Downtown Library an Important Part of Amsterdam's Cultural Life
by Bob Cudmore
March 31, 2003
Carved in stone over the front entrance to the Amsterdam Free Library at the corner of Church and Grove streets are the words, "Open to All." Generations of Amsterdamians are familiar with the interior of the stately old building with its oak woodwork, large reading tables and second floor children's section. The present library building opened in 1903 and a centennial is being observed this year with an open house and other events.
Natives of the city including Kirk Douglas and my Aunt Vera Cudmore have remembered the library with donations. Douglas honored his friend Sonya Jacobsen Seigel with a library gift. My Aunt Vera visited the library monthly, plopping herself on a chair next to the mysteries to borrow favorite books, especially murder mysteries set in England donated by the wife of longtime Mohawk carpet company executive Herbert Shuttleworth.
The first organized book collection in the city was the Amsterdam Union Library, founded in 1805 and operated from the home of the librarian one day a week. According to the organizational bylaws, it was "the duty of the librarian to take a proper account or catalogue of all the books in alphabetical order." There are no records for the Union Library after 1832 and it is not known when this subscription library ceased operations.
The Amsterdam Literary Association was formed in the 1840s and the last written archives for the association are from 1860. This organization promoted libraries and literature.
Speakers were invited to winter sessions but the bylaws of the Literary Association stipulated that speakers be paid no more than travel expenses. When there was no speaker, topics were debated, such as "Is the motto, Our Country Right or Wrong, consistent with true patriotism?"
On January 14, 1848 an unknown topic was discussed with "a good deal of irregular conversation between members -- whereupon on or about the hour of ten and without any motion being put, the meeting broke in a row." At the next meeting, the minutes were altered by changing "row" to "disorder."
In 1844, women were praised for their "liberal donation for the increase of our library and their general attendance at the meetings." The women were asked to furnish an essay or poem for each meeting that year but no woman was ever invited to read or be an officer. In 1850, women were welcomed as permanent contributors. The archive for the Amsterdam Literary Association ends in 1860 but the association apparently continued for a number of years.
In 1891, some prominent citizens led by two physicians, William H. Robb and S.H. French, founded the Amsterdam Library Association. The library was located on East Main Street, west of Church Street. It was not a free library -- members paid a subscription fee of one dollar a year.
In 1895, the facility became a free library after a fund raising campaign organized by women in the community and sponsored by the Daily Democrat newspaper, a forerunner of the Recorder. A special women's edition of the newspaper sold 10,000 copies and raised $1,500.
In 1902, the Amsterdam Library Association became the Amsterdam Free Library after a donation of $25,000 was secured from philanthropist and industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who was solicited by Dr. French. Carnegie agreed to put up the money to construct the library building in exchange for the city's pledge for ongoing financial support.
Historian Hugh P. Donlon wrote that city aldermen were hesitant about the idea of ongoing library maintenance, but went along with the proposal after a meeting at alderman Frank Parmentier's saloon on Railroad Street.
The Amsterdam Free Library opened in 1903. A wing at the rear of the library was added in 1980.
At the cornerstone ceremony in 1903, Dr. French paid tribute to the city's growing industrial importance, "The whir of spindle and wheel will penetrate even the rooms set apart to reading and meditation, a constant reminder of the fact that thought and action must be inseparable. The toiler, not the idler is the one for whom libraries are founded."
(Information for this article was provided by Alessa Wylie on behalf of the Amsterdam Free Library.)