Bangor In Focus
Bangor Public Library
From its early beginning in 1883 using borrowed space at Bangor Savings Bank, through the Great Fire of 1911, to the strain of adapting to a technologically changing society, the library has persevered, a testament of the Queen City's love affair with reading.
In the mid-1990s, Bangor residents met a challenge by fellow resident and author Stephen King to raise $8.5 million to renovate and expand the library's aging building on Harlow Street. The project repaired the large stone steps that had fallen into disrepair at the building's front and enabled the library to provide open stacks for the first time in decades.
The library was established in 1883 after taking over the Bangor Mechanic Association's library of 19,475 volumes. The new library had no home of its own, so it operated out of the second and third floors of the Bangor Savings Bank building across the Kenduskeag Stream from West Market Square.
The Mechanic Association was the equivalent of today's adult education program. It enabled carpenters, machinists, iron workers and shipbuilders to get an education. The association had several reading rooms throughout the city.
A gift from Bangor resident Samuel Freeman Hersey made the Bangor Public Library possible. Born in Sumner, Hersey moved to Bangor in 1812 at age 19. He became a state legislator and helped raise funds for the 20th Maine Regiment, which fought in the Civil War. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1872 and re-elected in 1874. He died while in office, however, at age 63, on Feb. 3, 1875. During his life, he had amassed large timber holdings in northern Maine, Michigan and Minnesota. The holdings were worth an estimated $2 million.
Hersey bequeathed to the city 30 percent of his eastern estate "for the promotion of education, the health and good morals of the citizens." However, the city could not take the full bequest until 1900.
When the timber industry began to falter in the early 1880s, the City Council feared that Hersey's estate would lose value quickly. The Council struck a deal with Hersey's estate that enabled the city to take a $100,000 lump sum to establish a public library and forfeit its remaining interest. In addition, the Council appointed five trustees to oversee the Hersey fund.
The Hersey trustees then asked the Bangor Mechanic Association to join forces to create the new library. The association agreed, and on April 15, 1883, the Bangor Public Library became a reality, operating out of the top of the Bangor Savings Bank building in what was then Kenduskeag Block. The Mechanic Association's 19,475 volumes were the new library's first books.
Bangor residents could browse the library's collection for free, but they had to pay $1 per year for a library card, which enabled them to check out one book at a time. Non-residents had to pay $3 per year for a library card. Borrowing privileges became free for Bangor residents in 1904.
But nothing happened for another two years despite the trustees' having the land and money for the permanent home. In mid-April 1911, Bangor residents and city councilors criticized the trustees' inaction.
"No one, of course, can successfully deny that the books are in grave and constant danger of destruction by fire in their present quarters," councilor George F. Weiler said at an April 14 public meeting on the matter. "The library rooms are overcrowded, inconvenient and not at all suited for the purpose. I believe that there are many Bangor people who do not take books out because of these facts."
The Bangor Daily Commercial published a poem from a Bangor woman who echoed public sentiment on the matter. "Why should our books be allowed to burn?" she asked in the poem.
Almost three weeks later, a fire in a Broad Street hay shed only feet from the library decimated the downtown business district and destroyed virtually all of the library's books. The conflagration claimed 70,000 books. Only 1,000 remained; they had been checked out by patrons or sent away for repairs. Employees managed to rescue only 29 books from the building. The lost books were worth an estimated $300,000.
Most of the books would have been lost in the fire anyway if the library had had a permanent home on Harlow Street, but a large number of the rarest and most valuable volumes likely could have been moved to safety.
Despite the massive loss, which included irreplaceable works that documented Bangor's early history, the library reopened only three weeks later in the basement of the Penobscot County Courthouse. There were only eight books and a handful of magazines on the shelves.
The Portland Public Library, Maine State Library in Augusta, Bowdoin College library and even the Medford, Mass., library helped the Bangor Public Library get back on its feet. By Jan. 1, 1912, the library's collection had 7,121 books.
Brick and stone had become the materials of choice, predictably, rather than volatile and fragile wood that had ignited so easily in the fire. The city chose to rebuild Bangor High School across Harlow Street from its original location at what is now Abbott Square. Building the library's new home next to the high school was only natural. The city awarded Peabody & Stearns the high school contract as well. Less than a year later, George H. Wilbur & Son won the building contract for both projects. Its bid for the library was $123,944.
