Gillian Murphy takes the helm at New Paltz’s Elting Library

Gillian Murphy is the new director of the Elting Memorial Library in New Paltz. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

Last month, Hudson Valley One reported on the retirement of John Giralico as director of New Paltz’s Elting Memorial Library after a remarkable five-decade tenure. These past two weeks, Giralico has been orienting his successor, Gillian Thorpe Murphy, who was previously director of the Julia L. Butterfield Library and president of the Putnam County Libraries Association. “I started on the first, and there’s a two-week transition period. The 15th is my first day by myself,” says Murphy.

Currently in quest of a house nearby that hasn’t already been bought up by New York City escapees within 15 minutes of being listed, Murphy and her husband Joe come to New Paltz from Cold Spring. She spent most of her life there, except for college at Old Dominion University in Virginia (BS in Elementary and Middle School Education), Long Island University (Certificate of Advanced Studies in Public Library Administration) and Syracuse University (MS in Library and Information Science), plus three years in Chicago when her first husband’s job was transferred there.

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“I definitely thought I was going to be a teacher my entire life, but this turned out to be better,” Murphy relates. “I had planned to get my Master’s in Education at New Paltz, but it didn’t happen because I fell in love with libraries. This is my calling.”

She first felt that call as a young girl, when she discovered the Butterfield Library in her hometown. “My father used to take me to that library,” she says. “I was obsessed with Julia Butterfield.” In fact, she’s in the midst of writing a biography of the 19th-century society matron and philanthropist who endowed both the library and a hospital in Cold Spring.

Returning east from her sojourn in Chicago, with two sons and a third on the way, Murphy volunteered to do story hour at the Butterfield Library, and soon found herself swept up in one project after another. “You start volunteering and next thing you know, you’re director,” she says. She was offered the post of co-director while the historic building was in the midst of what was supposed to be a minor renovation, which exposed a mold problem requiring major reconstruction. Once this was resolved, Murphy took the helm and set out to stabilize the Butterfield’s finances.

“When I started there, the library was dying,” she says. Unlike the Elting Library, which has a steady annual commitment of support from the Town of New Paltz, the Butterfield was only getting a $16,000 annual operating budget from Philipstown. Murphy organized a voter referendum that upped municipal support to $276,000, successfully battled an unsympathetic town supervisor in court when he tried to get the vote overturned on a technicality, and then “started growing the collection and programming.”

She was ahead of the curve, as it turned out. “When I started, libraries were trying to be like bookstores, having the next best-seller,” she says. “Nowadays, people are looking for programming.” At the Butterfield Library, Murphy initiated a seed library, where members could swap heirloom vegetable seeds; a US passport acceptance facility; and even a “human library,” where one could arrange a social visit from some local old-timer with an interesting life story to tell.

Its Library of Things collection started out with cake pans in the shape of comic-book characters and soon grew to include gardening and building tools, “power washers, leafblowers…anything you can think of that’s not dangerous.” With the ability to borrow equipment for free, “People who weren’t using the library started seeing themselves as library-users.”

That approach, of course, helps to cement a library’s base of support in a community when it comes time for a budget vote. So do fun events outside the library building, such as the trivia nights that Murphy organized in local taverns and restaurants. Keeping kids engaged once they’ve outgrown Story Hour is a particular challenge, she says. “Notoriously, we lose them in their teen years. So, we started a Battle of the Books team for middle-schoolers and then expanded it to the high school. We had dances with a deejay.” Murphy parlayed her strong interest in local history into a series of History Hikes, and even Mappy Hours where people could come to talk about maps. “I look around, see what’s not happening and do that.”

That’s the same approach that Murphy intends to enact at the Elting Library, whose strong historical collection is already the basis for an ongoing lecture series. “This month, I’m going to start a seed library for Earth Day. I think it’ll do well here. A passport acceptance facility will probably have to wait until next year; it requires a lot of training.”

Murphy also hopes to replicate a rather heretical success that she initiated in Cold Spring: gradual replacement of Dewey Decimal System categorization of the book collections, beginning with the children’s section. “Kids would much rather walk in and see books organized under signs that say ‘Fairytales’ or ‘Animals,’” she avers.

Mostly, though, her commitment is to shape a library that offers “something for everybody.” We can expect to see much more outreach in the New Paltz community, once the pandemic subsides. With a sideline as a marketing consultant and plenty of tutorial videos under her belt, Elting’s new helmswoman isn’t shy about grabbing a sleepy town by the collar and making it pay attention to what an exciting, versatile resource the local library can be.