Port Richmond Branch Library, The First 50 Years: 1905-1955
This post is a revised and updated version of an article that originally appeared in The Staten Island Historian, Winter-Spring 2002, Volume 19, New Series 2 published by the Staten Island Historical Society.
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The Port Richmond Branch of The New York Public Library is rich with stories. It stands at 75 Bennett Street on the North Shore of Staten Island, N.Y., two blocks from the Kill Van Kull. A gift from the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, the historic red brick building faces Veterans’ Park and P.S. 20 in the Port Richmond neighborhood. The library’s history and its service to the people of Port Richmond mirror the rapidly changing community life of Staten Island.
The Port Richmond library was built in an area that had only received sporadic library service throughout the 19th century. Staten Island interest in a public library began as early as 1833 when the Franklin Society established a social library in Factoryville (now West New Brighton). A variety of small private library collections and literary associations sprang up on the North Shore throughout the century: The Young Men’s Free Reading Room, The Castleton Free Circulating Library (in the Unitarian Church of New Brighton), and the Young People’s Literary Association of Tompkinsville. These groups tried, with only partial success, to fill the need for library service.
Around the turn of the century two groups on the South Shore, The Philomen Literary and Historical Society, a women’s group, and their male counterparts, The Philo Debating Society, joined with the Tottenville Library Association to make the first real headway in establishing a permanent public library presence on the island. They petitioned Andrew Carnegie for funds to construct a library that would be chartered by the University of the State of New York. This building is still in operation today as the Tottenville Branch of The New York Public Library — a branch that began a library-building boom on Staten Island. Next up: Port Richmond.
Mr. Carnegie’s Gift
Having amassed a fortune of about $300 million, Andrew Carnegie was about to embark on the greatest library construction project of all time. He sought to contribute his money to institutions that he felt could help those who wanted to better themselves. In 1897 he offered to finance the construction of a library for any community that petitioned him. Over the next several years, he would donate $56 million for the creation of 2,509 public libraries.
The New York Public Library would be one of the first in line for the money. Dr. John Billings, first director of The New York Public Library, convinced Mr. Carnegie that New York City required a library in every neighborhood, a revolutionary concept in its day. Mr. Carnegie gave $5.6 million for the construction of 56 branches in New York City. Only Port Richmond and Tottenville were originally slated for Staten Island.
One might expect a gift of free libraries to be immediately welcomed by all, but some political peculiarities in the recently consolidated city of New York embroiled the action in controversy. Those were the days of the notoriously corrupt city government of Tammany Hall, with many competing factions desiring control of the money as well as credit for the creation of the new libraries. Several issues fueled the controversy. The first was the source of the money. Mr. Carnegie was not universally popular. The violent suppression of a strike in his Homestead steel plant in 1892 led the author and social critic Upton Sinclair to call the gift “blood money.” A second issue was who would control the money, the not-for-profit corporation of The New York Public Library (whose trustees were almost all anti-Tammany men), or City Hall? Third: Disagreements among the boroughs over how the money should be distributed. Fourth: Mr. Carnegie attached a condition to his gift: The city must pay the price of maintaining, staffing and stocking the shelves of the new libraries. Library opponents charged that Carnegie was giving the city a burden, rather than a gift. Fifth: What would be the role of the new libraries? Most people today have fairly similar notions about the role of a public library, but back then the whole concept was new and yet to be defined. Some people wanted the libraries to be strictly limited to book lending while others pushed for them to be complete community centers containing social clubs, lecture halls, classrooms, and even public baths.
Fortunately, overwhelming popular support for the new libraries pushed New York City leaders to quick action. Unlike some cities where debate raged on for years, the necessary compromises were made with good speed. Control of the Carnegie money was given to The New York Public Library, administered by The Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, for the boroughs of the Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island. The Brooklyn Public Library was established to administer Mr. Carnegie’s gift in Brooklyn and The Queens Borough Public Library was born in Queens. The city agreed to pick up the cost of operating the new libraries. The library’s role began to emerge — no baths or social clubs, but classes and lectures were OK. The main function was agreed to be book lending.
George Cromwell, first president of the newly created Borough of Richmond, set up an advisory committee to determine how the Carnegie money should be used on Staten Island. The committee included DeWitt Stafford, Gugy Æ Irving, W.K. Johnston, I.K. Morris, W.C. Kerr and J.M. Carrère, of the firm of Carrère and Hastings, architects of The New York Public Library building on Fifth Avenue, and Staten Island’s Borough Hall.
Two Libraries Are Not Enough
This committee determined that The New York Public Library’s original plan for just two libraries on Staten Island was not enough. Fortunately, the library found that it would be able to build more branches with the Carnegie money than it originally estimated. An average of $80,000 was projected for each library. Many Manhattan branches came in at much higher prices. But Port Richmond’s contracted cost came in at the bargain price of $25,398.92 for the building and equipment — and only $5,000 to purchase the site from its owner, Mr. José T.J. Xiques, a Staten Islander of Cuban descent. The city approved the purchase on July 28, 1902, and a contract was signed on Aug. 18, 1902. Arrangements were made to condemn the building that stood on the site. The title was closed on Oct. 20, 1902.
Thanks to cheap Staten Island real estate and pressure from Borough President Cromwell’s committee, plans were made for additional libraries to be built at Stapleton, St. George, West New Brighton, and New Dorp. A library building boom had begun.
Design of the new Carnegie buildings was divided among three architectural firms. Carrère and Hastings were assigned the Staten Island branches of Port Richmond, Tottenville, Stapleton, and St. George. They drew up a single design for the Port Richmond, Tottenville and Stapleton branches, which could be adapted to each site. The plan included wide-open, single-level public floors unlike the firm’s Manhattan branch designs, which consist of several smaller floors due to the scarcity of available land.
