For a detailed history of libraries in Skaneateles, see local author and historian Kihm Winship’s delightful article here.
The Skaneateles Library Association’s origins date back to the early 1800s, not long after the Village of Skaneateles became settled. The early librarians were the proprietors of local businesses and membership was in the form of a subscription. The earliest patrons had to pay a yearly fee of $3.00 to borrow books. The library itself was usually in an office occupied by a proprietor who was serving his term as Librarian. The library operated in this manner until 1841, whereupon it was dissolved.
For the next 36 years the Village of Skaneateles did not have one library, but rather an assortment of libraries that were housed in various offices and stores and were run by different people. By the late 1870s, village leaders had decided that this arrangement was no longer satisfactory, and on October 20, 1877 the Skaneateles Library Association was incorporated. It was set up as a subscription library with an annual membership fee of $2.00. The rationale for this lower price was to make it easy for anyone to join.
The library was set up in an office in the Legg Block. The reading room was open days and evenings to both men and women. The library was non-denominational, open to all classes, sexes and workers in all industries. The first trustees truly wanted everyone to join.
The library’s first book order was an offer of $155 for the contents of another library (the Petheram). Within a year the reading room boasted a collection of 2,162 books with 800 on loan, 11 daily newspapers, 22 weekly papers and 11 monthly magazines.
In 1885 a parcel of land across Genesee Street from Legg Hall became available for $2,000. The trustees raised the money within 24 hours. The following year a local attorney, Benoni Lee, died and willed the Association his tiny lot and brick office building known as the Sphinx, which bordered the newly purchased land.
The highly reputable firm of Green & Wicks of Buffalo, NY was hired to design the new building. On April 12, 1888 the work began, and once again money was needed to pay for the construction. Again the residents of Skaneateles rallied ’round their library and raised the $18,000 needed for construction.
The project was not without controversy, seeing as the library was being built on the land next to the Sphinx. The board of trustees were divided as to what to do with the building. Some felt that it should remain intact, while others thought it was a blot on the horizon and should be torn down. The pro-Sphinx camp prevailed, and Green & Wicks came up with a design to incorporate the Sphinx with the new library. However, the Sphinx was to remain a law office, and the tenant who was using it did not want a library entrance through his office. Thus it remained for more than 90 years. It was not until 1987 that a doorway was created linking the two buildings, making the Sphinx a part of the library and thereby giving a home to the children’s collection.
The new building was dedicated on February 27, 1890. The occasion was presided over by William Marvin, the Association President, who spoke and then introduced a very special guest speaker, the Director of the New York State Library, none other than Melvil Dewey (the creator of the Dewey Decimal System). Dewey spoke at length – one and a half hours – to a rapt audience.
Ten years later in 1900 the John D. Barrow Art Gallery was opened and another chapter in the library’s history began. John D. Barrow (1824 – 1906) was a second generation Hudson River School style painter. After Barrow died, the Gallery became a part of his bequest to the library and is mandated to house only his paintings. Library and Gallery finances and daily operations are managed separately.
For the next one hundred and ten years, the Skaneateles Library has remained very much the same, operating in its location on Genesee Street as an independent library with no affiliation to any library system. By the early 2000’s, it became apparent that remaining outside a library system had become a disadvantage, because it limited Skaneateles Library user access to only items in the Skaneateles Library. Many residents were joining and using libraries in the Onondaga County Library System (OCPL) to gain access to the more than 3 million items available county-wide. Clearly there was a need that the library was not meeting by remaining outside the county system.
Accordingly, the Skaneateles Library obtained a charter from the New York State Department of Education in 2009 and joined its sister libraries as part of the OCPL system.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the Skaneateles Library had relied principally on its endowment and donations from the community for its funding. By 2016, however, such private funding was no longer adequate to allow the library to meet the community’s need for services. In May 2016, the residents of the Skaneateles School District voted to provide annual funding to the library through property taxes, assuring the library’s continued financial good health. The library remains a private, self-governing association library under New York law.