From the day the Grenell Island Community House was dedicated in 1934, the southwest corner room was designated as a library. No record remains as to how many books were first on the shelves when the doors first opened. But by 1945, the library had over 1000 tomes. As of 2011, that number has quadrupled. Besides books, the library has games, puzzles, magazines and a few DVDs.
Today, the library is open to residents and guests 24/7. There was a time when the library operated more like a traditional library. Each book had pocket and card. Residents had to check books out and a due date card was placed in the pocket. If the book was returned late, there were fines to pay. The library was open only during official library hours, otherwise, the door to the library was closed and locked.
Olivia Pratt was the first librarian. Daughter of Alice Pratt who donated the land and a chunk of money for the construction of the Community House, Olivia was a school teacher and her love for reading and books prompted her to volunteer to start a library for the island community. Most long-time residents remember Mrs. Ogden who took over after Olivia resigned her duties as Grenell Island Librarian in 1958 due to health reasons.
Maybelle Ogden was Olivia’s cousin and eventually inherited the island property from Olivia. Mrs. Ogden had been a New York City librarian. Many residents remember Mrs. Ogden always wore a dress, heels and a string of pearls. She loved reading aloud to the kids. Many remember crossing the bridge to visit Mrs. Ogden at Ogden Point to talk about books or partake of the cookies she always had on hand for youngsters who visited.
Mrs. Ogden resigned from the library in 1972 also due to health reasons and passed the duties on to her daughter, my mother-in-law, Peggy McElfresh. Peggy was librarian when I first came to the island in 1975. She kept the key to the library on a keychain with a bell. I remember hearing the bell tinkling as she made her way from her cottage on the point to the Community House on the other side of the cove.
Unlike her two predecessors, it wasn’t health reasons that caused Peggy to resign. In 1984, there were rumblings from Grenell Island Improvement Association (GIIA) members about library hours. My recollection is that the library was open three mornings a week for an hour and a half or perhaps three hours a stretch. Residents requested that the doors be open all the time for total access to the books. Peggy was indignant! That was not the proper way to operate a library.
She lost the argument, the lock was removed and the door remained permanently open. Peggy resigned as librarian. For the first time in almost 50 years, the Grenell Island librarian was not from the Pratt/Ogden/McElfresh family. Gone were the desk, the card box on the table and the little vase of lilies of the valley. The due date cards were replaced by the “honor system.” A small table was placed in the right hand corner of the room for people to pile their returns on.
Marian Bierley stepped in to fill in the void. Marian dutifully shelved books and like the librarians before her, she brought lots of books to the library. She donated not only the books that she and husband, Bill, read over the winter, but she also donated books that she purchased at thrift shops. In 1990, Marian noticed that the books that she donated year after year were going out and not coming back. She resigned in 1991 over missing books.
Bill Bierley took over library duties after 1991. The island had always been able to count on Bill for whatever was needed. He worked tirelessly for both the chapel and GIIA. If the Community House needed painting, Bill was there. If Save the River needed help organizing septic inspections on Grenell, Bill was there. So it was no big surprise that when books needed to be shelved, Bill was there. Bill shelved books in the library until the Bierleys sold their cottage fall of 1999.
As luck would have it, I started spending the summers at the island in 1999. When I heard that Bill had sold his cottage, I sent a letter to GIIA president, Tim Sweet, and asked him if I could take over the duties in the library. Like Maybelle Odgen, I have library experience. With a minor in Library Science, I had worked at a junior college library and the children’s department of a public library.
My father-in-law was taken back that someone with library experience would want to have anything to do with something that did not operate like a library…i.e. that books were not checked out and fines were not assessed to people who did not return materials in a timely fashion or at all! And, he informed me in a disparaging tone, that people had even started leaving magazines.
I explained that times had changed since the 1940s and that the library needed to change with the times. I pointed out that it’s nice for people who are only on the island for the weekend to be able to pick up a magazine at midnight if they were looking for something to read. Slowly, my father-in-law came around to the point of view that perhaps the “reading room” as he preferred to call it, wasn’t that bad after all.
I have to I admit, initially I didn’t really care much about the adult collection. I was totally interested in the children’s collection. I had a huge collection of children’s books and this was the perfect place for it. The odd thing was once I brought more children’s books to the library so did everyone else. The children’s collection soon spilled out from behind the library walls into the main body of the community house.
I’ve noticed that through the years that the Grenell Island Library operates on karma. When someone donated a handful of cookbooks, suddenly everyone else starts donating cookbooks. Now we have a huge cookbook collection. Someone donated children’s games and now we have a nice collection of games. So when people make a specific request—for example “I wish there were more best sellers” I suggest they seed that request by donating more best sellers.
I wish I had counted the books when I first arrived. I didn’t. I only know that the library has grown immensely since 2000. I’ve added three huge bookcases for children’s books. My husband, Gary put in new shelves five years ago and two years ago added a top shelf that runs around the entire room. Still we are bursting at the seams.
I instituted a culling policy six years ago. At first, I culled the collection every other year. Now, to get all the new incoming books a space on the shelves, I need to cull the collection every year.
When my granddaughter was four I asked if she wanted to go to the library and she said yes. When she walked in, she looked around, looked very puzzled and asked, “Where are the computers.” Her idea of library is much different than the one I grew up with. Book donations are down a little since the proliferation of Kindles. So as the years go by, the Grenell Island Library may change and morph again into something else. Something different. Something I can’t imagine right now, but will meet the needs of future Grenellians. But for now, I smile a small smile when I see kids walking from the library with a book or a game or a puzzle under their arm. The dream of the women of 1933 to provide reading materials to people of Grenell lives on.
By Lynn McElfresh, Grenell Island
Lynn McElfresh is a regular contributor to TI Life. This month Lynn explains what borrowing books is like on Grenell Island.
She knows about libraries and books, being the author of Can You Feel the Thunder? published in 1999 in New York by Simon & Shuster Children's Publishing Division. It is suggested for youth ages 10-14. She is also the ghost writer for several other children’s books.
Lynn often writes about her favorite Grenell Island and island life. We have learned a great deal over the past two years from her musings, from moving pianos to island weddings or from plumbing problems to meeting old friends, taking nature walks and the importance of trees. To see all of Lynn’s island experiences, search TI Life under Lynn E. McElfresh.
The photos presented in our slide show are attributed to the McElfresh Family Collection. If you have memories of the Library on Grenell, please write a comment below.