The Classical Revival design of the Staten Island branches is impressive. These buildings can be viewed as monuments to learning and to civic pride, rather than as book warehouses. They have tall ceilings (about 30’) and large arched windows that provide ample light. Outside, tall pillars flank the entrances.
Construction of the new Port Richmond Branch Library was well under way in 1904. The builder, E.E. Paul, simultaneously headed the construction sites at both Tottenville and Port Richmond.
A Message in a Bottle
In the spring of 1904 two classmates at the Curtis High School Annex, located in P.S. 20, were making nightly visits to the construction site to check on the progress of the building. They were Edmund Joseph Nolan and John Field. During these visits they became acquainted with George Ballantine, a construction worker. The three men decided to place a message in a bottle, a time capsule for future generations to discover, in the foundation under the spot where one of the pillars would be built. That time capsule still rests there today. Its contents remain a mystery.
Edmund Nolan, however, was not satisfied with leaving just one time capsule inside the building. Without telling his friends, he came back to the construction site on Easter Sunday, 1904, and stuffed a second note in a citrate of magnesia bottle and placed it in the foundation at the rear of the building. This note reads:
To Whom it May concern:
I, Edmund Joseph Nolan, residing at No. 7 Cottage Place, Port Richmond, place this paper in this building, hoping that in later years it may be found and read. Port Richmond is but a country village now, which by the time this is found may be a flourishing town of many librarys. I am 19 years of age and hope to have the good fortune to be alive to hear of its finding. If this is found, please publish the contents of this letter in some New York Paper. Santos Dumont of air-ship fame has not at this date completed his invention, nor has the perpetual motion machine been discovered. At this date Thomas Edison is our foremost inventor. Today is Easter Sunday. It takes 40 minutes to go from Port Richmond to Manhattan. A trolley line runs along the shore and one runs up Richmond Ave. to Bulls Head. The Rapid Transit starts at Mariners Harbor and terminates at St. George. Then it starts at St. George and terminates at Tottenville. It takes 30 minutes to Tottenville. Standing at the front of this building there are 18 houses in sight. If this is found please publish the contents of this letter and if it is returned again please give it to Andrew Carnegie for exhibition. I bid you Good Bye this 3rd day of April 1904—4 O’Clock RM.
Edmund Joseph Nolan
Please advertise for the person bearing this name when this is found and tell him where to come.
“Santos Dumont” and his “invention” are references to the Brazilian-born inventor Alberto Santos-Dumont and his airplane. The Wright brothers first flew their airplane on Dec. 17,1903, well before Mr. Nolan wrote his note, but received little publicity because few people believed their story. When Santos-Dumont made his first airplane flight in Paris, in November 1906 in his 14-BIS, the world hailed him as the inventor of the airplane.
Santos-Dumont was eventually recognized as the first to fly an airplane on the continent of Europe. Many Brazilians still credit him as the airplane’s inventor. Later in his life, he became despondent over the use of the airplane as a weapon of war. He committed suicide in 1932.
The two notes were covered as construction continued on the building. A tall pillar was mounted over the first note and the back wall was built over the second.
The Library Opens
The library, the 29th branch of The New York Public Library’s Circulating Department, opened for patron registration on March 1,1905, but did not circulate books until March 20.
The opening ceremonies began at 3 P.M. on March 18, 1905. The library was filled with the sounds of a juvenile mandolin orchestra and glee club from P.S. 20. The traditional gathering of politicians was on hand, making speeches and giving thanks to Mr. Carnegie in front of a large American flag. Charles Fornes, president of the Board of Alderman, represented the Mayor of New York and acted as master of ceremonies. George Cromwell promised that “four other libraries” would soon be completed (a promise that was not kept for many years). Representing The New York Public Library were Dr. John S. Billings, Arthur S. Bostwick, Charles Howland Russell Esq., and William W. Appleton, of the Circulating Department.
The nationally known poet and Staten Island resident Edwin Markham, though unable to attend the opening because he was on a lecture tour, contributed a work, “The Praise of the Poets,” to be read on the occasion. On the 30th anniversary of the opening the Staten Island Advance stated that this was “specially-written” for the opening, but no work of this exact title is known to exist today. However, it may have been “The Poet’s Praise,” which appeared in the New England Magazine in May 1892. This poem begins:
His blithe and cheery spirit goes,
A brother of the budding rose.
No creed to fetter: hour by hour
Truth opens to him like a flower
Markham’s best-known poem, “The Man with the Hoe,” had become wildly popular after its publication in 1899. He was hailed in print as “the dean of American poetry,” “the foremost name in poetical literature since Tennyson and Browning,” and “America’s greatest living poet.” In 1922 he was chosen to read his poem, “Lincoln, The Man of the People,” at the opening ceremonies of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. He occasionally gave signed copies of his works to the Port Richmond branch, including “The Man with the Hoe” and the Lincoln Memorial opening poem. His wife and son would also maintain contact with the library in the coming years. Markham’s name has been given to a few Staten Island institutions, such as I.S. 51 and the Markham Houses, but he is little known today.
The library looked somewhat different then than it does now. There was a backyard where the children’s and reference rooms stand today. Tall glass partitions with glass doors divided the main reading room into three sections. One side housed the Adult Collection, the other the children’s. The center section contained a large rounded circulation desk, with a small librarian’s office jutting out of the back of the building. The woodwork was painted white. Gas chandeliers with big glass globes hung from the ceiling. The basement contained a coal storage area, heater, storeroom, workroom, and two restrooms. Large candy-striped awnings were installed outside over the big arched windows. A brass plaque was posted near the front door commemorating Mr. Carnegie’s gift. Ivy soon grew to cover the front of the building.
