A Library’s History

The history of a public library is often the history of a town, its residents, political trends, American culture, and world events.

What do library lovers do on vacation? Visit libraries, of course. Recently I spent a delightful morning exploring the Ilsley Public Library in Middlebury, Vermont. Later, I went on its website and read up on its “colorful history” which touches on a worldwide pandemic, the Depression, World War II, controversial books, access for those with disabilities, and the dawn of the computer age. Here is a short summary culled from the library’s timeline:

Main reading room at the Ilsley Public Library in Middlebury VT
Reading area near the entrance

The Middlebury library began as a reading room in 1848. By 1870 it was housed in a rented room that contained 673 books. In 1924, the current building was completed, thanks to Colonel Silas Augustine Ilsley, a Civil War veteran who gave $25,000 in his will to pay for construction. His widow also gave $25,000.

The website of the Ilsley Library provides a series of timelines that detail some of the institution’s colorful history. For example, the library was closed in October, 1918, “due to the epidemic.” This is a reference to the 1918 Influenza (“Spanish Flu”) pandemic that the CDC estimates killed 50 million people worldwide, 675,000 in the United States. In 1934, the library basement was used by WPA artists. In 1939, it was noted that despite numerous requests for The Grapes of Wrath, the novel was not purchased because it “would cause too much adverse comment.” This decision was reversed by 1940, but the librarian was asked to “keep track of its loan.” In 1942, the Red Cross used a portion of the library basement as a “surgical dressings room.” The early 60s saw some discussion about whether it was appropriate to have Updike’s Rabbit Run on loan. A federal grant in 1977 helped pay for an addition which allowed “handicapped access.” In 1984, an anonymous donor provided the children’s room with the library’s first computer, a Commodore.

Walking into this library gives evidence of its long history and very active present. An easel at the entrance holds dozens of book reviews written by patrons. The children’s room is so engaging I can easily imagine parents having a hard time getting their children to leave. I especially loved the way picture books are displayed—like records used to be at music stores. This allows children to flip through the books and easily see the cover illustrations—so important for attracting interest. And the whole room was filled with stories and story-telling props. There were computers and building toys. And a place to paint moon rocks. And a dragon made from paper plates. And a mural with sea creatures and a pirate ship. And a bathtub filled with stuffed animals. And an inflatable earth and moon hanging from the ceiling. And … so much more.

If you have a chance to visit this wonderful library, be sure to stop in. Here’s a link to the library website. http://www.ilsleypubliclibrary.org/