Meet Chuck Thomas, the new director of the Newburgh Free Library. He is a fascinating man with a background in archaeology and anthropology. Learn how the library is bringing people into downtown Newburgh and the changes Chuck has witnessed over the past 16 years while working there. He and his new bride Nancy Thomas also run the Goldsmith Denniston Bed and Breakfast. Thanks Chuck!
Where did you grow up and how did you end up in Newburgh?
I like to say I was born in a small library in Bismarck, ND, but I remember nothing but snow. Shortly thereafter we moved to a small town in Kansas and by the third grade my family moved to Salt Lake City, Utah – it was there that I grew up. I had the wonderful opportunity to grow up and have the run of a magnificent library, since my dad was the Director of the Salt Lake Public Library, and while we were there I watched the construction and opening of a brand new, grand library. My dad was hired as the Director of the Ramapo Catskill Library System in Middletown, NY and that was when we moved to New York. I wound up in Newburgh through a fortuitous set of circumstances. I was writing grants as a sideline and I was hired by the then-Director of the Newburgh Free Library, Mary Ellen Leimer, to work with their literacy program part-time. After a couple of years we realized that the library world was a good fit for me and Mary Ellen found a place for me in the library full-time. Since my mom and dad were both librarians it was a natural transition. I moved to Newburgh with my late wife, Alice Dickinson, from Montgomery, so we could be close to home and work while she underwent treatment for terminal cancer.
What was your career before you worked at the library?
I went to school for anthropology and archaeology and worked in the museum field and consulted for the NYS Office of Historic Preservation on projects such as the cultural resource survey for the Upper Delaware National and Scenic Recreational River and the Delaware and Hudson Canal Landmark survey, identifying historic features within the proposed river boundaries and along the canal from Lackawaxen PA to High Falls, NY. Subsequently I and two partners started a Cultural Resource Consulting firm preparing the cultural resource components (history and archaeology) for environmental impact statements for private and municipal projects. As I aged a bit- fieldwork can be strenuous- and was working at the library already, I realized that both fields had many commonalities. Both involve researching and gathering and compiling information, organizing that information and disseminating the results to the public and stakeholders.
Congratulations on being appointed director of the library! What are some of the functions of your position and what positions did you hold prior.
Thank you and many thanks to all those folks who have made my journey possible. It a nutshell the director is responsible for the management, operations and functions of the library under the guidance of the trustees of the library. In the case of Newburgh, the trustees of the library are the elected members of the Board of Education of the Newburgh Enlarged City School District and I report to the Board and serve under the Superintendent of Schools. This is a unique situation, only two libraries in NYS have this arrangement, and it provides us the opportunity to serve as an educational and resource arm of the school system to provide enhanced opportunities for our chartered service area: the City and Town of Newburgh and the Town of New Windsor.
I began as a grant writer for the literacy program at the library, then it was the Literacy Volunteers program. I was hired as a Library Assistant first in the Local History Dept., still working on grant and funding development, and later in the Outreach Services and Programming Dept. I began working to obtain my Masters in Library Science and Information Services at Albany and five years later I completed my degree. I also received my certification in Public Library Administration from the Palmer School of Long Island University and worked as a librarian in Newburgh under the leadership of Muriel Verdibello.
The library now has a satellite location in the Newburgh Mall. Tell us about the reception it has received and the ability it has to draw people into downtown Newburgh.
The branch at the mall is a terrific asset to our community. We have added hundreds of new library users and made access to the resources of the library much more convenient. Because the branch is much smaller, we have fewer items on the shelf, but you can have all of our books and materials sent to the branch for pick-up and you can return items to the branch, no matter where you checked them out. We only have delivery two days a week at the branch, so if a person is at the branch asking for a book we often can check the catalog and tell them the book is available on the shelf downtown, and we can put that item on hold and if it is wanted immediately, we encourage people to go right over to the downtown facility and pick it up themselves. More often than not, the person that does get in the car and drive downtown is pleasantly surprised to find a clean, safe and fully staffed facility that has the items they need ready and waiting. We also have found that people read about our many exciting programs at the main library and they venture into town for the program and realize what they have been missing. For various reasons people don’t have a reason to come downtown or perhaps remember a downtown that was not necessarily welcoming. We have changed all that and are learning that if we can get folks into downtown they will keep coming downtown for all that we (and the surrounding community) have to offer.
What differences have you seen in the neighborhood working at the library for the past 16 years?
Ours is a much different neighborhood that it was. Back when, we hired off-duty city police to provide security at the library. Now there is no need for that, we have security and cameras and lights but the worst we see is the occasional panhandler and mischief. With many newcomers to the neighborhood and the addition of Orange County Community College campus, plus the city’s Heritage Center and vibrant churches this is a neighborhood growing into its potential as a place to come to.
What community based programs does the library offer?
I might need an entire interview for this one but from toddler story-times, to movies, free computer training, bilingual homework help, a Parenting center, Job info Center and literacy services, citizenship info and income tax prep help, this library is your community center.
What resources are available for people who want to investigate family genealogy, local history or information about their old house.
The library has a local history and genealogical collection that dates back to the beginnings of the library in 1850. By 1875 when Charles Estabrook, a history teacher, became the librarian, the collection expanded by leaps and bounds as Estabrook recognized the importance of assembling a collection of information on the families and history of the region. Over the past 300 years many new Americans have arrived and made their imprint on Newburgh as they arrived in NYC and headed up the Hudson River for new opportunities. The histories of these families are represented in our collections. We still encourage researchers with genealogical roots in Newburgh to deposit a copy of their research with us for future investigators. In addition to print materials we also provide web-based resources such as Ancestry.com and Heritagequest.com. Listings of the buildings in the National Register Historic District are available as well as unique materials such as the Sketchbook of Frank Estabrook, a prominent architect. A remarkable collection of city directories dating back to 1856 traces the people and places of Newburgh on a year-by-year basis.
What is the biggest change you have seen in Newburgh over the years?
Well, I came after the worst had happened, urban renewal had demolished the waterfront lands and more but the only renewal that happened was the construction of the present library building. We were a city waiting for a savior to come and bring us back to the All American City of the 1950’s. Several potential suitors came along but no one person could undertake the work and provide the love that Newburgh needed. What I see now is a new growth within the city, with new neighbors coming in and new businesses and industries beginning to flourish. We are no longer waiting for someone to save Newburgh but rather recognizing the synergy of this city and its environs and encouraging and welcoming new Newburgers who are coming to be part of the organic, natural growth of a new community.
What advice would you give someone who would like to move to the City of Newburgh?
Don’t wait too long to look into Newburgh; look at opportunity, not weakness and think about what Newburgh will do for you and what you can bring to Newburgh. Visit the library, the historic sites, the waterfront. Explore the wealth of spaces that are available for your family and your business and come and meet the people of Newburgh.