History of the Library

Much of the information in this article comes from the 1976 book by the late historian Louise Helmreich, A History of the Public Library in Brunswick, Maine. Liz Pierson wrote the article for the Grand Opening publication which appeared in the fall of 1999; it has been updated by library staff.

By Elizabeth C. Pierson

The Curtis Memorial Library at 23 Pleasant Street opened in December 1904, but the history of the library really begins 21 years earlier, in 1883.

It Began with a Letter to the Editor

If an exact date had to be assigned, it would probably have to be Jan. 5 of that year when a letter published in the weekly newspaper The Brunswick Telegraph – and signed only “A Subscriber” – encouraged residents to establish a public library. Although several small private libraries already existed, as did the Bowdoin College library, none met the general needs of the community, particularly at a time when Brunswick was quickly evolving from a farming into a business and manufacturing town.

Rented Rooms

“A Subscriber’s” letter clearly struck a chord, additional letters followed. Words turned into action, and three months later, on the evening of April 13, a group of citizens gathered in Skating Rink Hall at Maine and Elm streets to form the Brunswick Library Association. Bylaws were drawn up, a committee was established to find a reading room and volunteers set out to raise $1,000 and to accept book donations. The project was well-advertised both in the Telegraph and on handbills, and townspeople followed its progress enthusiastically. By December a room had been located in the Storer Block downtown, $1,200 was in hand, and Mr. Lyman E. Smith, the treasurer of the Library Association, had been hired as the librarian at a weekly salary of $4. On February 4, 1884, with about 1,300 books on its shelves, the Brunswick Library opened. A life membership cost $3, and for an annual fee of $1 members could take books out of the library. Any resident could use the library at no cost if books were not taken out.

Town Meeting 1884

The town meeting voted in March to give the library a room in the new town hall, rent free, an to provide it with furniture, heat and lighting. Only a few months after it opened, then, the library moved and in doing so established a bond with the town that has never been broken. A more significant form of assistance came in 1886, after the state Legislature agreed to allow the Town of Brunswick to grant the library an annual subsidy. The legislative act also stated that the library could not be controlled by the town, thereby making the library’s management free of political influence. The library has thus received continuous, and increasing, financial support from the town since 1886 and for many years now has depended on that support of the bulk of its revenue.

If the library’s financial standing was somewhat tenuous in 1886, there was certainly nothing tenuous about its patronage. About 75 people a day used the room, which was open from 2-5 and 7-9 p.m. weekdays. By 1888, space – both for books and people – was at a premium. The Library Association began to talk of raising money for a building and established a fund for that purpose. At the same time, the public library movement was gaining momentum across the country. When Maine passed a law in 1893 granting a state stipend to all free public libraries that were supported by their municipality, Brunswick took note, and in 1894 the town voted to appropriate $500 for the library if it would eliminate fees for all residents. The free public library brought even more people through the doors, intensifying the demands on space and books, and further fueling interest in a new library. For well over a decade, an enthusiastic group of volunteers sponsored lectures, organized benefit performances, and sought bequests, all with the hope of raising the needed funds or stimulating some generous donor.

Carnegie and Curtis

The support that the Brunswick Library Association so urgently needed eventually came from a town native, though in an entirely unexpected manner. In 1902, having despaired of a local donor, the president of the Library Association, Professor Franklin Robinson, wrote a letter to the steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie was making international headlines for his offer to donate a public library building site and to support a library once it was built. By the time he died in 1919, Carnegie had donated more than $56 million to build 2,500-plus libraries in the United States and other English-speaking countries. Carnegie agreed to give the Town of Brunswick $12,000, and Samuel G. Davis, whose generosity later provided the town with the Davis Fund, agreed to donate a lot on School Street. Announcements of the gift were made in both local and New York City newspapers without anyone realizing what an unexpected turn the story was about tot take.

William J. Curtis, a Brunswick native, Bowdoin College graduate and successful New York City lawyer, was among the many people who read of Carnegie’s gift, and when he did, he immediately wrote Carnegie and asked him to withdraw his offer. For years, Curtis wrote Carnegie, he had “cherished the idea of presenting to his native town a library building as a tribute to his father’s memory.” Carnegie was delighted with Curtis’s letter and replied as follows:

40 Wall Street
New York City
January 20, 1903
Dear Mr. Curtis:

I get many letters, but do not remember one which has given me more pleasure to receive than yours this morning. Of course I withdraw; I would not rob you of that chief blessing for the world. Will you please tell the authorities this.

Make your announcement and become a happy man all your days. I am so happy for your letter, and shake you by the hand.

Very truly yours,

Andrew Carnegie

Curtis’ gift provided $15,000 and a lot a Pleasant and Middle streets. Although the library would belong to the town, its “care, custody, and management” would be given to the directors of the Brunswick Public Library Association. Ground was broken in August 1903, and 16 months later, on December 8, 1904, the Capt. John Curtis Memorial Library was dedicated and opened to the public. Although designed by a Boston architect, the handsome brick building with granite trip was constructed “wholly by Brunswick men,” at a total cost of $16,360.73.

