On July 20, 1921, a group of interested citizens met to form the first library committee in New Providence. The new Library Committee elected the following officers: Mrs. Harold I. Spicer, President; Lawrence R. Winchell, Vice President; Anne J. Badgely, Secretary; and Frances D. Wahl, Treasurer. Helen Armstrong joined the commitee later that year. On October 18, 1921, the library's incorporation papers were signed at the home of Clara Y. Wahl, who was the first librarian.
Money for the purchase of books and other necessary expenses was contributed or secured from the profits of numerous benefits including parties, food sales, movies, and performances of the local dramatic club. The library was first located at 1283 Springfield Avenue in the Red Cross Rooms (now the location of Positive Image Photo).
The original collection of books was modest. The Library Committee purchased twenty new volumes and borrowed another fifty from the state. By the end of the first year, the collection had increased to 1500 volumes and the free circulation was reported to be 175 books a week.
A handwritten list of books in the library's collection, on display at the Salt Box Museum. The cabinet it is affixed to is also from the library.
Clara Wahl, the first librarian, initially received no salary. In 1925, Wahl was officially hired by the Borough Council to be the librarian and received $250 a year, much of which she used to buy books and supplies for her beloved library. Her assistants were all volunteers, and her duties included the building of fires in an old stove that heated the library in winter. Her daughter Frances Wahl, who served on the Board of Trustees for many years, recalled that the roof leaked. The family was once roused from their beds during a rainstorm to rush to the library with umbrellas and other coverings to place over the books.
In 1928, the library was moved to the building located at 1310-1312 Springfield Avenue, which is currently the location of Cartridge World. The building had formerly served as the New Providence Academy, and the library would remain there until after World War II.
A 1932 Courier-News article writes of Lawrence Winchell, supervising principal of Lincoln School, planning for each grade of the school to visit the New Providence Library that school year. It's unknown if this was the first school visit to the library, but in any case school visits to the library have a long tradition in New Providence. First graders from local schools still visit the library on field trips, including virtual field trips in 2021, to receive their first library cards.
First graders from Mary McVee's class at Lincoln School receive their first library cards in 1964 from children's librarian Marilyn Anderson.
When Mrs. Wahl’s many years of faithful service ended with her resignation in 1939, her successor was Margaret Radtke. Finances were always a concern as the budget was always lower than needed and many volunteers contributed their own clerical supplies.
In a November 1941 election, New Providence voters voted 207-43 to establish a free public library in the Borough of New Providence. Prior to January 1942, the library had been a nonprofit organization; now it would be part of the municipal government. The Library Committee gave way to a Board of Trustees appointed by the mayor, who was an ex officio member, as was the Superintendent of Schools. Five other citizens served on the board as well.
In 1946, the library celebrated its 25th anniversary. The Borough Council appropriated $1200 for the library that year. Another $176 was added from fines, rentals, and miscellaneous sources. The total number of books was 6268, with 722 registered borrowers.
A community fundraising drive was held to build a formal library that would also serve as a war memorial. In 1950, the new brick building on Elkwood Avenue was dedicated the Memorial Library and remains part of the current library structure. The library's architect, Emil Schmidlin, was a New Providence resident who donated his services, and the builder Charles Nael was also generous.
The population of New Providence increased after World War II, along with demand for expanded library services. The number of books and materials in the collection approached 20,000. It became apparent that more room was needed, and an addition was built in 1958 under the direction of Betty C. Proctor, who had become Head Librarian after the retirement of Margaret Radtke in 1952.
The children's room moved to the lower level of the library in 1961. The summer reading program dates back to at least 1962, and often featured a party at the end of the summer for the children. Storytime dates back at least as far as the summer reading program.
In 1963, the library hired three full-time librarians, in response to a report made for New Providence by the New Jersey State Library. In 1965, Bell Labs - also located in New Providence - prepared an exhibit at the library for the public about its communication satellites, Telstar and Echo.
In 1964, the Borough Council appropriated $200,000 for additions to the library. Federal funds provided another $50,000, for new construction and renovation of the older parts of the building. Thanks to the addition, the library's space quadrupled, and it now had a meeting room for public use. The local Jaycees carried 20,000 books from the old reading room to the new shelves shortly before the new addition was dedicated in 1966.
In 1971, New Providence Memorial Library joined the Morris-Union Federation as a founding member, which allowed its cardholders to borrow at other nearby libraries.
The same year, the library celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with an Open House. The invitation to the Open House makes note of the two longest serving trustees in library history, Frances Wahl and Allen W. Roberts. Frances Wahl, still a trustee in 1971, was the daughter of the first librarian and had been on the board since the library's inception. Allen W. Roberts was the former superintendent of schools, and had served on the library's board for 31 years.
In 1970, the library's large print collection began with a donation of 250 books given by the New Providence Lions Club. By 1973, there were 550 large print books, all of which were donated by the Lions Club. The Lions still generously donate funds for the library's large print collection.
The current Friends of the New Providence Memorial Library organization dates back to 1985, although previous Friends of the Library groups had formed in 1974 and 1964. In 1975, the Junior Friends of the New Providence Memorial Library, a group for children, commissioned a dollhouse from Mary Coviello of New Providence. The dollhouse was given in memory of James Ewertsen, the son of children's librarian Muriel Ewertsen, and remains a favorite of children at the library.
