Elting Memorial Library gears up for a good look at itself

The Elting Library (photo by Lauren Thomas)

Businesses open and close in the village. Buildings change occupancy or use. Why should the grounds of a venerable institution like Elting Memorial Library be exempt from change? With its ample historical collection and quiet courtyard in which one can read, the library is as a respite from the bustle and motion all around it. 

Its tireless volunteers and dedicated staff ensure that Elting is no ossified relic. There are always plans in the works to keep the library relevant to the needs of the members of the New Paltz community.

Right now, board members are leveraging a generous donation to examine what’s working in the library, what programs and services community members yearn for, and exactly how those needs can be met in the finite space available. Architect Paul Mays, a specialist in libraries whose work can be seen in Highland, Gardiner, Saugerties and other nearby communities, has been spending time meeting with community members who represent various stakeholder groups.


According to board president Linda Welles, planning for the long haul is standard operating procedure at the library, which has been at its present location — originally called the Solomon Eltinge House, one of the oldest structures on Main Street — since 1920. In one sense, the visioning process now underway began even as the 2006 building expansion was still in the planning stages. In another, “we were just trying to find some new tables.”

The quest for tables found board members visiting a number of libraries. Thye wanted to see what kind of furniture worked best. Along the way they got quite a few ideas about libraries in general.
“Libraries today are designed very differently,” Welles said. For example, gone are those highest shelves that only can be reached by a very tall person, or with a ladder. Books are more accessible in modern design. Not using those high spaces means finding room elsewhere for the volumes which sat up there. That’s easier when building new than when refurbishing an historic structure.

When a donor provided the funds to hire Mays as a consultant, board members’ heads were already bursting with possibilities about what Elting could become in five, ten or 20 years. Mays recommended a process that would also involve listening to members of the community. How did they use their library? What services might they overlook. What they wish for? 

Talking with stakeholder representatives is occurring now. Soon to be scheduled is a charrette, a period of intense design discussion. What’s likely to come out of this process is a vision which will require fundraising. It’s very likely a new capital campaign will be rolled out.

According to Welles, architect Mays has been instrumental in identifying the likely stakeholder groups and institutions: senior citizens, preschoolers, public school and college students, and organizations ranging from the police and chamber of commerce to church groups. The process is not perfect. It depends for its success upon cohesive groups that can be represented by a small number of voices. Homeless people, for example, are a population segment that uss library services but lacks a formal structure; they’ve not been included in these stakeholder sessions.

The more public discussion to follow will test the ideas which stakeholders propose against the feedback of the wider community. Community members whose perspective was not previously offered will have an opportunity to weigh in on what they value and what they desire in the library of the future.

Paying for the future is more complicated than imagining it. An association library, Elting is a nonprofit which can — and does — receive funding from New Paltz taxpayers in addition to donations. The $466,000 annual town contribution was approved by referendum in 2015, and is included in the operating budget, which pays staff salaries as well as the utilities, acquisitions, supplies and an endless list of maintenance items ranging from replacing drafty windows to repainting meeting rooms. Much of that maintenance is accomplished by board members and other volunteers.

Much like the massive 2006 expansion, plans which crystallize from the current process will be paid for through grants and private donations. What such a capital plan might look like won’t be clear for quite some time, Welles said. The board and Mays must first complete this process of identifying what people in the community want from their library. 

Likely, the vision will be transformed through a series of compromises to fit the amount of money actually raised. A number of changes were made to the 2006 expansion to conform with fiscal reality, Welles acknowledged. It’s also true that New Paltz residents are unlikely to be eager to give up existing resources — Elting has a massive mystery and suspense section, for example — to make room for new programs and services. Such is life in the nonprofit world.

The stakeholder conversations are expected to continue into next month, and announcements about public meetings will be forthcoming. Watch these pages to keep apprised of developments.