Bookmark: As the Pelham Library Turns 20, Here’s How It Started

Bookmark: As the Pelham Library Turns 20, Here’s How It Started

By Catharine P. Taylor

It can be easy to take a local institution such as the Town of Pelham Public Library for granted. “Every town has a library, right?”

But many newer residents may not know it was a decades-long effort for the Town of Pelham to establish its own Library, a campaign that ended 20 years ago this month when it first opened its doors. This Bookmark tells the story of the tremendous effort it took—an effort that called for both fundraising of almost $2 million and sheer willpower. Once you’ve heard it, you may never take the Library for granted again.

First, The Foreword

When the group of Pelham residents who eventually created the Library first began to coalesce in the mid-1980s, it was not the first time the idea had been proposed, but it had never gotten off the ground. The Village of Pelham did have a library in a few rooms in the basement of Hutchinson School that was managed by a volunteer, Polly Gadsden, who went on to guide the transition. Chartered as the Pelham Public Library officially for the Village of Pelham, it could be used by Pelham Manor residents for a $5 annual fee.

But there were larger problems. One, of course, was financing. Then, as now, the Town’s high taxes meant that launching the Library with taxpayer funding was too rich for some. And then there was the issue of finding a site.

The mid-1980s attempt was different. Mary Collins, whose late father, Vic Henningsen, was one of the first co-chairs of the Friends of the Library (along with the late Jim Nicholson), tells the story. One key motivator was Lorri Gorman. A long-time Pelham Manor resident and former mayor, she was new to the area at the time. Ms. Gorman is a “can-do” person, said Collins, and she jump-started the effort. According to a December 1990 article in The New York Times, it all began with a conversation at a meeting of the Junior League of Pelham (JLP) in which the fact that the Town of Pelham didn’t have a library came up for discussion.

However, if there’s an official start to the initiative, it was when four people gathered around Ms. Gorman’s dining room table: JLP members Collins and Gorman and two other Pelham women: Chris Emerson and Marilyn Parfet. (The JLP went on to join the Friends in a 1989 fundraising gala, contributing more than $30,000 before the Library even opened its doors and recruiting volunteer staffing. It provides ongoing support to this day.)

Ms. Collins said another factor that made this group successful was that it was multi-generational, which broadened support for the idea. She had asked her father, a lifelong resident—who also had served as Pelham Manor mayor—to come to a presentation by Ms. Gorman and Ms. Emerson before the Town Board about the proposed library. This wasn’t a casual presentation. As Ms. Gorman said: “Together, Chris and I spent a year visiting every library in Westchester in communities of similar size to Pelham, studying and analyzing their budgets and operations to develop a proposal for a Pelham Town Library that we hoped would be feasible to build using private donations and would be feasible to operate once given to the Town.”

A Town Library Board was formed as a result of the meeting. Mr. Henningsen saw the steadfastness of Ms. Gorman and Ms. Emerson in the face of tough questions and signed on to help. While financially generous, he was also the glue, with Mr. Nicholson, who held everyone together. Both knew the ins and outs of working with all of the constituencies that make up the Town. When Mr. Henningsen passed away in 2007, Ms. Gorman told The Pelham Weekly: “Through his leadership, he was able to bring to fruition an idea that had been tried at least six times in the preceding 50 years.”

The Right Place at the Right Time

For several years, the Library’s organizers looked for a location, to no avail. And then one day in 1989, parishioner Barbara Smith of the First Church of Christ, Scientist—located at the corner of Colonial Avenue and Wolfs Lane— gave Ms. Gorman a call. Church membership had dwindled, and the building was for sale. “When Barbara Smith called me, it felt like a miracle,” said Ms. Gorman, describing it as “a beautiful building located right on the border between the two villages.”

But a building does not a library make. The Friends raised $500,000 in money from a few corporations and some of Pelham’s more affluent residents to completely pay for the building by 1992. But it still needed to be renovated— including building the addition that fronts the Hutchinson River Parkway—and stocked with books. So, with guidance from Pelham resident and professional fundraiser Joan Morgan, the Friends launched a three-tiered fundraising campaign. It started with dozens of educational sessions in private homes. As former Library trustee and Friend Kim Blanchard wrote in a 1996 article in American Libraries: “Guests were never asked for donations during the course of the reception. Follow up was made discreetly and privately, by Friends members and hosts, generally someone who knew the guest well.”

Going Door-to-Door

The first Novel Night in 1994, covered last year in Bookmark, raised $100,000, but to some it was the third step – a door-to-door fundraising campaign organized by Ms. Parfet and held on Saturday, April 30, 1994 —that really signified the spirit of what the Library was trying to bring to all of Pelham. On that one day, 175 volunteers—each bearing a balloon—canvassed every residence in town, raising $70,000. Said Ms. Morgan, “Everyone in Pelham would have the opportunity to contribute at least one dollar to the Library.”

And indeed, that’s precisely what happened when Ms. Morgan went out that day to collect money. When she knocked on one door, a woman opened it and said, “I thought you’d never come.” She handed Morgan $1 – all she could give —with tears in her eyes. “I felt that was the best contribution I got through the whole thing,” said Ms. Morgan. Her fellow canvassers later told similar stories.

