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The Holyoke Public Library Celebrating 150 years of service to the people of Holyoke

Beginnings

On January 12, 1870, fifty Holyoke men met for the purpose of establishing a Public Library Association and voted to petition the Massachusetts Legislature for a special charter of incorporation. After their petition was approved on April 22, 1870, they began plans to acquire and house a book collection. Paper manufacturer William Whiting, aged 28, was the Association’s first president.

The Library opened on the top floor of the Appleton Street School on November 21, 1870.

It was open only to those who paid $1.00 in annual membership dues.

Sarah Ely was the first Librarian.
Librarians in the 1870s were serious about getting those overdue books back on the shelves.

In 1876, the growing Library moved to new quarters on the main floor of City Hall.

In 1886, the City increased its funding for the Library. This allowed the Association to drop its membership dues. The institution became a true public library and the number of borrowers quadrupled.

"The People's College"

By the last years of the 19th century, Holyoke’s population had more than tripled, placing heavy demand on the Library's services. In 1897, the Holyoke Water Power Company donated a city block for the building of a new library, provided that funding could be secured within three years.

William Whiting, William Skinner, and J.P. Morgan each made $10,000 donations. James A. Clough donated his services as architect.

In 1902, the Holyoke Public Library opened in its new home at 335 Maple Street. It was described in local news reports as one of the "finest examples of Greek architecture in the country."

The spacious building was made of Indiana limestone and white glazed brick, with a red tile roof. Soaring Ionic columns flanked the main entrance. In addition to providing space for 66,000 books, it contained reading rooms, meeting rooms, and exhibit spaces.

Oak woodwork gives warmth to the reading rooms and gallery. The entire cost was $95,000.

A new library brought many changes: a Children’s Room, an open stack wing, and a new book classification system. Within five years, book circulation had doubled. The new Librarian, Frank Willcox, also eliminated the practice of reserving use of certain books for privileged patrons.

Books from the 1909 Library Catalogue

MID-CENTURY EXPANSION

In 1926, Burlingham Schurr was hired as full-time curator of the Library’s Natural History Museum. He expanded the collection and actively promoted its use in education. Some current library patrons still remember being fascinated by the well-designed exhibits and the live snake. In 1959, Wistariahurst Museum opened and the natural history collections were moved there.

(click on any image to enlarge)
1949: In response to popular demand, the Library established a record collection, beginning with seventy-five 78 rpm records. Within a week, every item had been loaned out and the shelves were bare.
Between 1946-1959, circulation reached 300,000 items per year. Three branch libraries were opened. The Library also began its popular summer vacation programs for children.

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Top: Children's summer program; Second row (left): Eleanor Attridge checking out a book to Gene O'Donnell; Third row (right): A scene from the new Elmwood Branch Library (Myrtle Ave.) in December, 1951, with (from left): Kenneth Lubold, O. Leonard Moquin (Branch Librarian), Harold Hurley, Charles Christopher, Joel Young, Beverly Zakrzewski, and Carol Dupius. Bottom: Main Library Children's Librarian, Gladys Crawford. Others pictured are not identified. (Click any image to enlarge.)

A Place for public art

Beginning in 1948, the Library used an art trust established by Joseph Allen Skinner to commission a series of murals from the young artist Sante Graziani. His allegorical history of Holyoke was based on research in the Library’s historical collections and incorporates the techniques of Italian Renaissance painting. The murals play with time, juxtaposing and layering references to numerous events in Holyoke's rich history.

Because the main mural is viewed both from below and at eye-level, from the third-floor gallery, the artist had unique problems in perspective to solve. He did so with a slight elongation of the human figures.

The central mural includes likenesses of George Ewing (above center) and Joseph Parsons (on the right). The city's early growth owed much to Ewing's vision and investment; Parsons established the first paper mill in what would later become "Paper City."

In 2019, the Library became the site of a second mural installation, the product of an innovative collaboration between the Library, Holyoke teens, and the Puerto Rican artist collective, Morivivi.

The mural above consists of a set of portraits that incorporate both realistic depictions of the teens’ world (the bridge to Chicopee) and symbolic elements. For example, four of the young women hold a tropical flower, but the fifth holds a trillium, a fragile wildflower native to Massachusetts. The dense greenery is meant to suggest that all the flowers are connected by their roots, just as all people are connected.

A separate mural highlights the rights of marginalized populations (LGBTQ and the disabled) and features a self-portrait of a teen activist.

A NEw Beginning

By 2005, it was clear that the 100-year-old library was in need of major renovation. A combination of state, city, and library funding, along with broad community support, made the project possible. Ground-breaking for the renovation and expansion of the Library began in 2011.

Among the issues that needed to be resolved were water leaks, accessibility, and lack of space for modern technology.
Board President Terry Plum (left and center) and Maria Pagan, Library Director (center and right) were among the many dedicated staff and volunteers who saw through the multi-year process.

The plans by Finegold Alexander called for renovating much of the historic building.

This Preservation Magazine article includes more details on the renovation.

A new glass-enclosed addition replaced the narrow stack wing, allowing for a wide, accessible entrance and an expanded Children’s Room.

The newly-renovated Library re-opened in Fall, 2013.

With a Computer Room, a Teen Room, and an expanded Children's Room, the Library now serves new generations of users.

TODAY AND TOMORROW

In normal times, the Library receives more than 100,000 visits every year. Hundreds of local organizations have made use of the Library’s Community and Meeting Rooms at no cost.

Made possible with support from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners