Durham Public Library Long a Labor of Love

Durham residents have deep ties to their public library. For the last three centuries, they have been helping bring to their books to their hometown.


Durham residents have a powerful link to their public library: they have helped build it three times. Beginning with the creation of the Durham Book Company in 1733, residents have donated their money and industry to bring books to their town. For many, their work for the Durham Public Library has been a labor of love.[1]

Established in 1733, the Durham Book Company was the first public library in New England and the second in the United States. The first, the Library Company of Philadelphia, was established by Benjamin Franklin only two years earlier, in 1731.

Eight colonists sought books to “enrich their minds," although books were not a popular import to the American Colonies. As a result, they were hard to find and expensive to purchase. The group could only afford to build a library if they shared their costs. Their efforts were a success as members quickly amassed a wide-ranging collection that included Milton’s Paradise Lost and Echard’s Roman History. Housed in a series of private homes, the library gave subscribers the tools they needed to educate themselves.[2]

Membership in the Book Company would have been out of reach for most early residents. The first subscribers had to contribute twenty shillings towards the purchase of books. Today, the fee would be approximately $220 per member. At a time when an average agricultural worker made $0.70 per year, this was money most families did not have. Despite the cost, the shared library quickly became popular with the local elite. One of Durham’s first preachers and a president of Yale were both members. Subscribers eventually numbered more than sixty.[3]

As the cost of books went down, the shared library went out of fashion with the elite. Cheaper novels and newspapers kept at home replaced the expensive reference books of the shared library. The Book Company was disbanded in 1856, and the books were sold at auction. Local families carefully preserved much of the collection. Today, around two hundred and fifty of the original four hundred eighty books are still in the area.[4]

The lack of interest in a library was short-lived. An 1893 state law offered towns money to purchase books if they agreed to establish a public library. Durham residents embraced the opportunity. A town meeting voted to accept the grant and to increase the library fund by two hundred dollars. The idea of a library soon became reality: books were purchased, a case was built in the town hall to house the books, and staff was assigned to care for the collection. Within four months, two hundred and forty borrowing cards had been issued. [5]

With a heavily used collection and many activities, Durham’s library soon required more space than the town hall could provide. A library building was desperately needed. Mrs. Charles G. Rockwood donated the land in 1899, but residents paid for the structure themselves. The town was one of only four in the state to fund construction without outside help. Designed by L.W. Robinson, Durham’s first public library building was finished in 1901 and dedicated in 1902. Residents had finally found a place to store their three thousand volume collection.[6]

Although much loved, the 1901 building was causing problems by the early 1980s. A structure created to hold three thousand volumes contained twenty-two thousand. Books filled every inch; they overflowed shelves and sat stacked in boxes. There were no meeting rooms, reference sections or computer terminals. The community could not use one of their greatest resources. The library building needed more space.[7]

Residents once again filled the gap. Durham’s approved budget would permit the library to expand. It would not, however, provide for “luxuries” such as painting or air conditioning. Donations of $140,000 purchased an air conditioning unit. Others provided the money needed for furniture. A summer of labor by eighty volunteers – who worked around their own crowded schedules – gave the building its finishing touches. Working alongside the construction crews, resident volunteers transformed an eighteen hundred square foot 1901 building into the modern library of seventy one hundred square feet.[8]

Durham has not stopped volunteering in its library. Library volunteers help librarians complete special projects and provide general assistance where needed. The P.A.L.S. (Public Association of Library Supporters) provide financial support to the Durham Public Library, allowing the library to buy museum passes and new books, fund special events, and offer a summer reading program to the area’s children.

To find out more about the library, P.A.L.S. or library events please visit Durham Public Library’s website at http://www.durhampubliclibrary.org.

[1] Edward N. Hinman, “The Book Company: Durham’s First Library,” The Middletown Press, 12 August 1983; transcript, Town of Durham (http://www.townofdurham.org: accessed 11 November 2011).

[2] Durham Book Company foundation documents, quoted in Edward N. Hinman, “The Book Company: Durham’s First Library,” The Middletown Press, 12 August 1983; transcript, Town of Durham (http://www.townofdurham.org: accessed 11 November 2011). Hinman, “The Book Company: Durham’s First Library.” “About LCP,” The Library Company of Philadelphia (http://www.librarycompany.org/about/index.htm: accessed 17 November 2011). “Appendix A,” Durham PL + Town Policies in History, Durham Public Library, Durham, CT.

[3] Hinman, “The Book Company: Durham’s First Library.” “Currency Converter, Pounds sterling to dollars,” University of Wyoming (http://uwacadweb.uwyo.edu/numimage/Currency.htm: accessed 18 November 2011). Marlene Clark, “Ask the Courant,” The Hartford Courant, 5 February 2001; transcript, Courant.com (http://articles.courant.com : accessed 17 November 2011). Historical Statistics of the United States: V. 2 Work and Welfare (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 269.

[4]Hinman, “The Book Company: Durham’s First Library.” Clark, “Ask the Courant.” William Chauncey Fowler, History of Durham, Connecticut, From the First Grant of Land in 1662 to 1886 (Hartford: Press of Wiley Waterman and Easton, n.d.), 106. Valerie J. Harod, “Durham Public Library,” Connecticut Libraries, March 1999; photocopy, Durham PL + Town Policies in History, Durham, CT.

[5] Connecticut Public Library Committee, Connecticut Public Library Document (N.p.: n.p, 1893); digital images, GoogleBooks (http://books.google.com: accessed 18 November 2011), 6, 45,46.

[6] Clark, “Ask the Courant.” Harod, “Durham Public Library.” “Durham Public Library,” Connecticut Historic Commission Application; digital images, Durham Public Library (http://www.durhamlibrary.org/property/pdfs/record106.pdf: accessed 18 November 2011). Cyma Shapiro, “New Durham Library in the Cards,” The Hartford Courant, 7 April 1983; digital image, ProQuest Historical Newspapers (http://www.iconn.org: accessed 17 November 2011).

[7] Shapiro, “New Durham Library in the Cards.”

[8] Peter B. Pach, “A Success Story for Libraries,” The Harford Courant, 12 September 1985, p. DE2; transcript, ProQuest Historical Newspapers (http://www.iconn.org: accessed 17 November 2011). Dulcianne Vye, “Summer Memory of an Uncommon Labor of Love,” undated clipping from unidentified newspaper; Durham PL + Town Policies in History, Durham Public Library, Durham, CT. Mary Brvenik, “Panel to Seek Funds for Library,” The Hartford Courant,” 5 July 1984, p. E10A; transcript, ProQuest Historical Newspapers (http://www.iconn.org: accessed 17 November 2011).


More »
Got a question? Something on your mind? Talk to your community, directly.
Note Article
Just a short thought to get the word out quickly about anything in your neighborhood.
Share something with your neighbors.What's on your mind?What's on your mind?Make an announcement, speak your mind, or sell somethingPost something
See more »