Library marks centennial anniversary

Photos by Ron Leir


Photos by Ron Leir/ As celebrants partake of refreshments, town and library officials check out library archives. At bottom,from l., are: library board member Marian Comprelli, library director Nelba Mejias, library board president Constance McDonough and Mayor Ray McDonough.


By Ron Leir

There was a lot of gabbing going on Thursday night at the Harrison Public Library and no library staffers bothered shushing anybody.
Yes, dear reader, the normal silence rule was broken because the library was celebrating a landmark birthday – its 100th in fact  – and while there was no cake for the occasion there were plenty of townspeople, young and old, to celebrate.
Constance McDonough, president of the library’s board of trustees, welcomed the dignitaries and guests and proclaimed: “I love the feel of books; I love the smell of books. I hope in one hundred years, this (building) will still be here.”
Not that the librarians have become Luddites: far from it. They have 30 computer terminals available for the public’s use – up from the original three, installed in 1996, noted Acting Library Director Nelba Mejias, who will mark her 15th year at the library in August.
A public referendum cleared the way for Harrison’s first public library, a one-room affair occupying a retail space at 160 Harrison Ave. which owner Catherine McDonald rented to the town for the princely sum of $35 a month and which the town stocked with 886 books and furniture purchased for $3,000, according to a library history compiled by local staffers.
The portals to this potpourri of print opened in April 1911 under the watch of Librarian Ruth Townsend.
By 1936, it was clear that the little library needed room to grow and so the then-Mayor Frederick J. Gassert tapped a federal funding source via the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works to finance construction of the current library building, which was dedicated in 1938.
Harrison High School graduates received their diplomas on the library portico and veterans conducted Memorial Day services from that site.
During World War II the library hosted blood banks sponsored by the Red Cross and Nopco Chemical Co. along with Red Cross first-aid classes.
After Frank E. Rodgers became mayor in 1947, the library became home to Girl Scouts’ craft shows, Recreation Department youth dances, library science classes, story hours and a school book loaning program.
In the ‘50s, summer band concerts were held on the portico and the scope of reference books was expanded.

Photos by Ron Leir/ Former acting library director Agnes Katelus-Jones (l). shares a light moment with library board member Marian Comprelli


Photos by Ron Leir/ Cherry Zhang relaxes in children's library where she teaches a weekly class in Chinese language.

In 1969 the library balcony was reshaped into an adult study and reference room. And during the ‘70s, Town Historian Henry Mutz organized the “Harrison Collection,” which is now housed in the Harrison Museum at the Town Hall Annex; summer reading programs began and turn-of-the-century Harrison poet Aloysius Michael Sullivan was awarded a plaque. In the ‘80s the library got an extensive facelift, both inside and out and the ‘90s saw cataloguing of books by computer and the introduction of Wi-Fi.
Constance’s husband, Mayor Ray McDonough, told the crowd: “I am happy to have been a part of some major renovations here including the installation of the elevator, the children’s library (in the basement) and the use of computers in the library. I am happy to see that the facility is so well used.”
Later the mayor observed: “You come here evenings, on Saturdays, you see the place packed with people using computers.”
To acquire those terminals, the library used money from the Gates Foundation, the town and the Board of Education, Mejias said.
Today, the library – which runs on a $90,000 annual budget and houses 46,000 volumes – claims 11,915 card holders, mostly from Harrison and East Newark, but also about 50 folks from out of the region who, as Mejias puts it, “like the service and our books.”
As a reflection of the town’s changing demographics, the children’s library hosts a weekly one-hour class in Chinese characters and Chinese traditional poetry, offered by the Hualei Chinese School, for Chinese-American children ages 3 to 5.
Cherry Zhang, the school’s instructor, is hoping to expand the program to two nights a week by offering two classes, one for ages 3 and 4 and another for ages 5 and 6. That proposal is currently under review by the library board.
Since September, children in the current class have learned more than 80 Chinese characters and are able to recite eight traditional Chinese poems, according to Zhang.
Among the visitors to the birthday event was Agnes Katelus-Jones, a former acting library director who served at the Harrison facility for 32 years. “It was always a busy library,” Katelus-Jones said. “It was a place where you knew that the library staff would always help you.”

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