Friday, March 18, 2022

A matter of historical record: In 2022, the Windham Public Library celebrates its 50th anniversary

Windham Public Library Director Jennifer Alvino
displays an early 20th century 'traveling library.' 
The carrying case hold 50 volumes; many were
distributed by the Maine Library Commission to
rural towns that had limited access to books.
The cabinet case and collection were donated to
the library by the family of Ken and Lena Cole.
In the foreground is a photo of Mrs. Myrle Cooper,
Windham's first town librarian from 1971 to

By Walter Lunt

From its humble beginnings in the private homes of farm families and as a 50-volume “traveling library,” the Windham Public Library has progressed right along with the literary, cultural and educational needs of a growing, thriving town from the mid-1800s to the present day. Its modern and spacious facility at 217 Windham Center Road represents the culmination of an institution that has served Windham for over 150 years.

Windham’s library got its meager start from a group of Windham Center women (farmers’ wives, if you will) who liked to read. They would share books with each other and eventually decide to expand their love of literature to the entire community by establishing a library. Familiar old names like Marcia (Bishop) Hanson, Nabbie Goold, Ann Louisa Hawkes, Charlotte Cobb and Mary Anthoine conducted “sewing circles,” at which they would donate pennies and nickels toward buying new books. By 1870 they had collected more than $100; more books were purchased and soon the Windham Center Circulating Library Association was formed. Mrs. Hanson, the first librarian, began lending volumes from the collection she stored in a closet in her home. The books were rotated among the homes of the library directors, who each became the librarian for that period of time.

By the late 1800s, the directors knew they would need a library building. Young, educated residents, including men, helped increase the demand for books. Storekeeper Fred S. Hawkes offered to rent a small room in a building across from his grocery at Windham Center (now Corsetti’s). It was situated beside another store known in modern times as The Old Grocery (recently moved to the Windham Historical Society’s Village Green). At this time, the directors stepped-up fund raising by sponsoring benefit lectures and encouraging more donations. The growing fund was augmented by a $400 gift from the estate of Windham resident Joseph Walker (the rest of his estate was dedicated to the building of the Walker Memorial Library in Westbrook). The library association was finally able to buy the Hawkes building in 1907 for $500, and the following year some 800 books were in the collection. Association members proclaimed the newly remodeled building, “…shall be a credit to the town and a memorial to the noble women who founded the association.”

The Windham Center Circulating Library, a privately funded institution, served the literary needs of the Windham community and its schools until 1971, over 100 years – of that, 65 years in the tiny Windham Center building. On Dec. 27 of that year, about 2,000 books, cash assets and furnishings were donated and moved to the new Windham Public Library near Town Hall.

A fascinating side note to Windham’s early library history was the existence of the State of Maine’s 50-volume “traveling library,” which consisted of a small, but heavy, carrying case, or cabinet, issued to small farming communities throughout the state in the late 1800s or early 1900s. Access to books at that time was difficult, if not impossible. The traveling library (pictured here) was issued by the Maine Library Commission and would be sent to any town requesting it for $2.50 for six months. The portable library would travel by horseback to the various neighborhoods of the town. Each temporary “librarian” was provided with the cabinet containing 50 books (new or in good condition ready for circulation) and a simple “charging book.”

One antique library, quite possibly used in Windham, was donated to the Windham Public Library in 2009 by the late Lena and Kenneth Cole. Lena was a library volunteer for many years; when she and husband Ken passed away, the family felt the rightful place for the portable library was the Windham Public Library, where it rests to this day. WPL director Jennifer Alvino says many of the books are in a state of decay, but hopes “…they can be restored, if restoration is possible.”

