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The roots of the Library can be traced back to 1923, when Sarah Askew, Secretary of the State Public Library Commission, made frequent visits to Cape May County to enlist influential support for a free county library. Her efforts proved successful, and the Cape May County Free Library was established by referendum in November 1924.
The Library's "birth day" is January 16, 1925, when the first Library Commission was appointed by the Board of Chosen Freeholders. It consisted of: Alfred Cooper, Chairman (Cape May Court House); Roxanna Gandy, Secretary (Dennisville), Lanning Myers (Wildwood), Elida K. Sheppard (Cape May), and George Soeder (Sea Isle City). The Library Commission took action in April by hiring Bess E. McGregor, formerly the Librarian at the Staten Island Branch of the New York Public Library, as Librarian with an annual salary of $2,000. Two assistants, Dorothy Bennett and Rachel C. Tozour, were hired at salaries of $60 and $50 a month. A five-room first-floor apartment in a house on Mechanic Street in Cape May Court House was rented for use as the Library (yearly rent: $350, including heat and water). A library truck was purchased for $883.
The physical organization of the library began on June 15, when Miss McGregor spent several days at the New Jersey State Library in Trenton, selecting the 2,000 books the State contributed to each new county library. The general distribution of books to "stations" began on 1 September. At the urgent solicitation of the State Library, the Library Commission sent the library book truck, loaded with books, to the Atlantic County Fair in Egg Harbor as an exhibit on September 4 and 5. The purpose was to demonstrate the workings of the Free Library System to the people of Atlantic County, who would soon vote on the question of establishing a free library there.
The Library's first Annual Report in January 1926 showed 10,679 books, of which 9,864 were deposited throughout the county in 71 "stations". These stations were found in stores, homes, post offices and schools; 40 to 70 volumes could be found at each place. The Library fund had an income of $8,861.64 and expenses of $8,823.13, leaving a balance of $38.51. In October, Bess E. McGregor resigned to get married and leave Cape May County. Sarah A. Thomas was chosen as County Librarian and in December 1927 the library moved from its inadequate apartment to quarters on Main Street, north of the Court House Building; formerly the offices of the County Clerk. Its 2,000 square feet were considered "large and spacious; comfortable and dignified." At the time, the library owned almost 23,000 books.
The year 1929 began well, but in December a fire destroyed the Community House in Woodbine along with all but 100 or so of 819 books in the Library Station there. Then the Depression came. The library suffered along with everything else. Employees took a salary cut; there was practically no money for new books, and old books were mended and re-mended as often as possible to keep them together. During World War II, book buying was difficult; prices rose about 25 percent and books went out of print quickly. Nevertheless, the Library did its part, loaning about 100 books to the Wildwood Naval Air Station in 1945. In February 1946, the County Librarian's salary was raised, for the first time in 20 years, to $2,500. There were problems too, as when the Dennisville School burned in April 1948 with a loss of $307.40 worth of library books.
In March 1956, Sarah A. Thomas retired after 30 years of service as County Librarian. Dorothy (Bennett) Torgersen, Senior Library Assistant, was appointed Acting Librarian. She received a "Professional Librarian's Permanent Certificate" after satisfying the requirements set by the State Board of Education. The Library continued to grow. In July 1959, the collection contained 66,418 books with 4,245 registered borrowers. Circulation totaled 19,988 to individuals and 8,273 to library stations in 129 school rooms and 13 adult stations. Based on county government functions and space requirements, the County Planning Board recommended a new library building in January 1960.
In June 1964, Dorothy B. Torgersen and Rachel C. Tozour retired. These were the two original Library Assistants hired in April 1925 and represented a combined 78 years of service to the Cape May County Library. The collection contained 80,433 books, circulation for the year was 40,471, and the Library was open 42.5 hours weekly; the staff now consisted of two Junior Library Clerks, two Clerk Typists, and no Director. A new County Librarian, Doris L. Grady, was finally hired in January 1966. That same month a special meeting was held to settle the location of a new County Library building and discuss tentative plans for library needs. The present quarters on Main Street were considered "large and spacious; comfortable and dignified" in 1927, when the Library owned about 23,000 books. With over 85,000 books in the collection, the old quarters were neither large nor spacious; neither comfortable nor dignified.
Under Mrs. Grady, things began to happen. On June 1, 1966 the Library began charging fines for overdue books, $0.02 per book per day; a price that would remain unchanged for nearly 30 years. In 1967 the Cape May County Library was designated a "Developmental" Library by the State, meaning each year the Library received a grant of $15,000 to improve the book collection, staff, and services in order to qualify as an Area Reference Library. In March 1967, the Library added evening hours to its schedule and in August a second professional librarian was hired.
In February 1968, the Library got its first photocopier and in May it became a New Jersey State Documents Depository Library. By now the staff consisted of two professionals, five Library Assistants, and three summer assistants. There were eight member libraries with Library Assistants in Avalon, Cape May, North Wildwood (combined school/public), Sea Isle City, Stone Harbor, Wildwood (combined school/public), Wildwood Crest and Woodbine. There were also four Library "Stations" with Library Assistants or volunteers at Cape May Point (summer only), Dennisville, Eldora, and Reed's Beach. These "stations" proved inefficient and were eventually closed.
