Library Gains a Collection, but Loses a Treasure

On December 16, standing in front of a bust of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, members of the Roosevelt Island Community Literary Associates (RICLA) handed a check for the remainder of the organization’s treasury – $3,700 – to Carlos Chavez, the new manager of the Roosevelt Island branch of the New York Public Library. The funds will help establish a new special collection dedicated to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt to be housed permanently at the library branch.

RICLA President Janet Falk and board member Lorraine Lasker with NYPL branch manager Carlos Chavez.

The donation represented the final act of an organization that was responsible for building and maintaining the Island’s first library in the years before the NYPL arrived, and, more recently, has worked to help promote local nonprofits with grants.

Unfortunately, Chavez’s first act in making room for the new collection was to toss out the library’s long-held collection of newspapers, clippings, and historical documents chronicling the Island’s shift to a residential community – some of which, it is believed, RICLA itself painstakingly built and gifted to the library branch for safe-keeping.

Our First Library

RICLA President Janet Falk says that Islanders have long had a passion for reading and literacy. Created in 1979, by volunteers, and spearheaded by Islanders Herman and Dorothy Reade, the Roosevelt Island Community Library was originally located in the Westview community room. At the time, the Island still lacked many services that could be found elsewhere in the City, including a public library branch. Members of the newly established community conceived a volunteer library stocked with donated books and open to all residents for a nominal membership fee. There were even storytime sessions for very young children. Slowly, but surely, the collection grew.

According to a press release issued by RICLA, the Friends of the Roosevelt Island Community Library signed a lease for the large storefront at 524 Main Street in June 1981, where the NYPL is housed today. By December 1994, the group’s collection numbered more than 30,000 volumes.

Although the New York Public Library had long intended to open a branch on Roosevelt Island, RICLA says that budget issues had precluded appropriations. Former Assembly member Pete Grannis worked to secure the funds for the capital improvements. In June 1998, the community library’s books, bookcases, and other assets were sold to the New York Public Library.

The Roosevelt Collection

In the years since RICLA stopped managing the community library, the group turned its focus to supporting local arts and cultural organizations. According to Falk, the group sought funds, primarily from RIOC’s Public Purpose Funds, to provide matching grants to help support the promotion efforts of local nonprofits, including Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance, Island Kids, Roosevelt Island Toastmasters, Island Shakespeare, R & R Concerts, and others. The group also provided grant-writing services to the Island’s Disabled Association and Historical Society.

Last year, says Falk, the group decided to finally close. “It accomplished its mission of promoting the intellectual pursuits of the community of Roosevelt Island, and in creating and maintaining the library for nine years,” she says. It seemed only fitting that the remainder of the group’s funds go to the local library.

Falk credits RICLA board member Lorraine Lasker with the idea to use the donation to create a collection dedicated to the Roosevelts. The goal, says Falk, is to create a more tangible reference and connection to the Roosevelts since the Island is named for President Franklin and his wife, Eleanor, who was appointed to the first U.S. delegation to the United Nations, whose Secretariat building looms in the distance.

The money will be used by the library to purchase books, DVDs, a bust of Eleanor Roosevelt, and other relevant materials. The collection will circulate throughout the NYPL, but will be tagged so that the materials are always returned to Roosevelt Island.

Chavez isn’t limiting the acquisitions to biographies, but is interested in also including major events that occured during Roosevelt’s presidency, including the New Deal, the Depression, and World War II. “We want to make [the collection] as diverse as possible,” he said Chavez.

Making Room

The issue, according to Chavez, was where to put the new collection.

Hoping to showcase the collection in the library’s front bookcases, Chavez says he decided to relocate the graphic novels currently located there to a back corner of the library. To make room, he says he asked custodial staff to throw out the old copies of the Main Street WIRE located in the back corner of the library.

Custodial staff disposed of two blue binders donated to the library over 30 years ago by the Roosevelt Island Historical Society. They contained our media history, starting with the very first Roosevelt Island Residents Association newsletters back in 1976 up through Jim Bowser’s reign as publisher of the Main Street WIRE, which ended in 1996. None of the material is digitized. Also discarded were other binders filled with brochures and newspaper clippings about the Island, as well as, on the bottom shelf, bins filled with old newspapers memorializing our history.

These bins of documents and newspaper clippings chronicling Island history – including the Island's original newspapers – once sat in the back corner of our local branch of the NYPL.

No one from RICLA, the Roosevelt Island Historical Society, or The Main Street WIRE was consulted, warned, or invited to be responsible for maintenance of this priceless local history.

The loss was discovered on January 2 by WIRE staff. By then, the materials had already left the NYPL’s recycling facility and it was too late to recover them.

“My sincere apologies for the way the newspapers were handled,” Chavez wrote in an email. “[The custodians] have a recycle system every two weeks. The Roosevelt i and Island View are gone.”

Chavez has offered to reach out to other Islanders to track down any other copies that might exist.

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