When construction began on the Weathersfield Proctor Library back in 1901, the world was in many ways its familiar old maddening self. The year had begun on a somber note that most people alive at the time had come think they would never hear: the death of Queen Victoria, after a reign of 63 years. Her elaborate funeral was held in February, and even the most optimistic onlookers might have worried about the instability of the future.
1901 would see instability just as fundamental – and considerably more shocking – strike the US in September, when President McKinley was shot while visiting the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, New York. He lived on for a week, and again chaos seemed to threaten, since his Vice President and successor was young Theodore Roosevelt, known to most people as “that firebrand from the Navy” and considered by many casual news readers (and all the most energetic op-ed writers) to be a “madman.”
Through it all, the book world continued to bubble along as it always does. The American novelist Winston Churchill published his latest novel The Crisis, thirty-nine years before another Winston Churchill would face a very different and very real crisis. The terrific and now forgotten novelist George Barr McCutcheon published the first of his “Graustark” novels about romance in a tiny European kingdom (the following year he’d publish Brewster’s Millions and come as close as he’d ever get to literary immortality). HG Wells’ The First Men in the Moon appeared, 68 years before men actually did set foot on the moon (sadly, those men found no lunar jungle and no Selenites). 63 years before the Civil Rights Act, Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slaverytold the story of his birth as a slave on a Virginia plantation. Rudyard Kipling’s great novel Kimwas published, nearly half a century before the Raj ended. And there was as always a place for toweringly great fiction; 1901 saw the publication of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks.
Almost inevitably, and yet no less miraculously, where there are books, there are libraries. Even 5000 years ago, clay tablets could be consulted by patrons in rooms set aside for that specific purpose. Temples in ancient Egypt held papyrus records (and, it would be nice to think, poems and prayers) that readers could consult. The Roman emperor Trajan built a magnificent public library: two stories, separate rooms for Greek and Latin texts, glorious amounts of natural light, ten thousand volumes, and a pretty, leafy courtyard where scholars could get a little respite from the noise and dirt of Rome.
By the time work began on the Proctor Library, the concept had been in the New World for quite some time. Roughly 200 years prior to 1901, there were a couple of prototypical libraries in Boston, and in 1833, the town of Peterborough, New Hampshire was the first place in the country to adopt the model we now recognize for a public library: a dedicated building, funded by taxes, open to all (by comparison, it took the little town if Keokuk, Iowa a further 30 years to cobble together the public will – and the public funds).
The idea has stuck around because it’s a great one, stubbornly durable, endlessly adaptable. American libraries in the 21st century are thriving at exactly the same time that virtually all other public institutions are under fire or languishing through indifference. The threat of the “digital revolution” that was going to render libraries obsolete has instead made them more vital than ever: a place that cheerfully offers all of its resources to you and never expect you to buy anything in return.
According to the American Library Association’s 2019 State of America’s Libraries report, “Never have our nation’s libraries plays such a pivotal role in strengthening communities through education and lifelong learning.”
The Weathersfield Proctor Library has been participating in that pivotal role for over a century now, and I’m hoping to do my part in this regular “Ex Libris” column. Let’s explore books together.
Steve Donoghue is a book reviewer and editor living in Boston (with his inquisitive little Schnauzer Frieda). His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and Kirkus Reviews, and he writes regularly for the Christian Science Monitor, the National, and the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette. He is a proud Weathersfield Proctor Library patron.