Getting a book from the library seems like one of those inalienable American rights, but a pocket of Orange County, N.Y., residents recently found out that it’s not.
Early this year, library patrons who live in the Minisink Valley School District, which recently voted down a proposed library of its own by a landslide, were surprised to discover that their Port Jervis Free Library cards no longer worked.
“In February, I’m in the library picking up some books for my mother,” said David Wilson, a septic inspector in Greenville, N.Y., whose 89-year-old mom, an avid reader of mysteries and whodunits, was living with his family at the time.
“Sorry, but you can’t take any more books out, and everything is due by the end of next week,” the librarian told him. To his follow-up questions, the librarian said only that she couldn’t talk about it.
The rural towns of Wawayanda, Greenville, Minisink and Mount Hope don’t have a home library or pay a dedicated library tax, but for years, the towns have contracted with the Port Jervis Free Library – a not-uncommon arrangement that covers nearly five percent of the population of the Ramapo Catskill Library System.
The library card is free to the individual; the town picks up the tab, paying the library an agreed-upon fee.
Only a small portion of residents take advantage of the service – in Wawayanda, the town usually has no more than 125 cardholders among its 7,600 residents, said Town Clerk Kathy Sherlock.
‘A necessity. not a luxury’
Still, for those who use the service, it’s “a necessity, not a luxury,” as Mount Hope Supervisor Matthew Howell said at a Port Jervis library board meeting in January.
“Education and the ability to expand your knowledge,” he said, “is crucial to a healthy and productive society.”.
Families with school-age children, and particularly those who home-school, “rely heavily on the library,” he added.
But when the price tag for library service went up this year – and the breadth of access simultaneously shrank – Greenville and Mount Hope decided it wasn’t worth it to re-up the contract.
The per-card fee for “town cardholders” rose from $75 to $100 in 2023, Port Jervis Free Library director Evelyn Rogers said via email. “It was reasonable and fair to both the towns and PJFL District taxpayers.”
Meanwhile, the price to access the entire Ramapo Catskill Library System changed from a per-card fee to an amount based on assessed property value, Howell explained.
For Wawayanda and Minisink, which did renew their pricier contracts, the library card that their residents are now entitled to is a far cry from the all-powerful card of yore. Before, town cardholders could use or request material from any of the 47 public libraries in the Ramapo Catskill Library System, which spans Orange, Rockland, Sullivan and a portion of Ulster County; now they’re limited to direct access only to the Port Jervis library.
‘One of the last frontiers’
“I was the first one to get (a Port Jervis library card) and now I realize it’s just too difficult to get down there,” said Melissa Martens of Minisink, mom of a 9- and 7-year-old and a community volunteer.
“It’s 19 minutes to Port Jervis, so I just don’t go anymore. And I love the library,” she said. “Going down the mountain, it becomes a half-day event.”
Martens’ children are lucky in that they have a wide selection of books at home, “but most kids don’t have that,” she said.
Still, they miss out on the engagement that happens only in a library – looking for books, holding books.
“It’s a safe place that kids can go where you don’t have to spend money,” she said. “It’s one of the last frontiers where you don’t have to be a consumer, you can just enrich your mind.”
Now, with local-only access, it becomes even less convenient: she can’t use any online services or place holds on books from other libraries and will have to renew books in person.
Still, “I will make an effort to go to the Port Jervis library with the kids this summer because I believe in the value of libraries and want to support what we have.”
Wawayanda Supervisor Denise Quinn in a March 3 update wrote, “It would have cost the town taxpayers over $300,000 a year to have access to the RCLS System.”
For the local-only access, this year Wawayanda paid the Port Jervis library “a flat fee of a little over $8,000,” said Sherlock.
Since the “change in command,” she no longer knows how many library cardholders are in her town, information she has always been privy to in the past.
No pay, no library
There’s been no shortage of finger-pointing in the wake of the change, many in the direction of the chief executive of the Ramapo Catskill Library System, Grace Riario, who took the reins in 2019.
“I understand why they’re mad. I get it. But if they wanted a library, they should have voted yes,” she said. “When you have a group of people who decide not to pay taxes, then they don’t get to have a library.”
For years, residents of Minisink and Greenville were paying the Port Jervis library less than $1.50 for the same library service for which Port Jervis residents were paying between $65 and $100, said Riario. They were also putting a burden on all the libraries within the system, which were getting no remuneration in return.
“They never discussed this with the other libraries,” she said, referring to the Port Jervis library board of trustees. “And they cannot make a contract with anyone on behalf of all the 47 libraries in the system. They don’t have the right to do that.”
No matter who you talk to, everyone agrees on one thing: It’s been a heated year. A lot of simmering resentment has been directed Riario’s way; rumor has it that the unwelcome changes are retaliation for the vote against the library, an effort in which she was involved.
Riario does not shy away from responsibility for the changes but stands firmly behind their rightness. “I can tell you this: it’s because I actually follow the rules. I cannot tell you why my predecessor did not put forward this change. I cannot answer that. I can tell you that I follow the rules and I am here to make sure that the residents of Orange County who support libraries do not get taken advantage of by those who chose not to support a library.”
After voting down their library, “They don’t get to the tell the Orange County residents that I want you to pay for me to have a library,” she added.
As those with long enough memories are aware, relying on another town’s library always has been an inherently precarious arrangement.
“What happens when a supervisor or library director says they won’t or can’t do a contract anymore?,” Judith Cramer of Greenville, a retired business owner and artist, wrote in the lead-up to the library vote last fall. “I’ve lived here 40 years, too many of them with no library access.”
