A Brief History

of the Belmont Public Library

Belmont Incorporated

Belmont MA was incorporated from adjacent sections of West Cambridge (Arlington), Waltham, and Watertown contained three school buildings.

1859

Library Genesis

Belmont constructed a new high school in the new Town Hall and that sparked the beginning of Belmont’s desire to join in the public library movement. A movement, sparked in part by the construction of the Boston Public Library during 1848-54. Just up the road in New Hampshire, their legislature passed the first Public Library legislation facilitating towns to build public libraries in 1849. (Kevane M., Development of Public Libraries in the United States: 1870-1930. Information & Culture; 2014, 117-144.)

1867

Library Established

The Public Library opened in the High School that at the time was in Town Hall. Initiating the long supportive relationship with all Belmont’s children and schools! The Public Library Committee was authorized earlier in 1868 with David Mack, who operated a school for girls in Belmont, as the committee leader who then became Belmont’s first library director. (Kahane E.S., History of the Belmont Public Library 1868-1975. 77pages. 1975.)

1868

Library Opens

At opening, the new Public Library contained 817 donated and purchased books available for circulation an hour a week, increased to four hours a week in 1876.

1868

Board of Trustees Established

The first Belmont Library Board of Trustees was organized, and the library moved from Town Hall to the vestry of the Unitarian Church on Concord Avenue.

1876

Library Moves Again

The Library moved back to the new, current Town Hall building. Now, a collection of 4000 volumes rested on new shelves built to hold 15,000 volumes; it was adjacent to the first Reading Room. A room graced by a fireplace for the comfort of readers. Weekly circulation ran to 175 books.

1882

New Director Hired

The first woman Library Director, Nellie Sargent, was hired.

1897

Card Catalog Established

The first Card Catalog was established. Prior to that, the library sent a copy of the library holdings to each Belmont household.

1898

New Library Promised

Henry O. Underwood announced his intention to memorialize his parents with the gift of a new Belmont Public Library building on the corner of Pleasant Street and Moore Street. It is now the Belmont School Administration building.

1900

New Director Hired

Miss Ada Thurston, the new Belmont Public Library director, begins her job a couple months early (salary $750 annually) to begin moving the collections into the new building just ahead of the opening on June 17, 1902.

1902

Underwood Library Opened!

The new Underwood Belmont Public Library opened on June 17, 1902. For the first time the library occupies a separate structure! The cost of the new building was $50,000; it contained space for 20,000 volumes, a children’s room, a general reading room, and, quite controversially, a smoking room! More welcome was a third floor Art Gallery focusing on Belmont Artists.

1902

First Lecture

The first Belmont Public Library lecture was presented in the third-floor art gallery setting the stage for hundreds to come over the ensuing 116 years.

1903

Teacher's Collection

Belmont High School, just a few feet away from the library, was so appreciative of the library’s outreach to teachers to collaborate that the teachers gifted the library with a collection of 50 books they called the “Teacher’s Collection”.

1905

Telephone Installed

The first telephone was installed, introducing the library’s deep, ongoing, commitment to technology as key to providing library users’ information.

1909

Children's Room Created

To the delight of Belmont’s children, the controversial Smoking Room was converted to the Children’s Room about the same time the first full-time children’s librarian was hired. The former main level children’s room became the reference room.

1910

Dewey Decimal System Instituted

1910 saw the arrival of the Dewey Decimal system for cataloging the collections. The Library’s books were labeled with Dewey Decimal call numbers (000-900). A new subject catalog appeared enhancing existing Author - Title catalog, empowering library users to locate books more easily.

1910

Waverley Square Branch Opens

1910 also brought the opening of the Waverley Square Branch Library across town at 445 Trapelo Road. This new full-service library was welcomed by the neighborhood that had previously been served by a local store that kindly offered a Library limited library presence beginning in 1891.

1910

Population Booms

The expansion of the Cambridge subway to Belmont boosted the town’s population by 45% enabling Belmontonians a 30-minute commute to Park Street. Library usage leaped forward!

1912

Collection Critiqued

Library circulation reaches 34,000 volumes annually. The annual data showed that 52% of the library books circulated were fiction. For some trustees, this was a troubling trend. One comment—hilarious in retrospect, thankfully failed in decreasing fiction purchases—questions whether “fiction was a real form of literature, or merely a pernicious literary device for wasting the time of numerous readers.” Luckily, Miss Sawyer the Director, was able to explain that in most public libraries, fiction was the majority circulation in public libraries.