The 1904 Library

With its spacious stacks, comfortable reading room with elegant fireplace, and separate children’s room – an innovation then – it took little time for the Curtis Library to establish itself as a focal point in town. Library use and support grew steadily. The building also began to function as a social center. Lectures and performances became regular events, and several clubs began to gather regularly: the Brunswick Dramatic Club, Red Cross, a boys’ club and two girls’ clubs, Stadium (a ladies’ club) and the Iris and Peony Clubs were just a few of the early examples. In 1910 William Curtis made an additional gift, in memory of his mother, to improve the library grounds, and these were landscaped to include a pond and a tea house. A few years later the library even built a few tennis courts, on the adjoining land behind St. Paul’s Church. For the next 30 years, until World War II broke out, the Cutis Library Tennis Club was open to all Brunswick residents and guests for a small fee, collected by the librarian. 1915 also was the year the library became a makeshift school. When the Brunswick High School burned in January, its 130-some students promptly moved into the library and continued their studies there through June. Time and again in those early years, the library reached out with a generosity of spirit and proved its value to the community.

World War I, the Depression, and World War II brought remarkably few interruptions in library service. Close ties were forged between the library and the public schools, which had few books of their own then; the coal furnace gave way to oil, which patrons said reduced dust in the building; the collection was numbered according to the Dewey Decimal System; and an endowment established.

Years of Growth

With the end of World War II, the library’s growth quickened. Brunswick was growing rapidly, especially with the reopening of the Brunswick Naval Air Station in 1951, and its growth was reflected in library services and circulation. “It is interesting to note from the survey made by the Maine State Library in 1962,” stated the town report of 1963, “that the circulation of books in the Brunswick Library as compared with cities and towns of comparable size, was approximately 60 per cent higher.” Library hours were extended, a storytelling hour was initiated for young children, the Village Improvement Association turned its attention to the neglected grounds, books and art exhibits appeared, a microfilm collection was established, and interlibrary loan service was initiated with the Maine State Library. And with the formation of the volunteer “Friends of the Library” group in 1965, the institution’s vigor and outreach were further enhanced.

By the late 1960s, the small-town library that had been largely sustained since its beginnings by volunteers and private gifts had metamorphosed into a modern, professionally staffed library, supported primarily by town appropriations. All was not well, however. The building that had been erected for a population of 6,800 now served 18,000. Services and circulation had increased at an astounding rate, but funding, collections and space had not kept pace. In a 1968 letter to the town selectmen, the library’s Board of Directors noted that “by current Maine standards, Brunswick’s library has half, or less than half the space, the books, the staff and the support that is now considered reasonable.” The directors thus began to plan seriously for the library’s next 20 years. A bond issue for the library addition was approved by referendum in April 1971, and ground was broken on May 30, 1972.

The $500,000 addition that opened Nov. 12, 1973, with its skylight, cheerful red stacks and quiet carpet brought an additional 10,000 square feed to the library and was greeted with delight. Although many residents mourned the loss of the reading room in the old library, they soon learned that it was available for the weekly children’s story hour, meetings and other special events. Not surprisingly, the new addition brought more people into the library – particularly in the mid-1970s when the Town of Harpswell began to provide annual support so its residents could use the library free of charge. Circulation, programming and collections all continued to expand, so much so that by 1987 the Board of Directors again began to assess the library’s space needs.

By the early 1990s, the library was indeed at a critical juncture. The staff lacked adequate work space, the patrons lacked user space and the collections lacked shelf space. The computer age had arrived, and the library was struggling to keep up with the technological demands. Last but not least, as every rainy day library user knew, the roof leaked. Throughout it all, the staff rose to the challenge. They continued to build the collection, expand adult and children’s programming, provided outreach assistance, deliver top-notch services, and keep pace with an ever-growing circulation.

Part of what kept them going must have been the knowledge that efforts were under way to plan for a new building. With the overwhelming passage – 70 per cent approval – of a $4 million bond in June 1996, and the Board of Directors’ commitment to raise an additional $1.5 million with a capital campaign, an expanded Curtis Memorial Library became more than just a concept, and both staff and patrons could look forward to a library that would truly meet the community’s needs.

In December 1996, a town-appointed building committee, headed by the library’s former president of the Board of Directors, Jan Wilk, selected the Boston firm Amsler, Woodhouse and MacLean to design the new library. Knowing that community residents had expressed a strong desire for the library to remain in its current location, and after considering the library’s space needs, the limiting size of the property and the fact that the 1972 addition could not support a second floor, the architects concluded that the 1972 building would have to be removed. Its removal, however, would allow a new addition to be more effectively linked with the 1904 building and also would make the 1904 building available for daily use by library patrons.

The library was temporarily relocated to the old Brunswick High School in June 1997, and within a few weeks construction and renovation were underway at Pleasant Street. With overwhelming community support, the capital campaign went on to raise more than $2 million, and construction of the $6.2 million project continued without interruption.

Renovation Complete

With its 44,000 square feet, large Morrell Meeting Room and Seminar Room, and superb technological capabilities, the newly expanded Curtis Memorial Library is a far cry from the building dedicated Dec. 8, 1904. In many ways however, this glorious new library is not so different from its predecessor – or even from the reading room that opened a few blocks away in 1883. The 1904 building has become a haven for readers who want a quiet place to read, to study or to peruse current printed periodicals. It is now finished with beautiful one-of-a-kind rugs, provided by the generosity of a few forward-thinking donors with a strong commitment to beautiful public spaces.

For 121 years, with virtually no interruption, Brunswick’s library has been an integral part of the community fabric. For 118 years it has been available to every resident free of charge and on an equal basis, regardless of age, income, social standing or educational background. Its mission, its commitment to leadership and excellence, and its tradition of service remain unchanged.

The Curtis Memorial Library now supports a collection of more than 120,000 items. Nearly 11,000 cardholders used the library and more than 275,000 items circulated in the past year. Increasingly, the library also is being used electronically, now for the first time offering wireless connectivity.

One can only imagine how pleased and astounded “A Subscriber” would be by this library that she or he helped nudge into existence.