In her two-decade tenure as Wawayanda town clerk, Sherlock has seen contracts come and go with Middletown-Thrall and Goshen before the town signed with Port Jervis, with a stretch of years with no library access.
Too spread out?
Within the Ramapo Catskill Library System, nearly 4 percent of residents – more than 31,000 people – are “unserved,” living in pockets that are library deserts. It happens.
Last fall’s latest attempt to establish a Minisink Valley Public Library, to be funded by a school district tax levy, was routed in a vote of 2,162 to 395.
Though he likes libraries, Wilson, the Greenville home inspector, joined the vast majority of his neighbors in voting against the library in October.
The 115-square-mile district is too geographically spread out for a brick and mortar building to make sense, he said. “We got a deli and a blinking light, that’s about it – and yes, a little community center. If you stick a library in the middle of the woods; if it’s by itself, standalone, is it going to draw a crowd?”
He is seeing older residents being priced out of the area thanks to New York state’s highest-in-the-nation tax burden. “Any event that causes taxes to go up, I don’t like,” he said.
Cramer, a lifelong resident of the area, has been a vocal advocate of a Minisink library for years.
When the first attempt failed two decades ago, she was part of the group that spearheaded the nonprofit, volunteer-run Greenville Resource Center to give residents access to donated books in the absence of a library.
This time, she thought the vote might go differently. “We could have had it; it was all worked out. They had it down. It could have worked,” she said, sounding tired.
A Port Jervis High School graduate, Cramer worked for a spell at the Port Jervis library, as did her mother. So when her library card stopped working early this year, “I felt a real loss to not be able to go there anymore,” she said.
But she was not surprised. The contract arrangement was never a solid one existing in a kind of under-the-radar legal limbo, she said. “It was just a stopgap measure. I knew that this couldn’t keep going. I just knew that it couldn’t sustain itself.”
No free ride
The changes in library access came in the wake of a new four-year plan hammered out by New York state and the Ramapo Catskill Library System, which went live in 2022. The Free Direct Access Plan tightens the reins of the sprawling interlibrary system, detailing how member libraries are – or in certain cases, are not – required to share materials.
Communities that pay library taxes “should neither be expected nor required to provide free library services to residents of communities which do not support library services,” the plan states, and sets out the minimum a library is allowed to charge for contracts, by county. Orange County libraries spend a lot less per capita than Rockland, but significantly more than Sullivan and Ulster counties.
The plan also identified six libraries within the Ramapo Catskill system that are deemed inadequate. In Orange County, patrons of the Montgomery Free Library and Pine Bush Area Public Library District are considered “underserved,” because those libraries have a budget that’s less than two-thirds of the county average.
“Patrons of such libraries are tacitly encouraged to rely on other system libraries for convenience of hours, depth of collections, internet access, program offerings and knowledgeable staff to meet their needs,” according to the plan.
In the end, Mount Hope and Greenville residents did not find themselves in an absolute library desert after all – not if they’re willing to travel.
A day before their Port Jervis cards deactivated for good, Mount Hope struck a deal with the Pike County Public Library, whose nearest branch is in Milford, Pa.
“So we never had a lapse of any library service, just a change of venue,” said Mount Hope Supervisor Matthew Howell. Days later, Greenville followed suit.
Mount Hope and Greenville residents can get a free library card at the Pike County Public Library with proof of residence and a letter from their town clerk, and their town foots the $30 bill. The card includes full access to the six affiliated libraries.
Even before those deals were struck, residents had started finding their way to Milford. Word traveled fast that for $35, non-residents can get a library card there.
“If you’re going to drive 20 minutes to Port Jervis, what’s another 15 minutes to another library?” said Wilson, the Greenville home inspector who picks up mysteries for his mom, Sara. “I didn’t find it to be a headache at all. And it’s a nice town, so not only can you go to the library, you can stop and grab a coffee or whatever.”
Adding to the convenience factor, Sara recently moved to Belle Reve Senior Living, a retirement community in Milford a handful of blocks from the library. She can’t get to the library herself, but through her son she stays stocked up. “She’s gotta have that pulp in her hands,” said David.
“Now obviously, if you’re running your kids to the library between cheerleading and Boy Scouts, it’s not going to work,” he added.
“I know the majority of the people up Greenville go to the TJ Maxx, the Shoprite, Planet Fitness, so they’re over there anyway,” said Sherlock, the Wawayanda town clerk.
Cramer, the Greenville artist, also paid the $35 for her card and has been driving to Milford weekly to keep herself in books. “It’s a pain, with all the traffic. The people there are great, it’s a nice library, and it beats not having any access, so I’m happy. I’m happy for the library but I’m not happy with why, not having it here.”
The recent turnout from New York has been “impressive,” said Pike County Public Library Director Rose Chiocchi. “It’s been overall very positive. We’re happy to have people. Obviously people that are willing to travel really do want to use the library, so we’re just happy to have them and provide service.” She won’t know exactly how many people came over until they do the year-end count, she said.
“We’ve always offered non-resident cards, we understand. We live in the tristate area, and we have a lot of summer residents so we offer temporary cards, things like that. But never on this scale,” she said. “But it’s just like doing a new library card, so it doesn’t really add too much work for us.”
It’s (the library) a safe place that kids can go where you don’t have to spend money. It’s one of the last frontiers where you don’t have to be a consumer, you can just enrich your mind.” - Melissa Martens of Minisink, N.Y.
- Becca Tucker