The Young Library
The New York Public Library sent Miss Gertrude Cohen to supervise the organization of the new branch and its collection of about 5,000 books. This task was soon turned over to Port Richmond’s next branch librarian, Miss Agnes Morland Campbell.
On March 20, 1905, Mr. Herman Osmer, of 1254 Castleton Avenue, checked out the first book. The library was open every weekday and evenings on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It was circulating about 100 books per day by May 1905. Over two thirds of this was juvenile fiction. Circulation for 1905 totaled 54,436 books. Some “best-sellers” included Masquerader by Thurston, The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, Handy Andy David Harum, Gentleman from Indiana by Booth Tarkington, and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. The neighborhood boys would wait in the library for hours for a chance to grab the next Horatio Alger book as soon as it came in.
Circulation would hit a high point in 1906, with 73,571 books borrowed that year. In 1907, the opening of the St. George and Stapleton branches caused circulation to drop sharply, to 25,667. It remained level through 1910, when the figure was 26,565. Also, a traveling library had been established in 1906. Headed by a Miss Dean, it set up collections in Sunday Schools, fire stations and other community locations, providing access to people in outlying neighborhoods. Staten Island had never had library service like this before.
By 1908 a new branch librarian, Julie E. Durnett, had taken over. Mrs. ED. Shumway was in charge of the children’s room. Many of the practices initiated during this period are still in effect. Regular story hours were already being held. Audiences of about 30 children would gather about twice a month to hear librarians tell such stories as “Snow White and Rose Red,” “Hans and the Four Giants,” “Candy Country,” and “The Happy Heart Family.” In March 1908, librarians were busy preparing the new Reading Room collection of non-circulating books for children to read in the library.
In October 1910, Mrs. Shumway, on a suggestion from the Hudson Park branch librarian, produced the first issue of the Current Events Bulletin for the Port Richmond branch. Events lists the activities at the branch each month and continues to this day. It has been expanded to a system-wide publication and is available on the Internet at www.nypl.org.
A popular item in the branch was the stereoscope, a 3-D picture viewer, which was left on a table with a collection of pictures (stereographs) for readers’ amusement.
What Is Suitable for Children?
The question of what materials are appropriate for children has probably been around since the first children were allowed in libraries. For many years, The New York Public Library banned children from using the adult room, not only to shield the adults from any misbehavior, but also to protect the children from reading things they were not “supposed” to read. Once children reached seventh grade, however, they were allowed in the adult room.
Librarians were very careful about what they allowed children to take out. In 1908 Mrs. Shumway noted, “7th and 8th grade girls will take nothing but fiction, the latest questionable novel if possible. What can one do when the girl presents her mother’s card...and says the book is for her mother, when you are quite sure it is for herself?” She asked Anne Carol Moore, The New York Public Library’s supervisor of work with children, “Do you approve of children looking at the newspapers?”
Discipline was another issue for the children’s librarian. Children who arrived at the Port Richmond branch with dirty hands were greeted with a wash basin and soap. “Candy apples are dealt with severely,” Mrs. Shumway declared.
Edwin Markham’s son Virgil was a regular visitor to the Port Richmond children’s room. In 1910 Mrs. Shumway noted, “Virgil is one of our boys.... He owns a large number of the best books, beautiful editions, lives in a highly literary atmosphere and his reading has been directed on strictly classic lines.... Yet, he has confided to me that he did not like any of his own books. He couldn’t tell why but he didn’t.”
Young Markham was interested in some of the less classical offerings of the Port Richmond children’s room, such as the St. Nicholas children’s magazine and books about animals. Mrs. Shumway suggested Howard Pyle’s Men of Iron. Upon returning it to the library he told her, “It was one of the best books I have ever read.”
Virgil’s mother, Mrs. Anna Catherine Markham, was also a regular visitor to the branch. Mrs. Sbumway complained, fairly or not, “She often spends the whole day...she has never glanced at the children’s room nor showed the slightest interest in what her boy was reading.... I suspect the child’s mind has been forced.... I am now plotting to introduce [him to] Robin Hood.” (Virgil presented his own version of his literary upbringing in “Literary Tradition on Staten Island,” a three-part article beginning in the October-December 1956 issue of the Staten Island Historian, Vol. XVII, No.4, p.33.)
The Atalanta Clubs
In 1912 Mrs. Shumway began the Atalanta Club, a kind of literary society for high school girls. The name “Atalanta” comes from the swift-footed Greek goddess — and from the first steam-powered ferryboat on Staten Island’s North Shore. Only fragments of the club’s minutes remain. These come from their initiation ceremony, which may have resembled a college sorority’s:
After the first fright was over all took to it very well. When Frances Hargreaves came she was so strong that, I am afraid, the others received more of the initiation than she for some even ran into corners behind chairs for protection from those enormous muscles. Now came the best part of all. We all gathered on chairs, windowseats, stairs and every place available, when we received the most delicious ‘eats.’ Oh! Such cake! And sandwiches and homemade ice cream.
Members of the club, which usually consisted of about 15 girls, would answer roll call by stating the name of a book they had just read. They recited poems and stories, attended plays, and staged debates. One debate topic was: “Resolved: The Public Library is harmful to schoolgirls.” It is unclear who carried the day on this one. The younger girls eventually formed their own club, “The Junior Atalanta Club.” The Atalanta clubs continued until 1919.
World War I
The coming of World War I changed the Port Richmond branch in many ways. Because the local shipbuilding firms were expanding to meet wartime needs — about 12,000 Staten Islanders worked in shipyards at the height of the war — the branch stocked many highly technical shipbuilding manuals. Text-book of Theoretical Naval Architecture, Rudimentary Treatise on Masting and Rigging of Ships and Oxy-acetylene Welding Practice were just a few of the selections one might encounter while browsing the shelves.
