Monday, April 12, 2010

Libraries in the Five Towns

    The celebration of National Library Week (April 11-17) provides us with an opportunity to look at the beginnings of library service in the Five Towns.

The public library, open to all, is a relatively new concept, though centers for written knowledge existed as far back as 6,000 years ago in Egypt and Mesopotamia.  Written works were reserved for universities and governmental or religious institutions or private collections owned by individuals wealthy enough to afford them. 

 As scientific and  recreational reading became a popular diversions in the United States, private subscription libraries were created as means of sharing the substantial cost of books.  Benjamin Franklin is generally credited with establishing the first of America's public  libraries in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1731.  Funded privately, these voluntary libraries were dependent on good economic climates in order to thrive.  Proponents of public libraries realized that a stable economic base (i.e., tax-funded)  was necessary in order to ensure that these institutions could continue in good times and bad.  The movement grew in popularity throughout the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, as books became more affordable and education became a path to self-improvement and  advancement. 

The growth of public education in the early 20th Century combined with the growth of publishing in America to create an environment conducive to the establishment of  public libraries.  It was in this environment that the Peninsula Community Library opened its doors at 493 Central Avenue in Cedarhurst on April 23, 1930. 

  At the time, Queens Borough Public Library's Far Rockaway branch was the only library open to the community.  Two years prior, a referendum of School District 14 voters had rejected an article in the school budget which appropriated tax money to establish a free public library in the District. 

A small committee of determined women visited area libraries and explored possibilities for funding a library.  Their study showed that although the cost of founding and maintaining a library for the entire Five Towns population was prohibitive, the alternative of a children's library funded by subscription, was well within the reach of the community.  In 1930, attorney Cornelius Wickersham filed the papers for the registration of The Peninsula Community Library with the State of New York as a joint stock association, assuring that gifts to it would be tax free.

The Community Council of Lawrence, Cedarhurst, Inwood, Woodmere and Hewlett, headed by Mrs. F. Abbot Goodhue, was a local organization which promoted educational and character-building opportunities for the area's children.  It seemed a natural extension for the organization to lend its support to this project.

Books were purchased using funds from the memorial fund established in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Peter Butler Olney, and enhanced by donations of money and goods from the community.  Subsequent funding from the Community Chest of the Five Towns supplemented the other gifts, membership fees, book rentals, and fines which the library generated.

Once community support and basic funding was assured, the committee looked for a librarian to develop the community's vision.  Miss Miriam Rowe, an experienced librarian from Massachusetts, agreed to relocate in  Cedarhurst.  For the next twenty years, she was the guiding spirit behind the Peninsula Community Library.

A room was rented in a block of stores at 493 Central Avenue.  Enhanced by handmade bookshelves and tables fabricated in Woodmere High School's wood shop, the library opened for business. The charge for withdrawing a book was five cents for two weeks (later increased to ten cents), and overdue books incurred a fine.  The first book taken out of the collection was Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.  By the end of the first month, the new collection totalled 2,253 titles and 300 children and young adults had received library cards.

In 1936,  sisters Florence, Grace and Maude White offered the Library a building on Cedarhurst Avenue as a new location.  They agreed to a rent of $65.00 per month but, more importantly, agreed to have it remodeled to the Directors' specifications.  Donations of landscaping by Allan Dalsimer and moving services from William Reilly kept the costs down.  Fred Rivera allowed the Library rent-free use of one of his stores on Broadway in Hewlett for a branch library which served the populations of Hewlett and Gibson.

Mrs. H. Hobart Porter contributed an "ancient" station wagon, which made weekly trips to inaccessible parts of Hewlett and Gibson and later served Cedarhurst and Woodmere areas as well.  Story hours at the library and the playground of the Number 2 School in Inwood attracted the younger population, while the Library Legionnaires, a service group of older students helped with maintenance and shelving.  In the next few years The Reading Club, The Garden Clubs, The Woodmere Music Club became active users of the Library's facilities.

In 1947, the voters of School District 14 once again voted on the establishment of a free library,  The project was approved and the Hewlett-Woodmere Public Library opened, first in the Woodmere School and then in a house purchased from the Pearsall family on the current site of the Library.  Three years later, the voters of School District 15 also approved the establishment of a tax-based free library, and the Peninsula Public Library opened in 1951.

The assets of the Peninsula Community Library were distributed between the two collections and by August 1950, the legal process of dissolution of the community library had taken place.

The founding of the Nassau Library System in 1959 created a powerful information network which maximizes the effectiveness of each of the member libraries.   The popularity of the Hewlett-Woodmere and the Peninsula Public Libraries and the demand for their services has resulted in several expansions and renovations over the years.  As we celebrate National Library Week, those of us in the library community  thank our patrons for their continued support and look forward to a bright future of collaboration between the libraries and the communities that they serve.

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