Baldwin native Gay Bowen Burdick remembers walking through the old Baldwin Public Library’s mailroom to get to the stacks of books inside. The rooms in the old wooden structure, once located on Grand Avenue and Foxhurst Road, were tightly packed with books and people reading them, she said.
Although she recognized the need for a newer, bigger space — which opened in January 1964 at 2385 Grand Ave., where the library still stands today — Bowen Burdick, now a resident of upstate Hammond, said she always preferred the old building. “It had such character,” she said. “It was small but comfy, and made you want to sit down and read your books and extend your visit.”
The “new library,” as some older Baldwinites call it, continued to provide that experience for people like Maureen Wright, who would sit down in the aisles of the building with a book for hours before checking it out and heading home. It was also where many landed their first jobs or watched movies they would later fall in love with.
No matter its location, the Baldwin Public Library has left an impression on thousands of past and present community residents — and in October, it will celebrate 100 years of doing so. Library officials have established a 100th Anniversary Committee to plan celebrations of the milestone.
Elizabeth Olesh, the facility’s director since May 2014, said the library is finding new ways to thrive as the century mark approaches. “We do a really good job of asking the community what they want to see from the library, and we’re listening to them,” Olesh said. “I think that’s one of the reasons we’re still around.” Listening to library patrons, she said, has allowed the administration to ensure that patrons can find the books they want — which has led to increased circulation, even as libraries across the country are seeing fewer books checked out.
But for Olesh, libraries are more than a place for people to find the next text to read. “People want a place where they can go in the community to gather with other community members,” she said. “On Long Island, public libraries are one of the only places people can do that.”
A lasting memorial
In January 1919, the Advance Club, a philanthropic group of Baldwin women, wanted to find a way to honor those killed in World War I, which had ended just two months earlier. Eventually, they decided on the idea of a library as a lasting memorial to the men lost, according to a history of the institution compiled by librarian Jason VonButtgereit.
That May, a lease was signed for the first floor of No. 7 South Grand Ave., and on Oct. 24, 1919, the Baldwin Public Library opened its doors for the first time. Community members, led by the Advance Club, donated books. Two years later, the property at Grand and Foxhurst was purchased, and everything was moved there.
Another site would have to be selected in 1950, when Nassau County informed the library’s administration that it was looking to widen Foxhurst — and that its plan to do so would mean more than half of its building would be condemned. It took 10 years of planning, petitions and community votes before residents agreed to open the new library at 2385 Grand Ave.
Library Trustee Joseph Carroll, who moved to Baldwin in July 1967, said the library was for him a lifeline to home during his years as an attorney working long hours in Manhattan. “I was very happy because the library was open late, so I could always get there and check out a book to read while I traveled,” Carroll said. Now retired, he can still be found scanning the shelves and picking out books — sometimes before library board meetings. After deciding to work fewer hours at his law firm in the mid- to late-1990s, Carroll got involved with the then-planned expansion project by sitting on a committee that made recommendations to contractors. Following his service on that panel, he ran for and won a seat on the board of trustees in 2002.
Throughout his time on the board, the library has expanded programs and services for people of all ages. Zumba classes, movie screenings and magic shows are just some of the programs offered every week at the library, many of them for free.
Carroll said that one of the accomplishments he is most proud of is the establishment of and the library’s cooperation with a teen advisory group, comprising high school students who recommend ways to keep the library attractive to younger patrons. Carroll also touted programs in which younger Baldwinites teach seniors how to work smartphones and apps like Instagram.
Gary Farkash said he is impressed with the number of people who still frequent the library. “I’ve noticed quite a few people just sitting there and reading,” Farkash said. “And that just makes me feel good, because I like reading and I enjoy seeing other people reading.”
Signing up for his Baldwin library card, he said, triggered a flashback to his childhood in Queens. “I just remembered riding my bike to the library and getting my first card,” he said. Like Olesh, Farkash said he believed the library has been able to survive because of its ability to adapt to changes — such as offering DVDs to patrons.
Olesh said she believed the community would continue to support the library, and foresaw it being around for another century. “This really is part of the community,” she said. “I think people really appreciate us, and they acknowledge and appreciate the services and resources we provide.”