One librarian lamented that many of the technical shipbuilding titles were only printed in England and were very difficult to obtain. Many of the books the branch ordered never arrived. Three separate transport ships carrying the books were sunk crossing the Atlantic. But by the end of the war, the librarians felt “the [shipbuilding] collection excelled that of any other library in greater New York and vicinity.”
The war brought a boom to the Port Richmond economy. The Staten Island Advance reported in December 1917: “The month just ending marks the close of the busiest year in the history of the Port Richmond Library. Whether due to the influx of residents brought here by new industries or some other reason, the circulation is larger by several thousand than that of last year.”
Much of this influx was coming from Scandinavia. According to the Advance, “At the Port Richmond Branch is one of the best collections of Norwegian and Danish Books to be found in this vicinity, one reader coming all the way from Jersey City to make use of it.” The Port Richmond librarians visited English classes for the new immigrants to explain “the opportunities which the library offers in learning our language, history and government.” Easy English-language books on these subjects were gathered for use by the classes.
Although the local economy was on an upswing, there were wartime shortages. Lectures at the branch instructed residents on how to “economize and substitute for those foods they are asked to send to the Allies.” Books such as Wheat Substitutes and Household Organization for War Service were stocked for this purpose. Seed catalogs and books on vegetable gardening were offered to “answer almost any question that puzzles the beginner in this patriotic activity.” Outbreaks of disease were another community problem, sometimes forcing the branch to close. One especially bad outbreak of “infantile paralysis” forced the branch to close for most of July 1916.
In November 1917 the Staten Island Advance headlined, “Port Richmond Branch issues list for our new citizens.” These new citizens were not immigrants. They were all women who had just received the right to vote in New York State. The article continued, “Women who are eager to fit themselves for their new responsibilities as voters will find the following books at the Port Richmond Library....” and went on to list various civics books. It would be another three years before women were guaranteed the right to vote by the U.S. Constitution.
Gift Books for the Troops
The branch aided the war effort by selling War Service Stamps (the World War I version of government savings bonds) to its readers. Librarians requested that local residents owning books on the war, learning French, aviation, telegraphy, fiction and other subjects, label them “War Service” and bring them to the branch for distribution to the troops. The Advance noted, “Gift books should be selected with care, for they are to serve virile, impressionable young manhood.” Residents donated over 1,500 books that were then given to soldiers and sailors through a program sponsored by the American Library Association. General Pershing had secured room for 50 tons of books per month on ships leaving for Europe. Upon arrival the books were distributed by army chaplains, the YMCA and Red Cross units.
Despite the increased demands the war placed on the library, branch funding was cut for other war needs. According to the Advance:
No department has suffered more on account of inadequate financial funding during the war period than The New York Public Library. At a time when books cost far more than ever before the fund from which books can be purchased has been reduced. Not being paid a living wage [a] large number of assistant librarians have been driven out of the service. A junior assistant in the circulation department can only be paid — the highest — $65 per month.
In 1918 the Advance reported that Mrs. Shumway, by then the branch librarian, resigned her position at Port Richmond and accepted “a much better one” at Mount Vernon, N.Y.
Unfortunately, very few branch records from the 1920s have survived. The Advance, however, described Port Richmond’s 20th anniversary celebration in 1925. Over 100 schoolchildren attended a lantern slide show about spring flowers. The highlight of the show was when the staff of the Staten Island Museum brought in a live owl that had been captured at the Moravian Cemetery.
Story hour attendance averaged about 40 children during this period. All second graders as well as first-year students at Port Richmond High School Annex in P.S. 20 were given instruction in the use of card catalogs during their first week of school. The library also provided deposit collections for schools, churches, and clubs. Book stock had risen to 12,000 by 1925, more than double its original 5,000 volumes.
A community event of note during this period was the construction of the library’s next-door neighbor, the Scandinavian Lutheran Church, in 1921.
"I finally got work at a truck-garden farm on Staten Island. The farm belonged to some Greeks [two brothers and their wives], who didn’t care what nationality you were just so you got up at five in the morning and worked all day until it was too dark to see the rows in the field. …There was something about such work that made you feel useful and important—sending off onions that you had planted and seen grow from a mere speck of green, that you tended and weeded, had pulled up and washed and even loaded on the wagon—seeing them go off to feed the great city of New York. Your onions! …Sunday afternoons we had off. …Sometimes some of the fellows went into Port Richmond to find girls and wine."
Langston Hughes worked on the farm of John and Emmanuel Criaris at 2289 Richmond Avenue. He was known to have visited New York Public Library branches in Manhattan, but it is not known if he ever visited the Port Richmond branch.
The year 2002 marks the centennial of Langston Hughes’s birth. His fame looms large at Harlem’s renowned Schomburg Library (officially named The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture), which has dedicated its auditorium and an adjacent atrium to him. His ashes are interred there.
“Every day the staff hears of a family without food, another without a home, others living on practically nothing and dozens without any jobs,” wrote the branch librarian, Helen Wessells, in 1932. “It seemed proper that we should offer moral encouragement by means of the atmosphere of the branch and cheerful service.”
Requests for books on vocational guidance, woodworking, and home repair began to rise. “Many more high school and college students have registered and continue to use the library after graduation. Too many of them have been unable to get positions, therefore they use the library for their higher education.”
