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History of the Plainfield Public Library

The Early Years

JobMaleThe Plainfield Public Library (and Reading Room) was incorporated in 1881, following a March 7th resolution by the Plainfield Common Council. On October 3, 1881, Mayor Lewis V. F. Randolph selected nine gentlemen to serve as the Library’s first Board of Directors. They were: Colonel Mason Tyler (who helped get the Library Act of 1879 to pass through the NJ Legislature), Craig A. Marsh and Walter L. Hetfield (both prominent Plainfield attorneys), John B. Dumont, Henry P. Talmadge, Jared K. Myers, Henry E. Daboll (all New York bankers), George H. Babcock (inventor and manufacturer), and John H. Evans (a New York chemical manufacturer).

The first library was created in rented rooms, formerly occupied by the Y.M.C.A., in which the librarian began to build a collection of books and periodicals. The first public librarian was J. Oakly Nodyne (see below for a list of past library directors), a local justice-of-the-peace who was paid a salary of $150 annually. By mid-1885, the Library offered a small book collection of only 178 volumes. The Library Board then solicited members of the community with fabulous response and within a year the collection grew to nearly 2,000 books.

Carneigie BuildingIn 1884, Job Male, a Plainfield philanthropist and the first Mayor of Plainfield, joined the Library Board. He soon offered to donate the land and a library building on the condition that others donate money and art works. The building was completed in 1886 by Job Male and donated to the Library Board of Trustees. In gratitude they named it "The Job Male Public Library, Art Gallery and Museum." The art gallery featured newly donated paintings plus temporary exhibits of other contemporary artists. The museum gallery featured natural history collections of insects, birds, and coin collections. At this time, Arthur W. Tyler, a trained librarian, was hired to organize, catalog, and maintain the collection.

In 1893, Library leader George Babcock passed away and bequeathed the sum of $10,000, as well as some local houses, to the Library for the purchase of “industrial, mechanical, and scientific books” to be designated for the creation of the “Babcock Scientific Library.” This new collection grew to such an extent that the Board, wishing to abide by Babcock’s will, planned an addition to the existing building to be erected. The addition was completed in 1900, and extended the lot up to College Place.

imageWhen Col. Mason Tyler passed away in July 1907, he left the Library $10,000, with the stipulation that the investment income be used for the purchase of books chosen by the Library Board. Honoring a personal interest of Tyler’s, the Board selected books that dealt with United States history and Americana – many of which remain in the collection today. By then, the Library’s collection had increased to over 40,000 volumes with nearly 75,000 people visiting each year, and was in need of a larger building. In 1909, knowing that such a project would be a huge undertaking, the Library Board contacted wealthy industrialist Andrew Carnegie to see if he would consider Plainfield in addition to the other communities he was helping at that time. In 1911, Mr. Carnegie agreed to donate $50,000 for a new building. The Carnegie Building was completed in 1912 and included a large and airy, light-filled Reading Room with a 22-foot high ceiling. There was also a stack room that held 45,000 volumes and a basement lecture room that accommodated 125 people. The Library then occupied all the land donated by Job Male.

Our Present Building

Male-Carnegie side viewSixty years later, in 1961, the Library was once again in desperate need of space, as well as repair. While it held the 10th largest collection of books in the state, with a general circulation of the 12th largest and an adult circulation of the 8th largest, the children's’ section was highly inadequate. The plumbing and electrical systems were old and sub-standard, security was lacking, meeting rooms were poorly ventilated, unsafe, and just too small. There was no parking and the basic library facilities could no longer accommodate the needs of a busy, modern-day library. The Library Board turned to the Plainfield Common Council (what later became the City Council) and requested funds for the construction of a new Public Library; their request was ultimately approved.

In 1968, the present 45,000 square-foot building, designed by the architectural firm of Curtis & Davis, opened to the public; the older buildings were razed. The main floor Reading Room was dedicated to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - a commemorative plaque was hung next to the Circulation Desk. By the 1990's major roof leaks were endangering the building structure and collections. The Plainfield City Council allocated the necessary funds in 1994, but it had become obvious that the roof was only one of the many building problems faced by the Library Board of Trustees. In 1996, the Trustees adopted a long-range Master Plan to help determine the cost and prioritization of major repair projects.

new buildingWith the intent of eventually creating a new main entry facing Library Park, the Master Plan was launched with the construction of two exterior ramps for handicapped access. In March of 2002, the first major change was made to the library interior with the creation of the climate-controlled Local History Archives. Designed to house the unique Detwiller Collection of Architectural Drawings, the room soon became a repository for other important historical resources, with the donation of the Paul Collier Photograph Collection and the development of the Diversity Studies Collection.

In 2005, outside funding made possible the next series of significant interior changes: the creation of the Literacy Program Offices, three conference rooms, and two study rooms. All of these rooms were carved out of under-utilized workspace and storage space. With these renovations completed, the Board of Trustees launched a Capital Campaign to fund the remaining elements of the Master Plan. With close to a half-million dollars raised from private donors and foundations and an additional allocation from the City of Plainfield, the Library Board applied the funds to the renovation of the Children's Library. After three years of planning and one year of construction, the spectacular rainforest-themed children's space opened to the public in September 2011.

Funding for library improvements and renovations have come from a variety of sources, including the City of Plainfield Capital Improvement Program (CIP), the federal IMLS program and Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG), various State programs, private foundations and private donors.

Past Directors of Plainfield Public Library

2015 to present - Mary Ellen Rogan, current director
1994 to 2015 - Joseph H. Da Rold
1991 to 1994  - Karen J. Thorburn, director
1980s - Thomas H. Ballard, director
1956 to 1970s - Lynniel A. Moore, director
1941 to 1956 - Luke White, Jr., acting librarian then director
1908 to 1941 - Florence M. Bowman, librarian
1888 to 1907 - Emma I. Adams, librarian
1881 to 1888 - J. Oakly Nodyne, first librarian

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