125 Years of Our Palisades Library

The first attempt to start a library in Palisades was a failure. At some time between 1863 when Dr. Cornelius Agnew arrived in Palisades and 1891, Dr. Agnew set up a fine library and reading room in the abandoned Steepleless Church, located where the Post Office now stands. (Sometime during the 1850s Nichols Gesner’s Methodist sect built a small church that was known as the Steepleless Church because it didn’t have a steeple.) However, it was soon vandalized and abandoned.

The year 1891 witnessed a more successful attempt to provide Palisades residents with a library. Mrs. Lydia Lawrence donated a building — the old Watson house, later known as the Ding Dong house on lower Washington Spring Road, which she had recently acquired — and 663 books, as well as a caretaker for the building to prevent the kinds of problems suffered by the fi rst library. Fifty-two people immediately subscribed to become library members. Library entertainments were offered starting in 1892 and added to the funds from subscribers. Emma Quidor was the first librarian.

The next period of activity began with the moving of the library up the hill to its new quarters in the historic “Big House” on route 9W owned by Lydia Hyde, in the spring of 1899. Emma Quidor retired in 1941, an impressive fifty years later, and was replaced by local resident Ruth Salmon.

After Lydia Hyde’s death in 1943, the library was forced to move to the back room of the Old School (now the Community Center). Because the building was owned by the school, it was necessary for the library to reorganize and offer free library service to all members of the school district. Mildred Rippey began her long career as Palisades librarian in this building in 1945. At first library funding was provided by contributions from local families, but in 1948 the school district began to appropriate funds for the library’s maintenance.

School enrollments were rising, necessitating increased use of the Old School, which interfered with library use. The library trustees began fundraising, planning to add a wing to the Old School building, but instead decided to buy the old Jordan house on the corner of Oak Tree and Closter roads. It had recently come on the market, was for sale for $9,000 and could be adapted for library use. The first annual meeting in the new building was held on Memorial Day, 1953.

In 1962 fundraising began for the addition of a new wing that would include a reference room, a children’s room, a lavatory and a pantry. Construction took place in 1964. After much soul searching, (the trustees were afraid that other libraries would request too many of their books), the Palisades Free Library joined the Ramapo-Catskill Library System in 1963. In 1968 Beatrice Agnew, who had been very active as a trustee, agreed to become Library Director. During the 1960s and 70s the library gave an annual fund-raising dance as well as spring and fall plant sales.

By 1970 it was clear the library, which had the highest book circulation per capita in New York State, needed more staff and more space. Marie Firestone was hired to work at the circulation desk and fundraising began for an addition, but it was postponed because of lack of funds. From the fall of 1981 through the fall of 1985 the library sponsored a series of Sunday Seminars, events featuring Palisades residents speaking on topics of interest. Library dances were held through 1986 but then stopped because of poor attendance.

Library offerings were expanding. During 1991 forty-nine reading and craft programs for children were offered. In April 1995 Johanna Lo, Reference Librarian, began work at the library full-time. A groundbreaking ceremony for a major addition to the library, to include a new reading room, was held on July 19,1995, and the library re-opened in June 1996. By now it included books-on-tape and computers.

During the next ten years the library went from strength to strength. DVDs fi rst appeared on the shelves in 2002. In 2004, after years of fundraising, the mortgage taken out for the 1995 addition was finally paid off. A very successful History Day was held at the Community Center in 2005. In 2006 the library’s photo collection was digitized and put on the Hudson Valley Heritage website. A new series of Sunday seminars began that same year.

It was a shock when Library Director Beatrice Agnew, who had served for nearly 40 years, suffered a stroke in December 2007 and died after ten days without regaining consciousness. The trustees immediately began a careful and exhaustive search for a new director.

They chose Maria Gagliardi, who was appointed as the new Palisades librarian in 2008. One of her first actions was to extend library hours: opening time was now 11:00 am instead of 1:00 pm. In 2010 Maria oversaw the updating of the library’s web site, an essential portal to everything the library offers. Today readers can borrow regular print books, DVDs, books-ontape, large print books, and e-books from the Palisades Free Library. They can also consult a variety of on-line reference materials.

A 2013 renovation added more space for books in the lobby, a community room and additional parking. In 2015 the community room was named for Marie Firestone following her retirement. After Johanna Lo retired, Maria hired librarian Anya Berg with the charge of using the space for innovations such as exhibitions, showing films, a book club, computer classes and interesting presentations on all sorts of subjects. Maria’s accessibility, technical expertise and evident love for the library have made her an outstanding leader for our library.

The Palisades Free Library has changed so much since 1891 that its original subscribers might not recognize it as a library. It has maintained its original mission, to instruct and entertain Palisades residents with the help of the printed word, for over 125 years, while judiciously making the changes and additions needed to keep up with our evolving culture. I wonder what the Palisades Free Library will be like 125 years from now?