Among the collection, when first examined eight years ago, then library director Inese Gruber observed that most of the books are from the mid-1800s and include such titles as “The Maine Townsman: Laws for the Regulation of Towns,” The Bible, and “Intellectual Arithmetic Upon the Inductive Method of Instruction,” a math textbook from 1858. Speaking to a reporter, Gruber read a math problem from the textbook: A man divided some corn among six persons, giving them one-third of a bushel apiece. How many bushels did it take? Gruber then observed, “We certainly don’t think in bushels anymore…it’s interesting to see into a little part of people’s lives (back then). She added, “100 years ago, if you wanted to visit the library you had to wait until it came to you.”

Our story now takes us from the historical record to before the memory fades. By the late 1960s it was apparent that the very small and very old library building at Windham Center could no longer serve the needs of a growing town. A building committee was formed to examine the feasibility of a larger, more modern building. The names are familiar to Windham long-timers: William (Bill) Crane- chairman, Robert Wescott, Jack Fraser, Robert Smithson, Fred Williams-selectman, Walter Johnson-construction chairman, Robert Nunley, Maurice Rogers and Glenn Libby. The goal was to achieve adequate library service and a building of quality construction and low maintenance.

In the tradition of previous Windham libraries, volunteerism and donations and extensive community involvement helped to achieve the goal. Individuals, service clubs and businesses contributed greatly. Construction began in August 1971 with completion the following December at a total cost of $31,000.

Along with the new, modern colonial style building came the formation of a five-person Board of Trustees and “Friends of the Library,” which donated countless volunteer hours toward the library’s success. The new library’s first full-time director was Myrle Cooper, a former proof-reader for Guy Gannett Publishing. Library usage surged under her leadership. She and a team of dedicated volunteers introduced many varied and innovative programs, including the inclusion of large print books, talking books, cultural presentations and a film series on great art. June Hawkes is credited with bringing library services to local nursing homes, and Susan Dries with creating the preschoolers story hour.

The tiny library replaced by the new one was briefly abandoned but soon became home to a garden club and later a theater group. Eventually, it was moved up Windham Center Road to a spot beside the new library where it was used as a medical equipment lending facility, known as the “loan closet,” run by the Windham Health Council. Its third and final move was to the historical society’s Village Green where it stands today beside the brick museum, still facing Windham Center Road.

Windham’s population had more than doubled in the 1970s and ‘80s. By 1990, the need for library expansion was apparent. A new building committee was formed and on Oct. 17, 1993, a sizable addition to WPL was opened. In addition to improved space for collection materials, there was a public meeting room and an elevator for handicap accessibility.

In the years since 1993, WPL has automated many of its services, moving from paper to digital records and computerizing tracking of library materials. The card catalog of yesterday was replaced by patrons searching for materials on the internet. Customers could also use free wi-fi access. In 2014, the library connected with Minerva, a statewide library consortium enabling patrons to self-request millions of materials from other libraries.

An extensive renovation in 2018 improved the circulation area and opened several study rooms.

Asked to compare the available number of books and materials between the old Windham Center Library in 1971 (about 2000 volumes) to today’s library, Director Alvino said the physical materials within the building probably total near 45 thousand. However, adding digital access through interlibrary loan, the number goes into the millions. “The reach is extraordinary,” she added.

This year, 2022, the Windham Public Library celebrates its half-century anniversary. Library Director Alvino says the celebration will be multi-faceted and observed for four months, from December to April, avoiding large gatherings but highlighting many of the library’s many special features. Among them: historical materials like the old card catalog on display in the circulation area, exhibits in the upstairs display case showing the extraordinary work over the years by Friends of the Library and the Windham Historical Society, special programs for children and interesting informational displays in the lobby and in the library newsletter as well as posts on the Facebook page.

The formal re-dedication will coincide with National Library Week (April 4 to April 9) with the proclamation and recognition of the Windham Public Library’s 50th anniversary, the exact date and time to be determined soon.

Alvino’s goal for the future seems to align with one the ladies of the mid-1800s would have set, the library will be “welcoming to all community members and responsive to their needs.”

Simple and well stated. <

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