Improvements continued. In January 1969, the Freeholders approved a plan for a new library building. In December, the Library acquired its first three 16mm films; in January 1970, New York Times microfilms were added; and in April, Saturday hours began for the first time. By December, the Library's collection totaled 104,873 books (c. 40,000 of them for juveniles); circulation for the year was 61,718. The Library was open 52 hours a week and the staff numbered ten.
On Monday, June 27, 1971, the Library opened in the new $1 million three-story Cape May County Library-Office Complex located at 14-34 West Mechanic Street, Cape May Court House. The first level was shared by the County and the Library, and included a public meeting room seating 100, a Children's library, a picture book area, book storage, and a Board Room. The second level housed the main portion of the Library, with over 100,000 feet of shelving, while the third level was occupied by several County administration offices. The building was dedicated on Sunday, September 26, 1971. The dedication had been planned for June, but was postponed due to strikes and material delivery problems which delayed work. In December, the State, perhaps influenced by the new building, finally certified Cape May County as an Area Reference Library. Once settled in its new home, the County Library system continued to expand. A new bookmobile served the areas once covered by the old "stations." In July 1974, a branch was added in Stone Harbor and in March 1975, the Avalon Public Library joined the system.
In February 1978, Doris L. Grady retired, and Thomas J. Leonard was named Library Director. During Mr. Leonard's time as Director, the Sea Isle City Branch opened in 1979 and two new Library Branches were built. The Lower Cape Branch at the Lower Township Municipal Complex on Bayshore Road in the Villas opened in 1982 and the Upper Township Branch on Route 631 in Petersburg, Upper Township opened in October 1985. Both were about 7,500 square feet, with a capacity of 40,000 books. Circulation continued to rise, climbing in 1987 to 148,637 (adult: 117,553, juvenile: 31,084) at the Main Branch and 188,080 at other branches, a total of 336,717. Donated funds allowed the purchase of a new bookmobile with a capacity of 2,000 books in 1989.
By 1992, the County administrative offices had moved out of the Library-Office Complex, and the Board of Chosen Freeholders awarded a $3.2 million contract for the renovation of the building. In May 1993, the Main Branch moved to temporary quarters in the former Middle Township Elementary School #3 in Cape May Court House while the work was being done. The renovated library reopened on Monday, December 18, 1994 and was rededicated Saturday, February 25, 1995. The first level was shared by the County and Emergency Management; the second level now housed the adult fiction, audio-visual and Children's sections, as well as a periodical Reading Room and a Young Adult room. The third level was occupied by the Adult Non-Fiction and Reference Departments, offices, computer room, and storage.
The Library had joined the Information Age. The old paper card catalog was gone, replaced by a computer catalog; hand-stamped checkout cards were gone, replaced by barcodes; music records and cassettes were gone, replaced by compact discs. Many electronic databases were added, faster and easier to use than the old paper copies, and in 1995 the Library added internet connections to many of its public computers.
In January 1995, the Cape May City Library joined the County System, leaving Ocean City and Wildwood Crest as the only independent public libraries in Cape May County. Thomas J. Leonard retired in February 1996, and Andrew Martin was named Library Director. At the beginning of the new millennium in 2001, the library held over 180,000 titles, 350,000 volumes, 5,000 videos, 4,000 audio books and 600 magazines. The staff included 20 professional librarians and 45 staff members.
In October of 2002, the City of Avalon voted to withdraw from the County Library System, a process that was completed in 2005. On the positive side, the Sea Isle City library was renovated in the fall of 2002, followed by the Stone Harbor library in the spring of 2003, and the Wildwood Crest Public Library joined the County System in May 2003. Andrew Martin retired at the end of November 2006 and Deborah Poillon was appointed Library Director by the Library Board. In Fall 2007, construction of the Woodbine Branch was completed. The Cape May City and Upper branches were renovated in 2010. The Lower branch was also renovated and a 2490 square foot additional was built. The new Sea Isle City branch started construction in the summer of 2010 and plans have been made for a new Stone Harbor branch.
Circulation broke the ½ million mark for the first time in 2009. A Homebound Delivery Service started in 2008. The CMCL offered over 1000 programs in 2009. In 2010, the CMCL had 351,000 books, 11,000 audio books, 20,000 DVDs, 5000 music CDS, 350 Video Games and 700 magazines. There were 120 computers for the public to use and the CMCL offered access to 90 databases, as well as downloadable audios and ebooks.
06/1925 - 10/1926: Bess E. McGregor
10/1926 - 03/1956: Sarah A. Thomas
03/1956 - 06/1964: Dorothy B. Torgersen
11/1966 - 02/1978: Doris L. Grady
02/1978 - 02/1996: Thomas J. Leonard
02/1996 - 12/2006: Andrew Martin
12/2006 - present: Deborah Poillon