In the early 1930s many of the shipyards closed down. Some of the Norwegian population, unable to find employment, returned to Norway to live with relatives. The library suffered a “barometric fall” in circulation during the Great Depression. Book appropriations were cut “drastically.” By 1932 the entire branch staff consisted of only four people. Port Richmond’s librarians had to hitchhike or walk several miles to visit local schools because they could not afford carfare. In 1933 Isabelle Kershaw, the children’s librarian, wrote:
Many families have migrated to outlying areas of Staten Island, and to New Jersey. The book wagon has taken care of some of those distant families. ...So many of the men had been employed in the shipyards, and when they were closed the men were adrift, knowing no other trade and at a loss to know where to turn. The staff has known welfare workers, church workers and teachers who have told us of appalling conditions, but we have seen for ourselves tragic instances of poverty and illness which could not be alleviated. ...In many families, mothers have been able to secure work where fathers were not able to, and consequently quite small children assumed the care of the home and preparation of the meals for those children still younger.
Still, even in the most troubled times, the library provided moments of relief. Fifty to 100 children gathered for the weekly story hours down in the basement to hear stories by Kipling, Pyle, and others. Librarians would take the children on trips to the American Museum of Natural History, tour the fireboats docked at St. George, and visit the zoo. Two library clubs, one for boys and one for girls, were active with guest speakers, storytelling, and soap carving.
Visitors to the library during this period were greeted by a deep-sea diver’s suit, which was stuffed and standing in a corner. Children dubbed it the “Invisible Man.” The gift of a retired navy diver, the suit, surrounded by cables, charts, and seashells, posed a great challenge to the librarians, who had to figure out a way to decorate it at Christmas.
The branch garden was at its peak during this time. A large willow tree in the backyard provided shade for readers on hot summer days. Cuttings from the yard combined with readers’ own flowers to fill the branch with “armloads of apple blossoms, lilies of the valley and peony buds.”
Some hopeful economic signs began to appear around 1934. A few of the shipyards began to reopen. Government jobs’ programs provided “CWA men” to help the overburdened staff shelve books and do general maintenance.
New economy measures were taken to stretch the budget. Referring to the new sharing of resources between branches, branch librarian Helen Wessells wrote, “Union! It seems to be the word for Staten Island libraries.” Joint book ordering with the West New Brighton and Stapleton branches was undertaken to avoid duplication of materials. Circuit collections, which rotated books between the branches every few months, were initiated to provide readers with a greater variety of books at each branch. A North Shore Readers’ Association was formed, with a West New Brighton-Port Richmond Unit, to aid the library. Work on a Staten Island Union catalog was begun at the West New Brighton branch and soon moved to Port Richmond to aid readers in locating the books that could no longer be found at their local branch.
A popular spot in the branch was a “Men’s Shelf” that held such books as Zane Grey’s westerns and a variety of nonfiction and technical manuals. “Books about ships and sailing and airplanes continue to be prime favorites with the boys of all ages,” wrote the children’s librarian, Eleanor Townsend. Honk the Moose was a big children’s hit as well as Mary Poppins, known to the smaller children as “Mary Pumpkins.” One reference title, Biology, edited by Port Richmond’s old friend Edwin Markham, was very much in demand.
Not all the popular titles were in English, however. In addition to the Norwegian and German collections there were a small Spanish collection, a Polish collection, and an Italian circuit collection that was “growing in popularity.”
Morning English classes for Italian women and evening English classes for Norwegian women were held at the branch. “Here is a very interesting collection of nationalities,” wrote librarian Katherine Love. “There are fair-haired Scandinavians, Scotch, English, Irish, Italian, Greek and Negro children and perhaps other nationalities which I have not noticed.” The branch was sometimes referred to as the “Port Richmond League of Nations.”
The 30th anniversary of the branch was celebrated in 1935. A special invitation list of early readers, including Herman Osmer, Port Richmond’s first reader, was compiled for an informal reception. An exhibit of 1905 best-sellers and pictures of the first year’s activities was put on display.
The New Addition
After several false starts, the Works Progress Administration began construction of an addition to the rear of the building in 1938. This included a new children’s room, reference room, auditorium, and custodian’s apartment.
As the workers began excavating, they uncovered a citrate of magnesia bottle with Edmund Joseph Nolan’s time capsule in it. As Mr. Nolan had requested, the Staten Island Advance published an article announcing the discovery.
Mr. Nolan no longer lived on Staten Island but his two partners in placing the notes did — George Ballantine and John Field. John Field told the Advance the story of the time capsule’s placement in the library’s foundation. He hoped that Mr. Nolan, who would be 53 years old, would hear of its discovery wherever he was, and that this would bring about a reunion of the old friends. There is no record that Mr. Nolan ever heard of its discovery.
Construction of the new addition created the expected havoc in the branch, but it remained open despite having large holes ripped in the back walls. Inside, the old circulation desk and dividers were removed. Workers came in double shifts from early morning until 10 PM.
When the addition was completed in November 1939, the branch was described as a “miracle of transformation.” Large fireplaces glowed with warmth during the winter. High arched windows flooded the new rooms with light in the summer. Reference books that had at times been stored in the basement and in offices little bigger than closets now had a room of their own.
Downstairs, the new Chimes Playhouse provided a home for performers and public meetings. The name “Chimes” comes from the electric chimes that signaled the beginning of each program. The opening attraction was a performance of On Borrowed Time by the 101 Players.
Librarian Laura Hulse described the local youngsters’ reaction to the new children’s room: “Singly or in small groups the children drifted in.... They liked its shape and size, they liked its shiny floor and new furniture, and the shelves that they could reach and see.... They liked being away from the restrictions imposed by grown-ups. But for them the room was simply a background for the more important thing — the books.”
Port Richmond Improves
Things were improving in many ways for Port Richmond. The staff, which had been cut down to four members in 1932, rose to 19 members (plus numerous WPA workers) by 1937.
