If you visit the website for New Paltz’s Elting Memorial Library, you’ll now see an announcement that reads, “Indoor browsing is back! Starting Monday, March 8th, Elting Library will resume allowing a limited amount of patrons to enter the building by appointment only.” That’s welcome news in a difficult year for the venerable institution, most of whose planned “100 Years at 93 Main Street” celebrations had to be scuttled.
It’s not the first time since the onset of Covid-19 that the library has attempted a phased reopening, but it had to retreat to its pickup-window-only adaptation when Ulster County infection rates spiked following the fall and winter holidays. Now, at last, readers will be able to peruse the stacks again and follow the lure of a hitherto-undiscovered book that catches their eye. Live programs that can be held outdoors, such as movie screenings in the parking lot and children’s storytime on the little hillside above it, can also resume once the weather warms a bit.
But the joy of the gradual resumption of library access and activities will be muted for many regular users this spring, as a face that has become synonymous with the institution over the past 47 years ceases to be an everyday sighting. John Giralico, library director since 1974, is going into retirement in mid-April. He’ll spend his final two weeks on the job helping to orient his successor: Gillian Murphy, currently director of the Julia L. Butterfield Library in Cold Spring and president of the Putnam County Libraries Association.
The contrast between what pops into the mind upon hearing the phrase “director since 1974” and the reality of John Giralico in person is an excellent example of what we mean when we refer to “cognitive dissonance.” Not much past standard retirement age, Giralico looks younger than his years and, more importantly, exudes a sense of youthful energy and curiosity about the world. In a library environment, he seems like a kid in a candy store, unable to believe his luck in securing a gig as much fun as this right out of college.
It was serendipitous timing, he admits: The state requirement for people in his position to have an advanced degree in Library Science didn’t kick in until a couple of years later. A Rochester native who thought at first that he would become an architect, Giralico came to SUNY New Paltz to earn BAs in both Psychology and Sociology. During his student years he got a part-time job in the Elting Library’s Haviland-Heidgerd Historical Collection, working closely with its original curator, Bill Heidgerd. He made such a favorable impression on Heidgerd and the rest of the staff, including then-director Janet Bracken, that Giralico was chosen as her replacement when Bracken decided to step down, “out of over 100 people who applied for the job,” he says.
The library was much smaller then, along with its budget, without the annual pledge of support that it now enjoys from the Town of New Paltz; the director job was still only part-time. “It was so small-time an operation that everything was hand-stamped,” Giralico recalls. For several years he had to supplement his salary with income streams from such other sources as “a factory job in Walden that made slicing machines, working the graveyard shift.” But staying on at the Elting was a no-brainer. “I told myself, ‘I love it here. It’s a beautiful area, I love my school, New York City is an hour away – what could be more perfect?’”
He was already planning to pursue his MLS, which he soon achieved with a combination of local study and trips down to Long Island for Saturday classes at C. W. Post College, which was also running a satellite campus in Poughkeepsie in the 1970s. An insatiable believer in lifelong learning, Giralico has pursued various other courses of study over his career, including a certificate program in Filmmaking at NYU. Photography is his main hobby, and world travel a high priority since the backpacking trips and youth hostel stays of his younger days. “I like to add a new country every year,” he says. “I was supposed to go to Uzbekistan last March. That would’ve been country number 70.”
The Elting Library has become an ever-more-appealing place to explore on Giralico’s watch, its physical facility expanding twice and its programs evolving to meet the needs of the community and the potential of new information technologies. A new wing opened soon after he came aboard, in 1978, and “in 2006, a much larger addition.” He gives most of the credit for the infrastructure improvements to the efforts of longtime library board members Sally Rhoads and Carol Roper, both of whom died in 2020. As Giralico takes his leave, yet another proposed expansion of the space remains in the early design phase, placed on hiatus like so many other community projects by the current pandemic.
But the profound changeover in research and information technology in recent decades was both the Elting Library’s biggest challenge and a transformation in which Giralico takes much pride. “There were no computers when I started… I really loved working with all the new technology that came in. It’s nothing like the library I started working with.” He notes that Elting still has plenty of regular visitors who don’t have a computer at home and rely on the library for access and guidance on how to use them.
Entertainment technology has also changed radically, and libraries have had to keep up. With the advent of the CD, Elting accumulated an impressive music collection, the discs stored in plastic sleeves in ring binders for the borrower’s perusal. There was a time when high school kids would come by after school to watch movies on VHS, or later DVD, on the TV and VCR in Elting’s Pine Room. “Once we switched to discs, I would go to video stores and buy foreign films from the bargain bins,” Giralico recalls.
Over time, the novelty of books on tape gave way to books on CD, and audiobooks continue to grow in popularity as a reading option for people who need to multitask all day long. Nowadays, of course, they can be rented to stream via platforms such as Audible. But library members get access for free to streaming services such as Kanopy and Acorn TV, with Hoopla soon to join the list. E-books are also in great demand, though Giralico cautions, “All this electronic stuff is great, but don’t forget physical books.”
Books on paper still constitute 60 to 70 percent of Elting’s collections. One of Giralico’s regrets about leaving is the daunting job he’s leaving behind to weed out volumes that haven’t been looked at in five years or more. That has been an ongoing task (supplying a lot of the treasures to be found at the annual Library Fair), but reference books have remained relatively untouched. Stacks of old law and medical texts especially have to go. “We don’t need as big a reference section anymore, now that we have the Internet and resources like Wikipedia,” he says. “We’re a library, not a museum.”
While his guidance has been a constant for the better part of five decades, Giralico emphasizes that the Elting’s success has always been a team effort. “It’s been so satisfying to expand the library’s collection, create interesting programming and incorporate ever-changing technology in order to carry out our mission and offerings. I am grateful for the help of so many others in accomplishing these feats,” he wrote in his farewell to the Board of Directors. “I couldn’t have asked for a more enjoyable and satisfying career than the one I’ve had. I’ve had such amazing experiences in working with so many interesting and dedicated staff, board members and library volunteers. I developed numerous friendships from these involvements. Working in and being a member of the amazing New Paltz community was like a dream come true. I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else.”
Giralico says that he already misses the library’s ever-growing program of live events, such as author readings, which he views as among his proudest accomplishments over his long tenure. Such offerings dried up in 2020, of course, transformed into Zoom sessions that don’t quite capture the gestalt of a presentation to a group in person. Such events will come back sometime this year, and the Elting folks are keeping their fingers crossed that a Book Fair can safely be held by summer’s end. But the new normal, post-Covid, will incorporate some of the new uses to which modern technology can be put, including making the library’s resources more accessible to people with disabilities, Giralico predicts: “Virtual has been a lifesaver for the past year, and we’ll be keeping a lot of that.”
And so, in a time of great flux, the helm of the Elting Library passes to a new hand, and we’ll all soon see what new ideas will be implemented. But there is some sadness in knowing that Giralico’s enthusiastic presence will no longer be around on a daily basis. “John was one of the first people I met when I moved to New Paltz in 1991 – an experience I am sure was repeated by countless ‘newcomers’ whose first stop here was the local library,” says board president Bob Miller. “He greeted me then as he has many times over the past 30 years, making sure I knew that the Library was not only a place for whole community, but a welcoming place for me and my family as well.”
Happy trails until our paths cross again, John – perhaps at your Uzbekistan photography show at the Elting.