The Tiny Springs Library Is in Peril

Boxed books harbinger of trouble as historical society’s charter hangs in balance
Volunteers at the Springs Library, Ethel Henn, seated, Francine Gluckman, and Jackie Wilson, are afraid the library will cease to exist unless the Springs Historical Association gets some new blood and a new state charter. Irene Silverman

Six thousand or so secondhand books, warehoused in three rooms upstairs, were in pretty good shape, but the floors of the Springs Library’s 167-year-old Ambrose Parsons House were buckling under their weight. The house belongs to East Hampton Town, and Tom Talmage, the town engineer, deemed the situation dangerous. One day in July, a Highway Department truck arrived to take the books away.

“A sad day,” Heather Anderson of the Springs Historical Society posted on Facebook. “The workers from the town are beginning to clear out the upstairs rooms of books. If it is needed for the benefit of the house, then I guess it has to be done. We saved a lot of the art books and children’s books for our summer sales.”

The library’s all-volunteer staff, the youngest of whom is 67, boxed up as many books as possible and maneuvered the boxes down the narrow staircase to the ground floor, where most of them still remain, stacked haphazardly all over the place. The town workers took the leftovers and tossed them out the window to the ground. People who were there said the men were not happy to be taking books to the dump. It was a harbinger, some think, of the trouble to come.

The Springs Library shows no movies, sponsors no panel discussions, holds no readings, supports no ham-radio, mystery-book, chess or any other club, and boasts not a single computer in the whole place — just a Saturday-morning children’s story hour. Fines for late returns are 10 cents a day and library cards do not exist. It’s only been a library since 1975, but it exudes the past from every corner of its venerable building.

Whether it will have a future is another story. As libraries go, this one is a small-town anomaly, what the New York State Education Department defines as an “association library,” not a public library supported by taxes but one that’s governed and underwritten by “a group of private individuals operating as an association” — in this case, the Springs Historical Association, which is in the throes of a major headache.

While the town provides the Parsons House with heat, light, and basic maintenance, it cannot continue to function as a library “without the historical society getting revitalized,” Mrs. Anderson said last week. Over the last few years, she explained, the society’s seven-member board of directors has dwindled to three, one of whom has been too ill to serve. The rest have died or moved away, leaving only herself and Hugh King. “We haven’t had a meeting in a long time,” Mr. King said.

For the library, Mrs. Anderson is “everything,” one volunteer, Francine Glickman, told a visitor last week — “treasurer of the historical society as well as de facto director of the library.”

No matter, however, how dedicated one member may be, a board of trustees that cannot command a quorum is in deep trouble. The state charter that grants the historical society tax-deductible status is about to expire, if it hasn’t already; there’s some doubt. Certainly the board has not held “at least four meetings a year” in recent years, as required under state education law. “We still submit our records to our accountant and still have our nonprofit status, but at some point the state could take it away,” Mrs. Anderson acknowledged.

If the historical society loses its charter, it could well go under, and take the library down with it. “People won’t donate money if it’s not tax-deductible,” Mrs. Anderson said. The library does not have its own separate tax exemption.

The society’s viability depends largely on dues and donations from its 100 or so members. Annual dues are $15, or $25 to also belong to the library. Between society and library, the annual budget is from $15,000 to $20,000, Mrs. Anderson said. Some time ago, she recalled, East Hampton Town had a budget line for the arts that included libraries. “We were on that line, but it’s been several years since they cut out the libraries,” she said. 

The libraries in Montauk, Amagansett, and East Hampton are supported by taxes. Since 2016, under a grant from the Hilaria and Alec Baldwin Foundation, each of them, and Springs as well, has received a yearly $5,000 gift certificate from BookHampton to buy books. That helps the smallest one a lot.

But with the existence of their sustaining body in peril, the Springs Library volunteers fear the worst. The only solution, it seems, is for the historical society to elect a whole new board of directors, one that will take prompt action to apply to the New York State Board of Regents for a new charter. The loss of the charter, and with it the society’s and library’s tax exemption, “would severely hamper the library’s existence since it recently lost a major source of income when the town closed its book sale rooms on the upper floors,” according to volunteers

There will be a meeting on Sunday at 1:30 p.m., in the Springs Community Church, to elect new directors of the historical society. “We plead with you to attend,” volunteers said. Nonmembers have been encouraged to go, pay their $15 or $25 to join, and then vote — or perhaps even throw their hats in the ring for election themselves.

At some point, Mrs. Anderson said, she and her husband, Pete, will move to Wisconsin, where both their daughters live, “but I just cannot leave until we re-establish the historical society.” Young blood on the board would be especially welcome, she said, sounding wistful. In the best of all possible worlds, “We’d like people with the technology gene. Slide shows just don’t do it anymore.”