“In a town of 8,500 people, where community spirit is almost tangible, Florham Park librarians are witnesses daily to the social role of the building. It is there that neighbors greet neighbors.” – Barbara McConville, Former Director of The Florham Park Free Public Library
“Show me a great community without its own library or cultural center.” – Thomas Vultee, Former Mayor of Florham Park
“Sincere and reasonable public opinion, when expressed to the proper people, can be a powerful tool and I wish more people believed in it.” – Eleanor Weis, Florham Park resident and historian
The story of The Florham Park Free Public Library is a rich one, filled with instances of passionate public discourse, collective dreaming, and problem solving. Florham Park did not have its own public library facility or collection until the 1960s. In the post-war years, the population of Florham Park boomed, transforming the Borough from a small, mainly rural town to a suburban landscape teeming with young families. As these families moved in, they brought with them a desire for more and better quality public services. Their efforts to improve the town and craft a community to fit their vision were organized and spirited–especially when it came to their library!
Until 1962, the residents of Florham Park made use of the Madison Public Library in its original location at 9 Main St (now the Museum of Early Trades and Crafts). During this time, Florham Park tax dollars were given to the Madison Public Library to allow residents free memberships. In 1961, that cost was $8,000. As the share of Florham Park library users increased at Madison, so did the cost to the Borough of Florham Park. At the same time, service lagged, and the Madison Public Library was increasingly unable to provide quality services for its ever-growing ranks of users. In light of these problems, the Mayor and Borough Council asked two important questions: were the library services received by the Madison Library adequate for the needs of Florham Park? And, were the taxpayers getting their money’s worth? The ensuing debate over these questions would become known as “the hottest issue in town” for the next 20 years.
In 1963, following the advice of an independent research committee, the Borough Council decided to cut ties with the Madison Library in favor of creating a brand new public library in Florham Park. While the Florham Park collection was built, and housing for the new library was located, residents were provided with access to the Morris County Library bookmobile, which made regular stops around town on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Florham Park residents were also given the option to pay for their membership at the Madison Public Library at a rate of $8 per family or $4 per student. This decision was immediately met with public outcry, thanks in no small part to Eleanor Weis, whose column in the Madison Eagle, “Florham Park Hi-Lites” regularly expressed ire and incredulity at the local government’s handling of “the library question.” Her columns often pointed out that it would take many years and a massive public investment to create a library that was as well-stocked and professionally staffed as Madison’s, and that Florham Park residents would not have access to an adequate library by going out on its own.
Meanwhile, the local government maintained that the math of making a public investment in the Madison Library just didn’t work out–even if every single family in Florham Park purchased a membership at the institution at $8 each, the total cost would still be less than the amount Madison was requesting from the Borough. This was seen as an untenable prospect by local officials, especially considering that their research showed that per-capita spending on Madison Public Library members had been gradually slipping over time and was now below $3.00 per year, significantly less than the American Library Association’s recommendation of $3.50 per person, per year.
Eleanor Weis and her allies would not be silent on the issue. A second independent committee consisting of local parents, educators, and The League of Women Voters was formed to investigate the issue and poll the community. Eleanor McKinney, then the school librarian at the Ridgedale School served as chair. They found that the people of Florham Park were overwhelmingly opposed to the municipal government’s sudden withdrawal from the Madison Public Library. Several public meetings were held, many of which featured heated exchanges on the topic. Eventually, a compromise was struck: Florham Park would rejoin the Madison Public Library in 1964, and a Library Board of Trustees would be established in Florham Park, tasked with securing a space and a collection for a small local library.
Over the next few years, the fledgling Florham Park Public Library was housed in several different locations. As its collection grew (mainly from donations from Florham Park residents), it was relocated. It first opened on March 3, 1965 with 400 volumes in a corner of the Ridgedale School Library. The first Head Librarian was Elizabeth Haeussler, who worked on a part-time basis under trying conditions. Six months later, it was relocated to the smaller clapboard schoolhouse behind The Little Red School House. This was a makeshift arrangement, created with the help of the local Jaycees and other volunteers, who painted the structure, moved in the books, and created an unusual desk for Ms. Haeussler, made from a bathtub and a slab of wood! Despite the crowded, provisional status of the library at this time, between 1965 and 1966, membership increased from 423 to 1,184, and an average of 2,000 items circulated every month.
These turbulent first years were further exacerbated by yet another heated public debate, regarding the proposed purchase of a colonial estate on 3.25 acres of land at 64 Ridgedale Avenue to serve as the new home of the Library. The property owner, Dr. Richard Rushmore offered to sell the property interest-free below market value ($59,000) over a 10-year period to the Borough of Florham Park. The municipal government jumped at the offer, and hatched a plan to use the first floor of the house as the library, and convert the second floor to offices to relieve crowded Borough Hall conditions. The sudden availability of this property also caused the Mayor and Borough Council to dream big–this spacious, green, and stately property was to serve as “the embryo of a municipal-cultural center, encompassing art, music, literature, drama, and education.” This dream would not come into fruition. Public outcry once again was directed at Florham Park leaders, who were accused of moving too hastily on the purchase–a sizeable financial commitment for the municipality.