The Town of Pelham Library was officially opened and dedicated on September 16, 1995. It’s fitting that on moving day, people from throughout town were involved, just as they had been with fundraising. A line of residents passed the Library’s charter down the middle of the streets from Hutchinson School to the new library.

The Town of Pelham Library Today

Hands Across Pelham #1The Library, which is operated and maintained by the Town of Pelham with additional support from the Friends, donors and other funders, has come a long, long way in 20 years. Today it offers services like WiFi printing and access to extensive online resources that didn’t even exist in 1995. For a timeline of the Library’s history, go to Or, stop by the Library to see the framed embroidery by former Pelhamite Vivian Swift, called “Hands Across Pelham.” It’s located in the adult stacks section and depicts the passing of the charter from the old library to the new.

The 20th anniversary of the Library will be recognized as part of Pelham Reads this fall. Check out the Library web site, e-newsletter and Bookmark for further details.

K-Day aka Kindergartners’ Library Card Sign-up Day
This Saturday, 9/12/15 @ 1:00 pm – 4:00 pm

K-Day means it’s time for new school children to get their first library cards. Children starting kindergarten this year may visit the Library to sign up for their very own library card. Emelio the clown will be sculpting amazing balloon forms and other fun activities will entertain everyone who attends. Youngsters receiving library cards will also get goodie bags. Parents and caregivers must show proof of residency to assist their children in signing up for their library cards.

Other Library News:

Quick Read: E-Resources Continue to Expand

During September, which is Library Card Sign-Up Month, it’s important to remember what access you get from your Library Card – the smartest card. Aside from the many physical materials available at the Library and through the Westchester Library System, here are four new or upgraded e-resources.

1) This well-regarded e-learning service is now available for use within the Library only. ABCMouse helps children in pre-K, kindergarten and early elementary school build a strong foundation for future academic success.

 2) Consumer Reports: Pelham Library patrons now have access to the online database of Consumer Reports. This interactive version of the magazine comes not only with product ratings and reviews, but also with in-depth advice by staff experts and constantly updated articles, blogs and video content. To access it, go to the “e-library” link at

 3) Indieflix: This streaming service, new to the Library Consortium, gives patrons access – at home! – to some 7,600 films, from independent features to documentaries from PBS, with new titles added weekly. It is also compatible with the Roku, Apple TV and Xbox streaming platforms.

4) NoveList: The Library Consortium has embarked on a six-month trial of two upgraded and expanded services from NoveList: NoveList Plus and NoveList Select. NoveList provides recommendations, reviews and other book discovery tools that cover hundreds of thousands of titles, authors, series and audiobooks. The upgrades mean that Library patrons will not only have access to information about more titles but full integration of NoveList into the online catalog.


Story Time—Tuesdays, for ages 3-5, 10:30 – 11 a.m.; Wednesdays, for ages two and under, 10:30 – 11 a.m.
Story Time continues for pre-schoolers. Attendance is limited to the first 40 people who sign in, caregivers included. Sign-up begins at 10:15 a.m.

Battle of the Books Competition at Ossining High School: Saturday, October 17. The Library’s two teams – one for grades 4 – 6 and the other for grades 6 – 8– are intensely practicing for the second annual Westchester Battle of the Books.


Adult Book Club: Thursday, September 10, 7:30pm
The first book of the new season is the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. October’s selection is Me Before You by JoJo Moyes.

Alexandra DeSantis Memorial Tree Dedication: Saturday, September 27.
Save the date for the dedication of new plantings at the Library in memory of Alexandra DeSantis. Keep an eye on the Library website for details.

Banned Books Week: Sunday, September 27 – Saturday, October 3.
This is an annual event of the American Library Association. Honor it by coming to the Library and taking out one of 2014’s Most Banned or Challenged Books, like Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner or Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.

Demystifying Medicare and Healthcare Coverage for Seniors: Thursday, October 22, 6:30 – 9 p.m.
This presentation, part of the Westchester Library System’s Westchester Seniors Out Speaking program, is geared toward anyone looking to navigate the complicated healthcare system for older adults. In addition to Medicare, it will cover Medicare advantage plans, Part D prescription drug plans, Medigap insurance and various cost-saving programs. Registration is requested.

Workshop: Hire Me! Keys to a Great Interview: Saturday, October 24, 10:30 a.m. to 12 p.m.
Barbara Shulman, a career counselor with the WLS’ WEBS Career & Educational Counseling Service, will conduct this seminar — teaching job seekers the latest interviewing trends, how to avoid the most common mistakes and how to overcome interviewing fears. For high-schoolers and up. Registration is required.

One-to-One Computer and Device Instruction:
Call the Library to make an appointment for individualized instruction in popular computer programs, such as Microsoft Word and Excel. You can also bring your smartphone or tablet to the Library and learn how to get started with apps that give library patrons access to free e-books, e-audiobooks, e-music and more.

(All Library programs are free and open to the public. To sign up for events that require pre-registration, call the Library at 914-738-1234. Out of courtesy to fellow attendees, please be on time.)
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