The Schenectady County Public Library system is rightly admired as one of the finest in upstate New York, and yet after a number of well-intentioned false starts, it took nearly 100 years before a permanent branch was established in Niskayuna.
At the turn of the 20th century there were few options for accessing library books in Schenectady County. Other than libraries associated with educational institutions, subscription libraries, one of which was located at what is now known as the Wedgeway Building in downtown Schenectady, were the only choice. Subscription libraries, which charged a fee, created a barrier to access to books for most working-class Schenectadians.
Addressing this issue, the Andrew Carnegie Foundation made a major philanthropic commitment by funding “free to all” public libraries across the United States including, in 1903, a grant to fund the first Schenectady Public Library.
Union College provided the land for the library at the corner of Union and Seward streets, and funded by grants of $ 50,000 from the Carnegie Foundation, $ 15,000 from General Electric and $ 5,000 from the city of Schenectady, the public library was constructed and supplied with books and other materials.
At this time, the town of Niskayuna was undergoing new development, transitioning from a rural town to a suburb. Developer Garner Bee’s Grand Boulevard Co. provided housing opportunities for the growing number of middle-management employees of GE, ALCO and other area businesses. The growing town population was free to utilize the Schenectady Public Library for books and other services.
As time went on, the population of Schenectady County boomed, as did demands on the library.
In 1948, the Schenectady County Public Library was officially chartered by the New York State Board of Regents. At around this time, several branch libraries were opened to service other parts of the city and the growing towns, but not in Niskayuna.
In 1951, the Schenectady County Public Library purchased and put in to service a Bookmobile. This traveling library became the access point for services in underserved parts of the county.
In Niskayuna, the Bookmobile made regular stops at local schools and other convenient locations. The Bookmobile’s limited inventory often meant requesting books from the main library, which were then delivered at the next visit.
In 1982, as part of the Niskayuna Central School District’s consolidation, Van Antwerp Middle School was closed and, by 1984, with plans for a community center at the site, a petition to include a branch library there was circulated in town.
This effort was successful, and in December 1986 the first Niskayuna branch of the Schenectady County Public Library opened at Van Antwerp School.
The first year of operation proved to be a success with 32,000 books signed out, twice as many as had been estimated. In 1991 the story of the Niskayuna branch took another turn when the Niskayuna Central School District’s growing student population required the reopening of Van Antwerp as a middle school, thus eliminating the space for the Niskayuna branch library, and for a year or so the town was again served by the Bookmobile, which made regular visits to the Grand Union plaza on Balltown Road.
Recognizing the effect the closing of the Van Antwerp branch had on Niskayuna, library, county and town officials sought a solution.
Plans for a permanent Niskayuna branch library were underway but far from being realized. In June of 1992, a plan was proposed for a temporary branch in space available at the Mohawk Mall.
The mall’s owner offered a 2,100-square-foot storefront in the mall to the library rent-free and, with the Schenectady County Public Library picking up the cost of the utilities, in August of that year the Mohawk Mall branch opened. That same year, Niskayuna residents approved funding for a new Town Hall on Nott Street East across from what would finally become the permanent site of the Schenectady County Public Library’s Niskayuna branch.
Erected on land deeded to the town by a developer, the Niskayuna branch soon took shape and opened in 1995.
Dedicated to County Legislator Elizabeth Harriman Bean (1923-1990), a longtime library supporter, the modern facility fast became a highly valued community resource. Adjacent to a modest nature trail across wetlands, the library boasts attractive landscaping maintained by a dedicated group of volunteer gardeners.
Today, under the watchful eye of senior clerk Dori Trela, the Niskayuna branch offers, in addition to an inventory of more than 38,000 items, a Community Program Room for musical recitals, children’s programs, seminars and meeting space for local organizations; four computer stations with internet access; and a multimedia inventory.
In 2012, the Schenectady County Public Library made borrowing even easier with online access to e-books, audiobooks and magazines.
The Niskayuna branch of the Schenectady County Public Library was a long time coming but has proven to be worth the wait.
Judd Staley is a member of the Town of Niskayuna Historical Advisory Committee. The committee encourages any past or present residents to contact the Niskayuna town historian at [email protected]niskayuna.org regarding any information, resources or stories they might like to share about the town’s history.
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