New book recounts the history of the Edgartown library

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The Carnegie Library in 1911. —Courtesy Nis Kildegaard

The Friends of the Edgartown Free Public Library have published a delightful history of the town’s 125-year-old library in honor of the library’s move to a new location at 26 West Tisbury Road.

The 32-page, hardcover, four-color volume is a local story of a bygone era which tracks changing social mores. Of particular interest are the hardscrabble early days of the little library, which survived and thrived through the efforts of local benefactors, and later of Andrew Carnegie, the legendary tycoon of the 20th century’s Gilded Age.

The final metamorphosis is a 15,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility with nearly 40,000 titles and materials — a far cry from its beginnings in 1891 with 117 books in a second-floor room on Main Street. At that time, the library space was rented for $40 a year, and was open to the public two afternoons a week.

The little library established its toehold in the community, growing slowly and moving to a larger rented space over its first decade, until a stroke of good fortune appeared in the form of Mr. Carnegie. A self-taught Scottish immigrant who became a steel magnate, Mr. Carnegie singlehandedly underwrote development of this country’s public library facilities, endowing construction and startup costs of 1,689 libraries in the U.S., including the old Edgartown library on North Water Street.

That library was a neoclassical design favored by Mr. Carnegie, built at the then stupendous cost of $5,000 along with land; $1,000 for startup expenses came from Edgartown resident Caroline Osborn Warren. Their contributions would be worth $150,000 today. The “Carnegie library,” as the 900-square-foot building was termed, was used for more than 112 years until Edgartown unveiled its $11.3 million new facility in March.

Edgartown selectmen have transferred ownership of the historic Carnegie Library building to the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, which is currently transforming the building into a visitor’s center and repository for historic books, papers, and art. It also serves as a temporary Post Office while the Post Office Square location undergoes renovations.

The Friends of the Library researchers and staff did exhaustive research on 19th and early 20th century Edgartown to provide writer Mary Jane Carpenter with information which she skilfully used to give us a historical tapestry of a small New England town.

For example, town fathers contemplated Mr. Carnegie’s offer for four years before accepting it, because of his requirement that the town approve a $400 annual budget: big money for town stewards who, as late as 1921, were outraged by a $10.56 electric bill for their library.

This brief history also gives us an often whimsical sense of the changing role of libraries in our communities. For example, libraries today are high-energy social and community hubs, but the relatively new public library concept 100 years ago was a sacrosanct setting in which silence was to be observed and books were protected from the public by gimlet-eyed librarians.

A legion of library groupies pitched in to produce this remarkable, high-quality history. Researchers on the library’s history and archive committees included Janice Belisle, Annie Burritt, Ms. Carpenter, Margaret Chirgwin, Olga Church, Patricia Correia, Joan Dunayer, and Cornelia Hurst.

Ms. Church, Ms. Dreyer, and Ms. Belisle edited the text. Ms. Dreyer designed the book, which includes photography by Nis Kildegaard and Dan Waters.

Their history is a feel-good read. We know that books are food for thought, and this offering reminds us of the power of community in Island living.

The book is available for $24 at the library. Revenue will be used to support the library’s work.