The Early Years
Scarsdale’s first lending library was established in 1906 and consisted of little more than a shelf of forty books curated by Mr. and Mrs. George E. Stewart. Of course, this tiny collection was woefully inadequate for the community. An editorial in the June 23, 1923, edition of The Scarsdale Inquirer urged residents to consider the creation of a public library that would equal in reputation the Village’s renowned public education and recreational facilities. This plea dovetailed with a particular passion of Scarsdale residents John W. and Mary F. Dickinson, who had for years been collecting books with a view to making a gift to the Village. In October of 1925, they donated 2,500 books to Scarsdale and created a $10,000 trust fund to supply income for the maintenance of the collection. The library was housed at Scarsdale High School under the auspices of the Scarsdale Board of Education. Within two years, however, it became apparent that the collection had outgrown the space at the High School. Mr. and Mrs. Dickinson’s vision for a library space that would be “just as attractive and just as inviting to the reader as a comfortable and nicely arranged home” came to fruition when the Wayside Lane Cottage became available in 1927. Mr. and Mrs. Dickinson created a second trust fund for maintenance of the collection and arranged to cover the costs of moving the books from the High School to Wayside Lane. On February 28, 1928, the Village Board voted to establish the Scarsdale Public Library; two months later, it secured the right to assess a tax for library equipment and maintenance. On April 26, 1928, the Regents of the State of New York granted a charter incorporating the library. The library officially opened at Wayside Cottage on October 28, 1928, with a collection of 5,746 volumes, including priceless first editions. The Village Board appointed members to the first Library Board, with Pliny W. Williamson serving as president. The Village Board voted to provide $15,000 for maintenance for the first year and committed to maintaining the facility and the collection through taxation. By the end of its first year, Mayor Cunningham deemed the Library “a unique institution, capable of meeting the present needs of the community and flexible enough to supply new branches of service as the need arises.”
A New Home
Of course, the needs of a community are subject to change and by 1935 the library’s collection had exceeded the space at Wayside Cottage. Further, the facility was deemed a fire hazard. In the autumn of 1941, the Library Board became convinced that a new library should be built despite the “threatened war situation.” The Town Club, which had been cooperating with local organizations in researching a convenient and attractive location, favored positioning the new library in Harwood Park, just north of the High School. In 1944, the Village Board endorsed the Town Club’s recommendation of a library site in the 11 acre Harwood Park. It was agreed that part of the funds would be raised by public subscription; to this end the Friends of the Scarsdale Library was formed in May 1946. The Village set up a reserve fund for public buildings, with the construction of the library as its first project. Construction was authorized in 1950 and architects hired. Hunter McDonnell designed the handsome stone exterior and Alfred Morton Githens, a library specialist, laid out the interior.
The new building officially opened on September 30, 1951. The total cost was $316,900, of which the Village paid $207,303. Contributions accounted for the remainder and included gifts from the Friends of the Library, the Junior League, the War Memorial Fund, and remaining funds from the Dickinson donation. Through the years, gifts from local organizations, particularly the Friends of Library, continued to augment the tax support of the Library. It appeared that the dream of the Dickinsons had been fulfilled; Scarsdale now had a library that, in the words of S. Spencer Scott, would be “a repository for the accumulated thoughts of all our peoples.”
Twenty years later, it was determined that an addition to the structure was needed due to increases in the Village’s population and the number of card holders, the ever expanding collection and the need for a venue for programming. The total cost of the addition, exclusive of a program room, was estimated at $775,000. On February 5, 1973, Scarsdale voters approved an $800,000 bond issue to be paid off in 20 years. The $180,000 cost of the program room/auditorium was given impetus by the generous initial gift of the S. Spencer Scott family. Additional financial support came from the Scarsdale Foundation, the Friends of the Scarsdale Library and other Village organizations. Further, over 300 individuals donated money to the project. Funding for a local history alcove came from the family of John K. Starkweather. The new wing, containing an additional 7,800 square feet, provided double the net usable area available to the public previously. The dedication ceremony, attended by over 350 Scarsdale residents, was held on June 22, 1975. Mayor Boine Johnson noted that the expanded Library represented a new concept, “wherein the library is the key or central part of the cultural activities of the community” and not just a place for book storage.
In 1981, a gift of $12,500 was given by George Jaffin to construct a conference room in the main part of the library. The room, which was named after Mr. Jaffin, became an extremely popular meeting place for non-profits and for smaller Scarsdale Adult School classes.
In 1995, the Children’s Room was renovated, funded by a gift of $100,000 from Alfred and Luella Slaner. The room was named the Finney Children’s Room, in honor of Eleanor and Burnham Finney, long time Scarsdale Library volunteers.
The main reading room, part of the 1975 addition, had been designed to include a mezzanine. However, that aspect of the project was postponed until 1998. With the help of a generous gift of $900,000 from Luella Slaner, the new mezzanine afforded additional storage space for the collection. In 2007, the Reference Room was renovated, using a gift of $300,000 from the Virginia and Leonard Marx Foundation.
The Library in the 21st Century
In 2011, the Scarsdale Library ranked 6th among the 38 libraries in Westchester in both the number of items circulated (397,084) and number of reference questions answered (53, 560). At that time, the 25,000 square foot building housed approximately 147,000 items.
In 2012, the Library presented the community with a 5-year strategic plan that defined the SPL’s mission: to serve as the central hub of lifelong learning for our community. The library’s mission is similar to those of the countless public libraries across the United States that are dedicated to providing free access to information for all, a cornerstone of democracy. Though wording may vary from place to place, this institutional commitment to reading, learning, connecting and growing does not waver. However, how libraries serve communities was and is in a period of national growth and change.
The SPL’s strategic work provided foundational guidance for the future, including evaluating building issues to bring the library into the 21st century. In additional to addressing the aging infrastructure, library priorities focused on three improvement areas important to patrons: increasing accessibility, improving technology, and enhancing flexibility. In 2015, plans for a complete building renovation/addition were underway and thoughtfully linked to community needs and library trends.
In 2016, Scarsdale jumped to first place out of the 38 consortium Westchester libraries in book circulation per capita. Clearly, the Library was well used, well-loved and an integral part of the Village but, with millions of dollars in deferred maintenance, the space was sorely in need of updating and renovation.