Boats and Books

Boats and Books

“A trip to the library” usually conjures images of a neighborhood stroll or bike ride, or perhaps a quick bus, subway, or car trip. But plenty of library patrons in our area take an even cooler route to their nearest branch library. In the spirit of summertime, here’s a sampling of three local libraries where you can dock your boat and grab a good read.

Boating the Bronx: The City Island Branch of the NYPL


Hawtree Basin near Queens Library at Howard Beach.

On City Island, a small maritime community surrounded by the Long Island Sound and the Eastchester Bay off the east coast of the Bronx, New York Public Library’s City Island Branch houses a 1,000-volume collection on naval history and warfare, piracy, shipwrecks, boat construction, and seafaring fiction.

“We get calls from all over seeking information about ships that have sunk,” says Branch Librarian Evelyn Gerges. “We’re also a reference source for people who need information on topics like boat repair and sailboat safety. Our special collection on nautical themes is unique in New York City.”

Most of the library’s patrons are, of course, local residents—including “clamdiggers”—an affectionate moniker reserved exclusively for those born and raised on City Island. Some locals—clamdiggers and more recent arrivals—live year-round on boats. “There are two or three marinas here where people dock their houseboats,” says Gerges. “Their children use the library’s computers, do their homework here, and take out books and videos.”

The library also attracts nautically inclined tourists. “People visit us while waiting for high tide so they can sail out to wherever they’re headed—whether it’s a fishing trip or a Yankees game,” says Gerges. “Others—including boaters from Europe, Canada, and elsewhere—use the library during stops on major sailing trips; they use our Internet services to stay in touch with their families back home, find out about local cultural activities, and keep up with current events.”

“Channel Surfing” in Queens: Community Libraries in Howard Beach and Broad Channel


The Broad Channel branch.

Queens Library at Howard Beach is situated on a channel of Jamaica Bay, in a community where many boating and fishing enthusiasts reside. The library is located near several piers and restaurants that cater to boaters and others who work and play on the water.

“A century ago,” according to Jane McGann, former Howard Beach Community Library Manager and New York Times Librarian of the Year 2004, “Howard Beach, named for a Jamaica Bay resort hotel owner, William J. Howard, had the nickname ‘The Venice of Long Island’ for its many waterways.” McGann links the unique location of the library with her customers in this way: “Many library customers are literally channel surfers—resident boat owners who also like to surf the ’Net here.”

Sailing just a short distance to the south of Howard Beach, one discovers yet another community library—this one in Broad Channel, the only inhabited island in Jamaica Bay. The Broad Channel Library—part of the Queens Library system—offers boating and fishing devotees from the small, close-knit community of Broad Channel a sanctuary for year-round intellectual pursuits. Many residents are city employees who work as police, firefighters, and sanitation workers, whose families have remained on the island for generations.

The library has an extensive history collection on the island, including a series of binders maintained by the Broad Channel Historical Society that feature vintage photos and documents. This small sand island surrounded by marsh expanded by development landfill and Long Island Railroad construction at the beginning of the 20th century. Starting with a few fishermen’s shacks the LIRR called a “fishing station” in the late 19th century, Broad Channel gradually filled with summer bungalows on leased City property, becoming a summer hot spot for some 3 million LIRR beach travelers each year. Development of its waterfront property has evolved into what is now one of New York City’s most unique neighborhoods.

The information in this article regarding the Howard Beach and Broad Channel branches has been adapted from articles by Judy Close in Library Matters, a publication of the Queens Library.

Sam Streed
Author: Sam Streed
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