The history behind the Gardiner Library

The staff of the Gardiner Library (L-R): Christopher Wheeling, Nicole Lane, Melissa Fairweather, Amy Laber, board president Dave Dukler and Kaaren Vassell. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

The staff of the Gardiner Library (L-R): Christopher Wheeling, Nicole Lane, Melissa Fairweather, Amy Laber, board president Dave Dukler and Kaaren Vassell. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

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.