That year the Directory of New York State Manufacturers listed 34 medium and large concerns in the Port Richmond area. In 1938 the librarians noted, “Technical book circulation is definitely increasing [due to the] influx of workers brought to the Island by Bethlehem Steel to work in the former United Ship Yards.” The number of shipyard workers on Staten Island would soon equal the high of 12,000 that had been reached during World War I.
Children would gather at the branch to listen to The New York Public Library’s weekly radio storytelling broadcasts on WQXR. Several drama groups and glee clubs were holding regular rehearsals in the Chimes Playhouse, which hosted over 100 performances annually. One highlight was the premiere of a promotional film, The Staten Island Library Movie. It was shown to members of the joint West New Brighton-Port Richmond Readers’ Association. Edgar and Ingri D’Aulaire, Caldecott Medal-winning illustrators and authors, paid the children’s room a visit, bringing their baby with them. During the winter, Christmas stories and caroling were conducted in front of fir-trimmed fireplaces with Yule logs crackling.
World War II
Because of its large immigrant communities from Norway, Italy, and Poland, Port Richmond began to feel the effects of the war even before Pearl Harbor. Looking at world events in 1940, librarian Laura Hulse wrote:
...so much of disaster and tragedy has occurred, that civilization seems almost to have vanished. If it were not for the new generations constantly arising, there would seem indeed, to be very little hope for the future.... If one small children’s room of one branch library can, in its stock taking, find excuse for its being; if it has in any way helped to make more normal the home life of the children in the community it serves, even in a year of wars and injustice, then it must have done its part.
Port Richmond was swept up in war mobilization. The 1942 Branch Annual Report described the conditions: “Ship yards along the Kill Van Kull from Bement Avenue to the huge Bethlehem Steel Plant in Mariners Harbor are working a twenty-four hour period.” The librarians visited the classes in shipfitting conducted by the Training Division at the Bethlehem yard to make the workers aware of the branch’s shipbuilding collection. The report continued:
One is conscious of the sea and the part it plays in the lives of many readers in this branch. For many women whose husbands or sons are aiding the war effort as merchant seamen, days are filled with anxiety, and a book ‘to take my mind off what may have happened to his boat, he hasn’t been home for six months now’ was a recent request.
Fuel shortages reduced service to three days a week and put a stop to the traveling library service. Early in the war, children from P.S. 20 had to be escorted directly home after school due to a fear of air raids, preventing them from visiting the library. The 1943 Branch Annual Report noted:
The draft of the younger men beginning earlier in the year and continued and increasing pressure of war jobs and volunteer work have contributed to diminished use of the branch. Also the thousands of service men stationed on Staten Island or passing through enroute to overseas duty...have meant that organizations and individuals are kept busy providing a great variety of services for these men.
The most popular topics for the branch during the war were the “practical arts” of cooking, sewing, poultry raising, and gardening. This emphasis led to a shortage of some of the best-selling fiction of the day, causing one reader to complain, “You have books on how to win the war, how to raise poultry, what to know about the Merchant Marine, but what about a good book to read?”
The Chimes Playhouse was busy with meetings of volunteer groups like the North Shore American Women’s Voluntary Service, the Staten Island Community Chest and War Fund, the Red Cross, and the Bethlehem Craftsmen organization that supported Halloran Hospital. One program, “Poland Fights On,” attracted an audience of 75 persons. There was also time for non-war-related groups, like the Westerleigh Players and a couple of jazz orchestras that rehearsed there.
In 1943 Dr. Carl J. Hambro, President of the Norwegian Parliament-in-Exile and past President of the League of Nations, spoke at the opening night of a month-long library exhibit, Norway Lives! He attracted an audience of 200 Norwegians.
Dr. Hambro explained that, even though Norway had been occupied and had already lost 375 ships, Norwegian ships still carried 40 percent of the fuel and 30 percent of the provisions reaching the Allies in Europe. (The Port Richmond branch supplied the New York Orthopedic Hospital with Norwegian books for the wounded Norwegian sailors recuperating there.) The children from the library’s two Norwegian classes, conducted by Mrs. Holm Hansen, participated in the program dressed in traditional Norwegian outfits singing, dancing, and playing the piano and accordion. The shelves upstairs displayed Norse crafts.
The Advance wrote: “The opening night, with bright fires blazing on the hearths and the auditorium filled with people listening to the concert of the Norwegian Glee Club of Port Richmond, was an inspiring community event.”
Three of Port Richmond’s librarians volunteered to work at the Fort Wadsworth Post Library on Sunday afternoons. The branch librarian, Mrs. Mary Jane Bowles, was especially active, serving on the Staten Island Council for Democracy, a group of community leaders called together by Borough President Palma to promote better interracial and interfaith understanding on Staten Island. She also served on the Inter-Racial Committee of the Staten Island Council of Social Agencies, the Mayor’s Committee for the Wartime Care of Children, and a committee for the Women’s Division of the 6th War Loan, and chaired the committee for the Markham Houses’ Nursery School.
The end of the war brought new challenges to the library. One challenge was the return of readers who had been unable to visit during the war. Mrs. Bowles reported that the “Port Richmond Branch has shared in the general upsurge in circulation and reference use since V-J day.”
One of the greatest challenges was to help returning veterans adjust to civilian life again. Mrs. Bowles recalled seeing one veteran looking over the help-wanted ads in Library Journal. She told him, “I certainly wish you good luck in whatever decision you make about your future.”
“Thank you,” he replied, and then, pausing for a moment before going out the door, added, “And about that good luck, well, I am here, am I not?”