1915

New Library Director Hired

Miss Lucy Luard becomes the Library Director, beginning a 31-year tenure that leads the library through WWI and WWII into 1947. Over these decades Belmont’s population skyrockets from 8,081 to 28,869! Likewise, the collection grew from 16,648 to 58,120 volumes, both population and the collections both grew over 250%. Circulation increased nearly 500% from 34,000 to 200,603.

1916

High School Library Established

The new high school, currently the Homer Building, created their own library while continuing the public library’s robust collaboration with the high school. Miss Luard had encouraged the high school library development as she believed it would best serve all the students. And thus a 98-year history of public library – school collaboration began.

1921

High School Librarian Hired

Once the high school library opened, Miss Luard assigned a librarian to work at the high school part time, and part time at the public library. This continued for a few years until the high school hired a full-time librarian.

1921

Collection Critiqued

70% of the Public Library collection was fiction, and once again the notion of the frivolity of fiction showed up in a town meeting resolution to curtail fiction purchasing—thankfully it was defeated!

1923

Library Outgrows Space

After 25 years of active use, increasing population growth, increasing numbers of library borrowers and student users, the library housed 23,574 books, 3574 more than it was designed to hold—it was now clearly outgrown.

1928

Benton Library Established

The one room Benton Branch Library opened to serve the Payson Park and Harvard Lawn neighborhoods.

1930

Waverley Branch Expands

The Waverley branch is enlarged and continues to grow.

1933

Young Adult Dept Established

A bequest to the library established the young adult’s department setting the stage for the robust young adult programs the library continues to provide today.

1939

Library Outgrows Space

The Underwood Library building continues to be overcrowded—with the number of books growing continuously. Shelf space is almost overflowing. A proposal requesting an addition was put forward at town meeting but was not approved.

1941

Technological Impacts

Post war technology advances in communications and television impact the library: phonograph records had no place in the library Miss Luard believed, but in the 1950s they were purchased and circulated widely. Circulation declined, especially fiction, likely due to the advent of television. At this same time, the library shifted gears into developing and presenting a robust array of programs such as gardening.

1950's

1955

Collection Expands

By now the library now holds more than twice the number of books it was built to hold! When a gift of the 50-book collection, Great Books of the Western World, arrived at the library, literally, no shelf space could be found! Seating space was minimal as well, the only places to study or read were standing by a windowsill and using it as a desk, or simply sitting on the floor. Plans were developed for the future of the library, including a possible addition.

Procurement of New Library

The library endured without change and building planning continued leading to the decision that an addition was unsuitable given the paucity of parking for Town Hall, Homer/High School building, and the bursting Underwood Library building. Thus, by 1960 the possibility of a new library at a new site was top of the Town’s mind. In 1962 Town Meeting agreed and supported the purchase of a site—the present site on Concord Avenue.

1960

Library Designed

With the land at 336 Concord Avenue now designated as the site for the new main library building, the town worked to complete the acquisition. Town meeting approved an article to begin the designing of the new library building by the architects, Kilham, Hopkins, Greeley, and Brodie who completed the plans in January 1964. (Brochure on new library, floor plans, and schematic exteriors. 1964, 6pgs)

1963

New Library Groundbreaking

Groundbreaking took place in late spring 1964, amongst a crowd of students from all grades, all Belmont schools public and private were present. At the time, the gift of the stained-glass windows depicting children’s story book scenes was in the works. Three of the five donors were honoring three men who’d given their lives in the military: Pfc. Jere E. Burns, Captain Joseph W. Bogue, and Lt. Wilfred Wheeler III. As well, the Belmont High School Class of 1939 along with the school children of Belmont who all gave generously to these beautiful windows.

1964

1965

Library Dedication

The new Belmont Public Library was opened on November 1, 1965. The library was built to hold 100,000 volumes in the East and West wings, in the children’s room, and in the cozy mezzanine. The Formal dedication took place on November 21st with Senator Leverett Saltonstall leading the dedication speakers. A new era of Belmont Library services commenced!

100 Year Anniversary!

The Belmont Public Library celebrated 100 years of service! This year the library changed hours to be open 69 hours per week, added paperback books, Monday movie nights, and a record collection for library users.

1965

100,000th Book Added

Belmont, not only the Town of Homes, is the town of readers! In 1932 Belmont circulation statistics showed that Belmont citizens checked out 7 books per capita versus the national rate of 5 books per capita. By 1978 Belmont’s readers were consuming 11.3 books per capita while the rest of the state averaged 6.2 per capita. The 100,000th book was added to the library’s collection in 1970!