The groundbreaking for the new library occurred on June 18, 1912. Together, the high school and library used 12,000 tons of steel -- more than what was in the Bangor-Brewer Bridge. The high school required 1.2 million bricks while the library required 700,000.
The library trustees spared little expense with the new building. The library's permanent home would be an architectural showcase for the city, with a copper-framed dome and rotunda, glass ceilings and floors for the second floor, and large fireplaces on the first floor. The trustees also voted to inscribe the names of 12 distinguished, New England-born writers on the rotunda: Aldrich, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Fiske, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Longfellow, Lowell, Palfrey, Parkman, Prescott, Whittier and Bryant.
Conspicuously absent: Henry David Thoreau, who had made frequent visits to Bangor and the Maine woods while visiting his aunt and cousins who lived in the Queen City. Thoreau was born in Concord, Mass., in 1817.
The library opened Dec. 20, 1913, and unveiled its card catalog, based on the Dewey Decimal System. Before then, patrons had to thumb through a 1,000-page catalog to find the books they wanted.
In 1927, the library reached its capacity. The advent of microfilm in later years would help ease the congestion. In the meantime, the Great Depression in the 1930s shelved any expansion plans the trustees were considering. While the library desperately needed more space, circulation rose as patrons sought comfort in the library's educational materials and worlds of fantasy.
In the early 1950s, library officials estimated that 60 percent of Bangor residents were regular patrons. By the end of the decade, the library underwent its first expansion, a 30-foot-by-100-foot addition to the back of the building that opened in 1959. The addition filled quickly. From 1943 to 1962, the library's collection had grown from 228,236 volumes to more than 350,000.
As the library's collection continued to grow, the library itself began to show its age. Eventually the library had become so short of space that the stacks had become unsafe for patrons to browse. Patrons had to use the card catalog to look up the books they wanted and a clerk at the front desk would have to retrieve them.
In 1993, the city's code enforcement officer informed library director Barbara McDade that the building's front steps were no longer safe; they had fallen into disrepair from decades of harsh Maine weather. McDade was able to convince the code enforcement officer to leave one side of the steps open.
At first, the library sought to repair the front steps. But a more thorough inspection of the library, underwritten by author Stephen King and his wife, Tabitha, revealed an outdated electrical system and floors that were actually supported by the stacks. Rather than simply replace the building's steps and wait for another serious defect to develop, the library's trustees decided it was time to expand the building to open the stacks and provide space for public computers.
Greater Bangor area residents responded, with 2,000 contributing to the project. King held a rare book reading at the Bangor Auditorium to raise funds. He even appeared on a celebrity edition of the game show "Jeopardy," winning $10,000, which he gave to the library's project.
In September 1996, the library moved all of its holdings and operations to a warehouse on Outer Hammond Street. The city's bus system even extended service to the temporary location because of demand. The groundbreaking for the renovation and expansion occurred on Oct. 20.
Construction lasted until December 1997. Although it had taken only two weeks to move the library to temporary quarters on Outer Hammond Street, it took four weeks to move the library back. The Ice Storm of 1998, which seized the city in early January, delayed moving by only one day.
Today, the library's card catalog is no more, having been phased out by the end of 2002. Most of the library's collection is on a computer database that can be accessed on the Internet. Patrons can now browse the stacks themselves, enabling them to encounter books they would not otherwise have known of. The Bangor Room, on the second floor, contains books and magazines that chronicle the city's early years, along with records from around New England that are of interest to genealogists.
Fire is no longer the library's biggest concern. The theft of dozens of rare books on local history in 2001 prompted the library to install a tighter security system.
From the evolution of the book catalog to the card catalog to a computer database that can be accessed anywhere in the world, the Bangor Public Library has adapted to the demands of the times. In a far cry from the days of having to get a clerk to run down a book, patrons can now check books out on their own using a computer.
Despite these technological changes, there will always be a demand for books and a craving for the information they possess. There will also be continuing demand for a meeting place so students of all ages, from children just learning to read to those searching for their family's past, can exchange ideas. And the Bangor Public Library will continue to be that haven for ideas.
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