The Legacy Endures: James Blackstone Memorial Library Celebrates 125 Years
The Library will commemorate this important anniversary throughout the 2021-2022 year with a range of programs that connect the past, present and future, culminating in June 2022 with a celebration of the building renovation and the anniversary. Image from James Blackstone Memorial Library )
Libraries have transformed throughout the past century, and more than ever in the past year as they navigated a global pandemic. The James Blackstone Memorial Library is no exception. On June 17, 2021 the library will mark its 125th year.
The Library will commemorate this important anniversary throughout the 2021-2022 year with a range of programs that connect the past, present and future, culminating in June 2022 with a celebration of the building renovation and the anniversary.
In one account of the library's grand opening celebration in June, 1896, a reporter from the Boston Herald wrote "In a very plain village in Connecticut by the sea, nine miles east of New Haven, in a lonesome little town called Branford, which has a malleable iron factory, a lock shop, a quarry and miles of farm patches that produce annually 50,000 quarts of strawberries for the Boston Market, there is a public library that cost nearly $600,000!"
Prescient and relevant today, the library's founders imagined an everlasting crowning jewel as a center of learning, achievement and aspiration, worth the while for all to visit and enjoy.
125 years later, both the Town of Branford and the James Blackstone Memorial Library have grown exponentially. In 1896, the library was established as the intellectual center of the community, beginning with the purchase of 6,000 volumes and the contemporary idea that the library should be used for enjoyment as much as education. As Professor Arthur T. Hadley remarked in his address at the library's dedication, "the modern idea of education includes everything that goes to make life worth living...the best life is attained by the man who finds his freest play in educational work...When a man has finished his education he has ceased to grow." This sentiment has proven to be prescient and remains relevant as today's libraries continue to evolve to serve communities in new ways, playing a central role supporting community life.
In its early days, the library was open from 8:30 in the morning until 10:00 at night, Monday – Saturday. The library was a vital resource for current information with 100 periodical subscriptions in addition to books. It was also a meeting place and a source of warmth when homes were still heated by fireplace and coal stove. Through the years, the library hosted occasional concerts and many lectures, like one in 1912 entitled "Climbing and Exploring in the Peruvian Andes," by Professor Hiram Bingham of New Haven. Today the library holds more than 60,000 volumes in its print collection and provides access to an additional 25,000 electronic titles which can be utilized within the library walls or anywhere else where there is internet access. The auditorium is in more demand than ever for its gracious space and outstanding acoustics.
When the library was established, its construction and operational expenses were covered by Timothy Blackstone's generous donation. By the 1960s, income generated from a modest endowment was no longer sufficient to support operating expenses and the Town stepped in to help. Today, approximately 85% of the library's operating budget is supported by the Town of Branford. The remaining income comes from fundraising, grants and other donations. The Friends of the James Blackstone Memorial Library, established in 1978, also raise funds that allow the library to offer additional materials and programs to the community.
As described by the Architect in the inaugural program, when Blackstone was built, it occupied "a central and commanding point on the main street." Today, the library building is much the same as it was in 1896, although the grounds are now more of a hidden gem beckoning to be discovered and experienced by not only Branford residents, but by all visitors to Branford. In the 1970s, a dedicated children's space was created in the basement, an area originally planned to serve as a gymnasium. An extensive renovation in the 1990s provided more space for library operations by moving the HVAC to a separate building. A badly needed restoration of the murals and gold leaf in the rotunda, along with other structural repairs, was also accomplished. The most recent renovation was completed in last year. A new entryway was added and space has been reallocated within the original footprint to allow for more meeting space, technology and resources for children and teens. The rear dome roof above the auditorium stage was completely replaced.
In its 125th year of serving the community, Blackstone Library is listening to Branford voices as part of their on-going strategic planning initiative. You're invited to participate and be heard.
True to the vision of those who toiled to create an "enduring monument of architectural beauty" that would be a center of learning, achievement and inspiration, the James Blackstone Memorial Library, mission has always had the Branford community at the center of its work, striving to enrich lives through its programs and services. During this 125th anniversary year, the library is engaging Branford residents in its strategic planning initiative focused on remaining responsive to community needs and being a resource for all residents. Branford voices will help shape the outcome and guide the library to deliver even greater value, make even more of a difference to the community, and continue the legacy of being an everlasting anchor of the town providing so much more than books. To join one of the conversations, please visit the library website at blackstonelibrary.org