Trade-related books, such as those on auto mechanics and refrigeration, began to replace shipbuilding manuals — whose circulation had already been in decline before the end of the war. (As local shipyards completed their tooling-up period, they did not require the same number of training materials.)
Recreational reading also increased, resulting in a higher demand for books on sailing, photography, rabbit-raising and painting. The most popular fiction works at the branch in 1944 were The Razor’s Edge, Strange Fruit and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The children’s room was the busiest on Staten Island in the postwar years.
Circulation rose by several thousand in both the adults’ and the children’s rooms, reaching 103,911 volumes in 1947, but was still below the peak of 172,117 reached in 1932. In 1948 the traveling library returned, expanding library service to Willowbrook, Westerleigh, and Mariners Harbor, as well as Port Richmond.
The Chimes Playhouse saw performances by Marie and Her Harmony Boys, The Nansen All-Girl Chorus, The Westerleigh Players, and several glee clubs. Amateur actors, musicians and tap dancers from the Bethlehem shipyards rehearsed there for revues to be presented at Halloran Hospital. The Staten Island Poetry Society, founded in 1947, held its meetings at the branch along with the Youth Council of The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the United Nations Forum, the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, the Decker Avenue Civic Association, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts and a Great Books group.
In 1948 Phyllis Whitney, the best-selling Staten Island author, spoke to a girls’ group. A lesser-known author, Mrs. Frances Tysen Nutt, stopped in to discuss her book Three Fields to Cross, an historical romance set on Staten Island during the American Revolution. One librarian noted that if not for the consideration of the custodian, the playhouse would be in use every night of the week.
The 1950s brought a new challenge to the library: television. In 1951 Mrs. Bowles wrote optimistically, “There does seem to be some indication that the novelty of television is wearing off for some of the people who forsook their usual reading habits in its favor. Former readers who have been conspicuously absent are now returning with the explanation that they have gotten tired of too much television.” However, she did recognize that “...the question of how many potential readers will be lost to the libraries because of this new and exciting competitor for all leisure-time activities is a serious one.”
One type of television show, the quiz show, actually brought people into the library to research potential questions. The librarians regarded these people with some suspicion. Mrs. Bowles wrote, “...quiz program hopefuls are a persistent lot, although most of them seem to be strangers to the library. Our policy with these is [to] indicate sources of information, refrain from doing [their] research and to keep a watchful eye on the dictionaries and encyclopedias.”
But in at least one instance she noted that their research at Port Richmond paid off. “A war bride returned Durant’s Story of Baseball with the good news that it had provided the correct answers for a television quiz program in which she had won $3,000 in prizes.”
The postwar period began the exodus of the Norwegian community. By 1955 the Norwegian collection was largely unused and its remnants were transferred to the Donnell Branch foreign-language collection in Manhattan. New readers were added from the Darrow Homes in Mariners Harbor.
One highlight of 1955 was the arrival of Port Richmond’s most famous librarian, Mr. Shigeo Watanabe. The noted children’s author came to the United States on a Fulbright Scholarship to study library science. Though he only stayed a few months, Mrs. Bowles noted that “Port Richmond children took him into their hearts as have other children on Staten Island who have had the privilege of knowing this gifted Japanese children’s librarian. The staff too has been enriched by having him in the branch and we are happy that this part of his American experience could be acquired here.”
In June 1956 Mr. Watanabe wrote to Mrs. Frances Lander Spain, superintendent of work with children:
‘Hello, Mr. Tokyo. I still remember your stories,’ said a little girl....
Even though I am not ‘Mr. Tokyo’ (have you ever been called as Miss New York?) but humble Mr. Watanabe (Mr. Smith in Japanese), there is nothing more encouraging when one starts his work with children than their welcoming attitude.
These were questions new friends of mine asked when they approached me for the first time —two first grade boys with twinkling eyes, full of curiosity:
‘Mister, are you a Puerto Rican?’
I said, ‘No, I am not,’ with a bit of a Spanish accent.
‘Oh, you are a German then?’
(I only wish I had known how to say in German), ‘Oh, no, I don’t think so,’ answered I.
‘But you can’t be a Chinese, because you have not a pig tail.’
(Do I have to answer for this?)
However, it did not take a long time for them to know who I was and what I was — I do not believe that any one of them had seen a male children’s librarian anyway.
In 1956 Mr Watanabe was chosen as one of the Outstanding Storytellers at the American Library Association Conference in Miami Beach. In 1957 he returned to Japan, where he became a major force in introducing American and English children’s literature, with over 100 translations to his credit. His “I Can Do It All by Myself” books were very popular with American preschoolers in the 1980s.
The quotations by librarians in this article were taken from their monthly and annual reports, housed in the Manuscripts and Archives Division of The New York Public Library’s Center for the Humanities, Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, New York, N.Y. Other sources include:
Atalanta Club minutes.
The Big Sea, by Langston Hughes (1940).
Biography Resource Center at www.nypl.org
The Edwin Markham Collection at the Horrmann Library, Wagner College, Staten Island, N.Y.
“Historical Foundations of Public Library Service on Staten Island, New York,” by Lisa De Palo. Current Studies in Librarianship, Spring/Fall 1999, Vol. 23, Nos. 1 & 2, pp. 4-15.
The History of The New York Public Library Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, by Harry Miller Lydenberg. New York: The New York Public Library, 1918.
Interview with Marjorie Johnson
Interview with Kay Lande Selmer
Staten Island Advance, 1905-2002.
Staten Island Chamber of Commerce.
