The history behind the Highland Public Library

The staff of the Highland Public Library (L-R): Director Julie Kelsall-Dempsey, head of childrens’ department Holly Sgro, head of circulation Sara Ottaviano, senior clerk and Clintondale branch manager Arlene McMahon and programming librarian Jennifer Lombardo. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

The staff of the Highland Public Library (L-R): Director Julie Kelsall-Dempsey, head of childrens’ department Holly Sgro, head of circulation Sara Ottaviano, senior clerk and Clintondale branch manager Arlene McMahon and programming librarian Jennifer Lombardo. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

Many small town libraries that were started in the first few decades of the 20th century were initiated by local women as community reading rooms. And that was the case with the Highland Public Library, which celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2015. According to information provided by its current director, Julie Kelsall-Dempsey, the Highland Library originated in 1915 as an offshoot of the women’s suffrage campaign of the time.

1915 was the same year that the U.S. House of Representatives voted on January 12 by a margin of 204-174 to reject a constitutional amendment to give women the right to vote; the second such amendment proposal to go down in less than a year. One can only imagine the frustration for women who wanted to take an active role in their own society and were prevented from doing so. Reading rooms and libraries must have felt like a welcome refuge for women of the time, places where they could freely exercise their intellect.

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The research done by Kelsall-Dempsey indicates that the reading room organized in Highland in 1915 was chartered as the Highland Free Library by the end of its first year. For the next five years, it found space in a variety of locations in town, from spare rooms in a residence to an office and a store.

In 1920, the library’s board of trustees began looking for a larger, permanent space to meet the growing demand in Highland for library services. The rent in the building they were in at the time was going to go up to $5 a month, so the trustees arranged to purchase the former office building of Dr. Caspar Ganse on the corner of Main and Church streets. The price was $2,400.

As the library continued to grow, a still larger space was needed, so a deal was made in July of 1929 to allow the library rent-free use of the former home of Dr. and Mrs. Ganse — located directly across the street at 30 Church Street — as long as the library paid for all improvements to the property required by the state.

The renovated library opened on February 3, 1930 in the building it still occupies today.

The library still owned the corner Ganse office building, which they rented out to the American Legion from 1937 to 1944, when the library trustees sold the property for $2,500.

In 1948, a chimney fire at 30 Church Street destroyed the attic and top floor of the building, with some $6,000 of damage to books from water and smoke. The library had to move to temporary quarters above a market on Main Street until February 20, 1950, when the renovations to the library were complete.

At the time of the fire, the library occupied only the first floor. The second floor housed The Ganse Health Center, which served the Town of Lloyd until the early ’70s.

The rent-free use of 30 Church Street continued for the library until 1973, when the Ganse Foundation gave the Highland Free Library the building and property free and clear. The following year, renovations at the building added a reading room, community room and additional space for library-related activities. The library also acquired a full-time professional librarian in 1974 along with three part-time assistants.

The town historian kept offices on the second floor of the building all through the 1970s and ’80s, but as the library’s needs for space grew yet again, the town historian offices were moved to Town Hall.

In 1983, the Highland Free Library opened a “mini-branch” in the restored 1811 Meetinghouse in Clintondale, where it continues to operate today. The idea originated with then-library director Carol Rankin bringing books out to the Meetinghouse one day a week. The year after that, a grant allowed the mini-branch to expand into a full branch with its own permanent collection.

The Highland Free library was chartered as a school district library in 1986 due to voters who passed a proposition to do so. The Highland Public Library was established to serve not only the Town of Lloyd but the entire Highland Central School District. In 1988, the library became one of the first libraries in the Mid-Hudson Library System to automate. (The Clintondale branch automated and began online circulation in 1997.)

But since then, the aged building at 30 Church Street has experienced a myriad of infrastructure problems from mold to foundation cracks to roof leaks that would require more economic resources to fix than would be economically viable to put into the structure. The building is not handicapped-accessible and the size of the space is too small to serve a community the size of Highland. So trustees have been working on establishing a new site for an improved, up-to-date library while retaining a central location in the hamlet of Highland.

A bond proposal for $6.5 million dollars for a 13,000-square-foot building was rejected by voters in 2010 by a slim margin. Currently, the board is planning a more modest $4.8 million bond proposal for a 10,250-square-foot library to be built across the street from St. Augustine’s parish, on what is now an empty lot owned by the Archdiocese of New York. The public’s input has been actively solicited in the past five years to develop the current project proposal, which will be put up for a vote on Tuesday, March 17. But unlike the last time the library switched premises in 1930, the library has no interest in continuing to own the property at 30 Church Street. Trustees will put the building on the market and hope to sell the property as a source of revenue to offset the new building project.

Updates on the proposed project can be found on Facebook.com under “Citizens for a New Highland Library.” For more information about the Highland Public Library, e-mail library director Julie Kelsall-Dempsey at jkelsall@highlandlibrary.org or the board of trustees at librarybot12528@highlandlibrary.org.

This is the second installment in a five-part series featuring the history of local libraries. Next week, the spotlight will be on the Gardiner Library.