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Union’s Schaffer Library celebrates 50 years

Thursday, May 19, 2011
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The second floor of the Schaffer Library at Union College in Schenectady is a large, airy space. The facility, funded by philanthropist Henry Schaffer, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber
The second floor of the Schaffer Library at Union College in Schenectady is a large, airy space. The facility, funded by philanthropist Henry Schaffer, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

— In 1920, Henry Schaffer met a young librarian named Sally Bieber and fell in love. He also, as later events seem to indicate, had a real warm spot in his heart for libraries.

A Polish immigrant and school dropout at age 14, Schaffer became a millionaire working in the family’s grocery business, and during the course of his 62-year-marriage to Bieber he funded the building of three major libraries in the Capital Region. The first, Union College’s Schaffer Library in 1961, begins a yearlong celebration of its 50th anniversary with a reception Friday from 3-5 p.m., in the facility’s Beuth Atrium.

In 1959, Union College was looking for a little funding to help build a much-needed new library and it was Schaffer, whose Empire Markets were the first grocery chain in New York state, who provided a gift of $500,000 to make sure the job got done. Ground was broken on Jan. 7, 1960, the cornerstone was laid on May 14, and during the summer of 1961, 50 years ago, the Schaffer Library opened its doors.

In 1972, Albany Medical College opened its own Schaffer Library of the Health Sciences, and after his death in 1982 Schaffer’s money helped Albany Law School construct a third Schaffer Library.

Respected individual

According to Wayne Somers, owner of W. Somers Bookseller on Union Street and a Schaffer Library employee from 1961-71, Schaffer was the kind of individual everyone looked up to and admired, and not just because of the money he graciously doled out in his life.

“Any philanthropist is going to be treated with respect, but not necessarily respected in private,” said Somers, a past chairman of the Friends of the Union College Library. “I may have been introduced to him once, and I really only have second-hand information, but I remember him as a man of integrity and dignity. That’s how my boss [Ed Tolan] thought of him, and I do know that other people who knew him had a very high opinion of him.”

Schaffer, who had no children, also contributed money to a 1974 addition to the Union building, and in 1979 he created the Schaffer Foundation, which in 1986 gave money for another renovation to the library. Upon his death, Schaffer left an additional $3 million to the college.

The building was designed by Walker O. Cain from the architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White, and was built by the Hanson Construction Company. The white facade has three archways leading to the main entrance, and also includes four significant white columns that stretch from the second floor to the third. Although Union College had been in existence since 1795, the building Schaffer built was the first time the school’s entire library collection was in one separate structure.

“Much of the library was in the Nott Memorial before 1961, but while it’s a wonderful building, it really wasn’t a great place for the library,” said Ellen Fladger, who has worked at the Schaffer Library for 31 years and is currently in charge of the Special Collections department. “It was dark and drafty, and there were some very rare books and other valuable items that were probably just hanging on the shelves. The place wasn’t very secure.”

That isn’t the case now. Fladger’s Special Collections are located in a section of the third floor of the Schaffer Library, next to the administrative offices and a small study space. Among the prized possessions is a full set of John James Audubon’s “Birds of America,” purchased by Eliphalet Nott directly from Audubon in 1844.

“When they moved everything out of the Nott Memorial, there was what they called the vault collection that was located in the basement of the new building,” said Fladger.

“There was also a bookcase in the head librarian’s office that had some rare books in it. It wasn’t until 1974, when they put on a new addition, that they set up a rare book room. That was when they started isolating some very valuable books and other materials in a special room, so I would guess that the Special Collections department was officially formed that year.”

Making up the library’s second floor is the language lab, media center, writing center, a bigger study space for students and a small number of bookshelves. On the ground floor is the reference book section, computers, and the cataloguing part of the library, while the basement consists mostly of bookshelves filled with the library’s large collection of books along with some more studying space.

“The way I see it, the job of the library is teaching through education and instruction, and all the technology we have is very much instrumental in that,” said college librarian Thomas McFadden, who has been at Union for 14 years. “Things have changed, and you can get to a large portion of our collection and other things like academic journals electronically. I think the kids prefer that. But there are still a significant number of trade and academic books that are not on the Internet, so we continue to need our space here. We also have a fairly large collection of DVDs, both music and film, which are used extensively in the classroom right across our curriculum.”

Schaffer, who got a honorary doctorate from Union, would undoubtedly appreciate McFadden’s stewardship. In an interview 10 years before he died, he said, “A library is truly the heart of a college. Nothing could be more essential to a house of scholars.”

Place of refuge

For Schenectady native and 2008 Union graduate Heather Cunningham, the library was a multipurpose facility. Not only did she study there, she met friends there, and on some occasions it even served as a preferred place of refuge.

“Whether I was stressed out about exams, or just looking for a nice place to relax between classes, Schaffer was where I always retreated,” she said. “One of my favorite places on the Union campus were the armchairs in the periodical rooms, with the sun streaming through the window over my book. It was where I met up with people, where I killed a few hours and where I settled into a long study session, snacks in hand. Some students may have seen the campus center or the fraternities as the hub of student life, but for me it was always the Schaffer Library.”

Libraries, however, weren’t the only things that interested Schaffer. Before he died in 1982 at the age of 92 (Sally died three years later in 1985), Schaffer had spread his wealth out to a number of local institutions, including the Schenectady Museum, the Jewish Community Center and the Annie Schaffer Senior Center, to name just a few.

 
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