Instead, the next home for the library would be the old Afton Firehouse, which underwent significant renovations to make it suitable for library use in 1967. It was at this time that the Library Association hired the first full-time Librarian, Ann Perkins, under whose direction library use grew exponentially and services were vastly improved. By 1970, the little library was bursting at the seams again, and the second floor of the old firehouse was converted into a dedicated children’s room.
By the early 1970’s, the Florham Park Public Library had come into its own as a robust and well-used institution. Important milestones were achieved: the Library’s holdings had exceeded 2 books per-capita (16,000 volumes), and annual circulation was approaching 40,000, or 3,333 items per month, and growing rapidly. At this time, The Library’s Board of Trustees was once again pushing for larger quarters on a new site to better meet the needs of Florham Park residents and the cancellation of the contract with the Madison Public Library. By this time, the cost had ballooned to $20,000 per year–money that could have been better spent right here in Florham Park. But many Florham Parkers were not ready to sever ties with Madison. Dozens of letters from concerned citizens flooded Borough Hall asking the council to renew the contract. By all accounts, the December 20, 1971 council meeting at which the contract with Madison was discussed was a heated one, with Mayor Vultee and the other members of the council giving impassioned speeches on their positions. Borough Council, ignoring the Trustees’ recommendation, voted to continue the contract with the Madison Public Library for yet another year. In a rare use of executive power, Mayor Vultee vetoed the decision, ending his final term with a passionate, if politically unpopular decision.
Vultee’s successor immediately overturned his veto in early 1972 and rejoined the Madison Library, only to cancel the agreement a year later when Madison once again substantially raised the cost to Florham Park from $20,000 to $30,000. After much negotiation, an uneasy agreement was reached, to the detriment of the Florham Park Library–every member of the Florham Park Library Board of Trustees resigned in protest of the decision. It was around this time that public opinion, usually overwhelmingly pro-Madison, finally started to sway toward leaving the Madison Library behind and investing more here at home. Community research studies showed that Florham Park was a “library-minded community,” and that the Florham Park Free Public Library was especially popular with families with children, and that adult users typically preferred to make the trip to the new, ultra-modern Madison Library. Though the library issue was highly contentious from a political and financial standpoint through the 1960s and 1970s, Board Reports from that era show that Librarians and library users did not necessarily see a problem with patrons having use of the two institutions. Ann Perkins was known to periodically praise the Madison Library and encourage partnership with what she viewed as a neighborly institution, “as it should be.”
As the discussion on whether or not to continue the contract with Madison continued, plans proceeded to build a brand new library building on the new Borough campus around the corner from Borough Hall. John Overtoom, the architect of the new Borough Hall erected in 1970, designed a Williamsburg-style building to house the new, 7,000 square-foot library. Once again, it was the Jaycees who volunteered to haul the books from the old Afton Firehouse to the new library at 107 Ridgedale Avenue. The new building was dedicated on March 1, 1980. The Head Librarian at the time, Diane O’Brien worked hard to expand the services offered here at Florham Park in an effort to draw more Florham Parkers away from Madison and into the Florham Park Public Library.
In 1982, the bitter fight over the Madison contract finally came to an end. A new solution arose, a reciprocal borrowing program called the Morris County Reciprocal Loan Program, or “MORE,” which granted Florham Park Residents the use of materials from Madison and 29 other Morris County libraries.
The turbulence of the Library’s first 25 years was soon forgotten, as The Florham Park Free Public Library, finally out from Madison’s shadow, was free to grow uninhibited. The 1980s and 1990s were an era of “business as usual,” with the library becoming a steady and reliable source of programming, events, information, and materials for Florham Park residents and our neighbors in the surrounding area. Circulation gradually increased year after year, and the Library experimented with loaning out new types of materials, such as CD Roms and Video Cassette Tapes. In 1997, full access to the internet was added to the list of services the library provided to the community. In 1998, MORE gradually gave way to MAIN, or the Morris Automated Information Network, evolving to meet the technological needs of its expanding group of member libraries. After some time, the Florham Park Public Library, once barely more than a small storefront with a couple of hundred volumes, became one of the best-used libraries in the surrounding area, not just by the people of Florham Park, but also by significant numbers of residents in neighboring towns.
At the close of the 20th century, the library was once more bursting at the seams and scrambling to keep up with the demands of a growing Florham Park. In 2000, Barbara McConville, the Library’s director, launched a Capital Campaign to expand the Library, because “in 18 years, our space has become crammed with books, audio-visual materials, and machines that were not thought of when the new building opened its doors.” Thanks to the dedication and enthusiasm of the Campaign Chairs, Ken Kopia, John Cunningham, and Ralph Loveys, the Florham Park Community responded generously and in droves to renovate and expand their library. All told, the people of Florham Park raised a grand total of $769,000. The renovation was completed in 2005, and drastically increased the footprint of the library to 16,000 square feet. The newly renovated building constituted a radical transformation of The Florham Park Free Public Library from a small one-room facility to a state-of-the-art information center, complete with computers for public use, event space, community meeting room, large children’s room, teen space, vaulted lobby entryway, and administrative offices.