demolishing the old town garage and the town would take care of removing the oil tanks. (Eventually, in 2006, George Majestic Jr. demolished the old garage at no cost.)

The architectural firm of Butler, Rowland and Mays was contracted to build a library — the same firm that will build Highland’s library should the voters approve a bond issue on March 17 — and a campaign to raise more than $1 million was launched.

The red tape surrounding various issues was cut through and the site was ready for construction by 2007. The small Town of Gardiner had raised $705,000 for its library, almost half of what it estimated to be necessary, and while not enough, it enabled the library to seek outside loans and grants to achieve the rest. The new library was dedicated on October 19, 2007.