PORT RICHMOND’S BRANCH
LIBRARIANS AND THEIR YEARS
OF SERVICE, 1904-1959
Compiled by Andrew Wilson
Miss Gertrude Cohen
Miss Agnes Morland Campbell
(Exact dates unknown)
Mrs. Julia E. Durnett
(April 19057-July 1917)
*Mrs. ED. Shumway
Miss Ethel Savacool
(August 1917?-April 1922)
Miss Bessie McGregor
(April 1922-September 1925)
Miss Florence Normile
(October 1925-February 1929)
Mrs. Helen E. Wessells
(March 1929-August 1941)
Mr. Edwin C. Jackson (acting)
(September1941 -July 1942)
Mrs. Mary Jane Bowles
(August 1942-April 1959)
*Library archives do not list Mrs. E.D. Shumway as branch librarian, but she is credited with title of “head librarian” in the Staten Island Advance article about her resignation in May 1918.
THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY
ON STATEN ISLAND:
BRANCHES AND DATES
7430 Amboy Road
NYPL opening: Nov. 26 1904
Opened as Tottenville Free Library, with a collection of 230 books, on Feb. 6,1899, in two rooms of a clapboard house at 137 Johnson Avenue (now 204-206 Johnson Avenue). Chartered by the State University of New York. Present building: Carnegie gift, 1904. Full renovation: June 1991. Designated NYC Landmark: May 1995.
75 Bennett Street
NYPL opening: March 18. 1905
Carnegie gift. Designated NYC Landmark: Oct. 13,1998.
5 Central Avenue
NYPL opening: June 26. 1907
Carnegie gift. Reopened as a Regional Headquarters on June 6, 1952. Full renovation 1985; at St. Mark’s Place during renovation.
West New Brighton
976 Castleton Avenue
NYPL opening: June 17. 1917
Opened as a “home station” in 1913 at 1006 Castleton Avenue. Opened as a “sub-branch” on June17, 1917, at 998 Castleton Avenue. Also mentioned in 1917: “Travelling
Library Station” at 1195 Castleton Avenue. 1918: 85 State Street. Present building opened on Feb. 1, 1933.
56 Giffords Lane
NYPL opening: ca. 1921
Opening may have been earlier. A second opening, on Jan. 2,1927, is recorded. In 1935, a “portable wooden sub-branch with a brick addition” is described. Located on Hillside Terrace during the 1940s. Rented quarters at 3936 Amboy Road, Sept. 8, 1952. Ground broken for current site on March 30, 1953. Present location since Sept. 24, 1954.
309 New Dorp Lane
NYPL opening: Nov. 4. 1926
1907: Community library in Trinity Parish House. 1909: Receiving books from traveling library. 1910: Moves to real estate office of James Watson Hughes on Rose Avenue. 1916: In garage of Emil Peterson on Sixth Street. 1920: Becomes NYPL “sub-station.” 1925: New Dorp Board of Trade assumes responsibility for the library building. 1926: Moves to 155 Third Street, becomes NYPL “sub-branch” known as “James Watson Hughes Memorial Library” after the late husband of Isabella Hughes, donor of the land and $30,000. 1954: Becomes full NYPL branch. Present location since March 23, 1972. Full renovation: September 1998.
830 Huguenot Avenue
NYPL opening: 1929
Opened in a small white building measuring only 13’ x 15’, NYPL’s smallest branch. Had originally operated in 1902 as part of a variety store. Ran with volunteers until 1926. 1929: NYPL takes over books and service. 1964: Became full NYPL branch. Jan.17, 1976: Temporarily closed due to budget cuts. March 22, 1977: Destroyed by fire. April 4,1978: Reopened. Jan. 2,1985: Opened in present building.
A station was sponsored by the Prince’s Bay Women’s Club in 1915. In 1929, NYPL took over books and service at 6054 Amboy Road, quarters donated by the South Shore Veteran Fireman’s Association. A librarian was shared with Huguenot Park. Closed 1983/1984.
2550 Victory Boulevard
NYPL opening: 1950/1 951
Bookmobile stop in late 1940s. In 1950/1951 opened in the Todt Hill Houses, New York City Housing Authority, at 255 Westwood Avenue. Moved in 1963 to 1891 Victory Boulevard. In present location since Nov. 5, 1984. April 1991: Additional story added.
1617 Richmond Road
NYPL opening: Dec. 9. 1957
Opened in storefront at 1576 Richmond Road, closed on July 19, 1974. March 20, 1975: Reopened at present location.
21-25 Robin Road
NYPL opening: March 1950
Opened in the recreation area of the South Beach Houses, New York City Housing Authority, at 155 Norway Street. June 1953: “Sub-branch” moved to 100 Sand Lane. 1989: Destroyed by fire. Dec. 19, 1990: Reopened. At present location since Feb. 8, 2000.
200 Clarke Avenue
NYPL opening: Oct. 9. 1996
Opened in the former Gateway Cathedral building with staff transferred from Great Kills, for which it was originally planned as a replacement. Community action kept Great Kills branch open.
The Staten Island Extension Office, headquartered at the St. George Branch, ran the “Book Wagon” or bookmobile, which serviced deposit collections at numerous community agencies. According to a S.I. Chamber of Commerce publication, in 1926 there were three sub-branches, three community stations and 50 deposit stations at public and parochial schools, firehouses, homes and factories, including Police Headquarters, the U.S. Army base at Miller Field, U.S. Marine Hospital, S.S. White Dental Works and American Linoleum Manufacturing Co. These collections ranged in size from 25 to 250 volumes.
During World War II, fuel shortages caused suspension of service, which was resumed in 1948.
Several different bookmobiles were used over the years. One was purchased from Gertenslager and put into service on Dec. 15,1950. It was then making 18 stops and traveling about 200 miles each week. Another was purchased in 1964. It was 35 long and carried 5,000 volumes. Service was discontinued in fall 1983.