The library kept up with the technology of the day, purchasing its first photocopier in 1970, a noisy Olivetti that spurred one reader to write a letter of complaint to the local newspaper. In 1979, the library added "super 8" 8 mm films to its film collection, which also included standard 8mm films. In 1983, the New Providence Lions Club donated an Apple IIe computer. Students brought their own disks and practiced what they learned in computer class after school at the library.
Free income tax counseling was offered at the library through the IRS's Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program in the 1980s, and the summer reading program was a regular feature of library programming, along with a summer film series.
The library's longest tenured director, Betty C. Proctor, retired in 1989 after 37 years. Her career at the library began as a volunteer in 1951 and she became its director in 1953.
In 1990, Sandra Rightmyer was named director, and the library began a retroactive conversion project to make its bibliographic records machine-readable. This led to the ability to search the collection via a computer at the library. The online catalog became available in 2001 thanks to a grant funded by the Library Services and Technology Act, and at that point the card catalog ceased to be updated.
On August 24, 1992, the library suffered serious damage from a fire that gutted the original section of the building, a staff area which housed more than 3,000 books, newspapers and magazines. Books that had been damaged by the water used to extinguish the fire were stored in the freezers of local businesses until they could be restored. An outpouring of support from the community and funds from insurance allowed for interior renovations and replacement of library materials, with the library reopening on April 5, 1993. The Friends of the NPML saw a resurgence of activity with new members who were inspired to join after helping the library during the fire.
The library had new leadership again in 1995, when Carol Abatelli became director. She was present at the dedication of the Frank B. & Mary M. Mason Room, constructed at the back of the library to house the Historical Society and its local history materials, on October 22, 1995. Also present at the dedication were Dorothy Mason, Mayor Harold Weideli, Library Board of Trustees President Ronald Opperthauser, and the Historical Society's Board, Officers and Mason Room Building Committee.
Director Ann M. Oster took the reins of the library in November 1997. In 1999, a grant increased the library's Internet access workstations from one to three. The same year, reference librarian Doris Lange retired after 30 years at the library. She started as the children's librarian and had also worked as a cataloger at the library.
In 2001, the front entrance was renovated to bring the entrance and ramp into compliance with ADA requirements and to alleviate a potentially hazardous door system. It was made possible with a combination of Community Development Block Grants and library funds.
Also in 2001, the library's first book group was established. "The Color of Water" by James McBride was the selection for its first discussion, in May 2001. The book group still continues to meet twenty years later, using videoconferencing to meet safely during the pandemic.
The current library building is the result of a community-wide effort to bring the library into the 21st century. Groundbreaking took place on February 28, 2004 with director Ann Oster and president of the Board of Trustees Betty Metzger present, as well as Mayor Al Morgan, Assemblyman Jon Bramnick and Senator Tom Kean, Jr. The million dollar project was funded by State grants, dedication brick sales, wine tastings, road races and walks, local Scout and private donations, proceeds from concerts and plays, and a variety of other fundraisers. It was the largest fundraising project ever undertaken in New Providence.
The Grand Re-Opening was held on July 2, 2005. The expansion of the library included the addition of two meeting rooms, the section of the library that currently houses young adult books, and the quiet reading area that doubles as an art gallery. The children's room was renovated, and the staff entrance required modification due to the Coddington addition.
The new meeting rooms enhanced the library’s role as a community cultural center. The Coddington Room hosted storytime, crafts and other children’s programs, as well as community group meetings. It was named after donors Jane and F. Chandler Coddington. The Conti Family Room is a large room with its own kitchen, lobby and restroom where movies, concerts, lectures and other library and community programs are held. It was named after donors Kurt and Gina Conti.
James Keehbler became library director after the retirement of Ann Oster in 2005. That same year, the Friends of the Library held the first of many annual craft fairs as a fundraiser. The Friends also opened Afterwords, a used bookstore in the library basement, in November 2005.
In 2008, the Board of Trustees appointed reference librarian Colleen Byrne acting director after James Keehbler departed to lead the Piscataway Public Library. In 2009, Colleen Byrne was officially named library director. The following year, the library began lending e-books and digital audiobooks when it joined the eLibraryNJ consortium.
Hurricane Irene wreaked $23,000 in flood damage to the library's basement in 2011. The following year, Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey. After the library regained power, it served as a warming center for nearly two weeks for residents without heat or electricity. It was a place where residents could recharge cell phones, tablets and laptops.
The long-running summer reading program was expanded to include adults in 2013. That year, the library lost its longest serving volunteer, Catherine Powers, who had volunteered at the library from 1976. In 2017, Colleen Byrne retired, and reference librarian Lisa Florio became interim director. The Board of Trustees appointed Lisa Florio director in 2018.
In 2019, yearly circulation of library materials surpassed 216,000, including both physical materials and electronic items. Attendance numbers at library programs held that year reached over 7,000.
In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, New Jersey libraries were closed by executive order of the governor from mid-March through June. Usage of library ebooks and other digital resources increased, and the library replaced its in person programs with virtual programming for over a year. Contactless pickup of books, DVDs and craft kits from the library foyer began in June and continued throughout the pandemic. Computer use by appointment became available in September. In November and December, the library opened a small area of the library for browsing until it had to close for a second wave of COVID-19. Computer use by appointment began again in March 2021.
The New Providence Memorial Library with its modern, expanded facilities and offerings attracts visitors from out of town as well as its own patrons. It has truly grown into a full-service community and informational center for all.
Revised March 1, 2021