The First Library in Cornwall owed its existence to a number of forward-looking citizens, who in November 1869, formed the Cornwall Circulating Library. One of the group, a wealthy philanthropist named Erard A. Matthiessen, became the chief stockholder and later owner of an imposing three-story structure erected in the village square. Although the building housed a number of establishments including an assembly on the top floor, its name—Library Hall—signified the principal occupant, the library.
The editor of an early town newspaper, a woman of education and culture, used every opportunity to extol the library, especially as an inducement for vacationists who invaded Cornwall in the summer. The community was a popular resort in post-Civil War years filled with spacious hotels and boarding houses.
Despite the name – “Circulating Library” – the facility seems to have functioned more as a reading room where a number of daily newspapers and current periodicals could be found. Supported by an annual subscription, ranging from one to five dollars, and by occasional fundraisers, it also relied on contributions of books from the patrons. The room was open daily, especially in the summer when, in rainy weather, it would be filled with guests from the nearby hotels.
Although the library could count on permanent quarters, its survival was threatened by a decline in the resort business and by a lack of patronage from the year-round population. In 1889, the local newspaper announced the sale of books and other property of the Cornwall Circulating Library; all that remained were small collections of books in the town’s public schools.
The next step came in 1893 when the two largest school districts applied for a charter from the State Board of Regents, which had been empowered to charter free public libraries supported by a school or municipal tax base. Within a short time, Cornwall obtained its permanent charter and School District 5 (Canterbury) set up a library in a small school, which in 1904 moved to a new building. At the same time, School District 4 (Cornwall-on-Hudson), whose school was close to Library Hall, was able to occupy the former reading room. Each library had a board of trustees that met periodically to oversee the operations and approve the selection of new books, exercising censorship over “unsuitable” material. Under a series of librarians, as yet untrained, the collections of books increased both in numbers and scope; card catalogues were instituted; and a small juvenile section opened. The windows of the library in Cornwall-on-Hudson overlooked the village square which made it a favorite after-school haunt of teenagers, who came ostensibly to do their homework. In 1921, the residents of Mountainville, a rural section of Cornwall, organized a third town library. They found space in a store, stocked the shelves with books from their homes, took turns as librarians, and sponsored benefits to defray the costs. Later they moved into an empty railroad station.
By the 1930s, the deteriorating condition of Library Hall (now called Matthiessen Hall) made the need for new library quarters. The son of the late Mr. Matthiessen offered to build a new library in Cornwall-on-Hudson, a handsome colonial-style building which opened in 1935 and is still in use.
The three libraries operated independently until the centralization of the Cornwall Schools in 1954. A new library charter had to be obtained. The libraries of Districts 4 and 5 joined to become the Cornwall Public Library with one board of trustees and a single budget. There were three branches: the Library in Cornwall-on-Hudson; rooms in the Town Hall into which the District 5 library had moved in 1953; and the Mountainville Library, which joined the system in 1969.
Over the years, several options have been presented to the taxpayer, ranging from the acquisition of existing buildings to the erection of a new library. In 1989, a proposition for a $3.2 Million building was defeated, as was a scaled-down version for $2.65 million in 1990. Closing the Mountainville branch in 1990 subsequently reduced operating costs. In 1997, the Trustees presented voters an entirely new plan to build a 10,000 square foot library for $2.2 million. Designed by architect Peter R. Hoffman of Marlboro, NY, the proposal for the new library offered the consolidation of services, collections, and staff in one new location at Riverlight Park. Active campaigning by members of the Friends of the Library and other interested citizens achieved the long-needed approval of a new building in December of that year. Construction of the new Cornwall Public Library began in April 1999, with a grand opening slated for later that year or early 2000.
~By Janet Dempsey (Written in 1999 before the opening of the current library)
Library History – An Update:
Today, Cornwall Public Library houses a collection of close to 195,000 items that includes hardcover books, paperbacks, ebooks, audio books, DVDs, and music CDs. There are over 8,800 registered borrowers, it receives over 151,000 annual visits, and is open 7 days a week. The Library has 8 public computers, 4 children’s learning stations, a laptop/iPad lab for training and in-house borrowing, and a children’s early literacy mini iPad lab with 10 mini iPads for use by pre-schoolers through teens. There is a diverse offering of programs for people of all ages and interests that draw more than 8,300 attendees annually. The Library serves as a Community Center for residents of the Cornwall Central School District and beyond, and strives continually to meet the needs and requests of the Greater Cornwall Community.