1970

Sunday Hours Begin

At the request of the Belmont High School Student Council, the library began Sunday afternoon hours.

1970

Technology Expands

The Library received a federal library technology grant to purchase audiovisual technologies and join in the breadth of possibilities these technologies bring to public libraries and educating their communities on how to use and incorporate them into their lives. By 2000, DVDs, eBooks, and audiobooks were a significant part of the collection.

1971

Friends of the Library Established

The Friends of the Belmont Public Library was established initiating the library’s most significant relationship—over the decades the Friends unfailingly support the library—running the annual book sale, supporting programs, graciously providing help whenever needed. Raising awareness and funds for programming and way more!

1972

Young Adult Room Created

The Young Adult Room was created in a partitioned portion of the Reference Room. Small perhaps, but nonetheless a place for programs by librarians for teens, and a space to call their own. As well, the Library began a Teen Advisory Board to aid materials selections, and program planning. These changes made a big difference as evidenced by the growth of circulation to young adults of 40% by 2001.

1973

Air Conditioning Added

Belmont Public Library opened in 1965 with a boiler that provided heat only. Belmont summers provided the heat when it was least appreciated—thus library users were without any cooling. Happily, a group of community supporters came together and raised $63,000 to provide air conditioning—ending the summer heat waves within the library building.

1973

Library Joins Minuteman Network

Belmont Public Library joins as a founding member of the Minuteman Library Network. The network empowered all member libraries in the 35-member area of Boston Metro-West to enjoy an online library catalog that enables users to borrow what they want from any of the members—expanding access to 5.6 million items.

1984

ADA Enacted; Library Fails

The ADA, Americans with Disabilities Act, becomes federal law. The library is not compliant. The sole elevator can’t accommodate a wheelchair, the steep walkway to the front door and steps is not wheelchair accessible, neither are the lower floor doors. For that matter, the given poor lighting, as well as the uneven curbs and the absence of a sidewalk in back plus appropriate ramps around the building, our building represents a hazardous structure in need of renovation and updating.

1990

Library Outgrows Space Again

Over the 1990s the library usage in all areas grew, the door counts showed increases in attendance as well. The “self-evaluation” work began to explore the need for a larger space. This work became a frequent subject in Trustees Meetings, Town Meetings, and in Belmont Public Library’s annual reports.

1990's

Building Surveys Begin

At the FY96 Town Meeting $25,000 was appropriated to study the building needs. In 1998, and again in 2000 building surveys were completed.

1996

Jane Gray Dustan Room Dedicated

A generous $250,000 gift by Jane Gray Dustan to fund programs for the Children’s Room was received. Thus, Children’s Room became the Jane Gray Dustan Children’s Room in her honor.

1998

Feasibility Study Begins

The Building Needs Advisory Committee was created, their work led to engaging Tappe Associates in 2000 was hired to carry out a Feasibility Study.

1999

Feasibility Study Completed

Tappe Associates Feasibility Study was completed -- the study described three options, renovate as is for 5.2 million, build an addition and renovate the building for 10.4 million, with a new library building option for 12 million.

2001

More BPL history to come, stay tuned!

Through the years 1990, 1999, 2006, 2011, Capital Planning and the Financial Task Force Committees identified the need for the Library Project. Three Feasibility Studies led to two Library Grant Applications to the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, MBLC. The grants awarded by the MBLC require applicants to adhere to the MBLC design formula that calculates library size by a square ft per staff and programs protocol thus setting the required square footage for the project. This protocol results in a mandated size for a new library building. Thus, both grant applications’ buildings sized larger (44.5K sqft) than what Belmont wanted (the current schematic design is 32.5K sqft). Unfortunately, the two grants approved by Town leadership were awarded, but were returned to the state as other Belmont building priorities moved forward. Currently, in 2021 there are 14 MBLC library projects approved and awaiting state funding. The MBLC has not changed its formula and given state budget constraints, a new MBLC grant round will likely occur in the 2030+ decade. Sources: Kevane M. Development of Public Libraries in the United States: 1870-1930. Information & Culture; 2014, 117-144. Kahane E.S., History of the Belmont Public Library 1868-1975. 77pages. 1975. Brochure. New library, floor plans, and schematic exteriors. 1964, 6pgs Tappe Associates Report, Executive Summary. 2001, 8pgs

2001-2021
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