A Brief History of the South Orange Library

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On a November evening1 in 1864, William J. Beebe, a New York tea merchant, who lived away from his business in the beautiful rural village of south Orange, invited some friends into his home at Scotland Street and South Orange Avenue. William J. Beebe had an idea. His friends, like himself, were all "men of character, intelligence and standing in the community; unselfish to a degree, and believers in the dissemination of knowledge"2 and so he presented to them his plan, his idea. It was this: why not start a Library? As President of the Republican club, he offered the club's headquarters as a location; membership would be by subscription; interested citizens could donate books. The idea was enthusiastically received, others soon joined the group, and so was born the Library of South Orange, 112 years ago.

Among the "leading spirits" of the venture, some of whose names are preserved in Village street names today, were: the Rev. Daniel G. Sprague, the Rev. J. Allen Maxwell,3 Mr. Francis Le Baron Mayhew, Lewis B. Henry, Edwin H. Mead, Joseph L. Taintor, Phineas Bartlett, Eugene H. Durand, Joseph W. Taylor, and Moses A. Peck.4 "After some preliminary meetings... a constitution was adopted and a Board of Directors appointed." The South Orange Bulletin goes on to say that "At the close of the first year there were 139 annual members, with 567 volumes on the shelves of the library, and 24 newspapers and magazines (!) in the reading-room."5

The Library's first home, the South Orange Republican Club, was in a building on the corner of Railroad Avenue (now Sloan Street). From 1864-1867 the Library used this room. Citizens donated books and money. In 1865 Stephen Ballard was appointed the first librarian "at a salary of $150 per annum, and with this amount he was required to furnish an assistant." the record goes on to say that "he did not continue long."6

In 1867, the upper floor of Smith and Lum's store next door to The Republican Club was fitted up for the exclusive use of the Library. This was a wise move, not only to give the Library a place of its own, but also because Smith and Lum's was a "Booksellers and Printers" store. You could read books upstairs, and you could buy them downstairs. Photo A shows the Library in this location.

(It is interesting to note that a Centennial ad for Smith and Lum's mentions among its new books, Bret Harte's Tales of the Argonauts, and Jules Verne's "latest." In another ad Silver Pitchers by Louisa M. Alcott is offered for sale.)7

Subscription Days

By 1869 the Library had 1,000 volumes8; by 1875, the number had grown to 1,646. Membership continued to be by subscription -- to belong you paid annual dues. Though augmented slightly by fines and occasional "worthy entertainments," the Library's main income came from the members; dues. In this sense it was a private rather than a "free public" library such as we have today. Many libraries in our country were started in just this way.

Until 1889, the Library continued in the upper floor of the same building, but the building itself underwent a dramatic change of location. In 1884 Railroad Avenue (Sloan Street) needed to be widened to accommodate a new railway station and so Lum's building was picked up bodily and moved up the street to 75 South Orange Avenue. Years later, Louise Taylor, for whose family Taylor Place is named, described the event as she watched it when an interest small girl:

"...a tall, nearly unpainted, gaunt, gray building was put on piles of huge logs and by horse power gradually glided from Sloan Street and South Orange avenue to the north corner of Scotland Road... Beck's Hardware Store occupied the ground floor and the South Orange Library the second floor..."

Because the Library moved with the building, it continued to occupy the same upper room in the new location. the lower part of the building, though, as Louise Taylor says, became Beck's Hardware Store. See Photo B. Louise Taylor often went to the Library as a child, and again she describes:

"... one had to climb a steep, outside, covered stairway on the life side of the building. (visible in the photo) It was a long, dark passage and rather spooky after sunset. Inside were a few lamps, tables, chairs, books and a librarian's desk. Miss Tate, a Scotch lady from near Montrose, was the first librarian I remember. She was popular with the school girls -- firm, but very sweet. Sometimes she would ask us to her home and give us a delightful afternoon..."9

There was of course no 'children's room' in those early days, but it is obvious from illustrations like Louise Taylor's that children used the Library and were welcome there. Indeed, among the early periodicals listed10 were Our Young Folks, and, as soon as it began publication in November, 1883, the never-to-be- forgotten St. Nicholas Magazine, "the king of all publication," according to an 1876 advertisement.

Association Days

The year 1886 brought a radical change to the South Orange Library. From private, with membership by subscription and the payment of dues, it became a free circulating library, available to all the citizens of the community. A new Library Association took over from the old, and was incorporated on October 25, 1886, thus complying with a general New Jersey law, entitles, "An Act to in corporate and establish free public circulating libraries in this State.11 Through not yet tax supported, though owned by the Association, not the people, the Library was public in that anyone had access to it. Once again, leading citizens of the village showed their vision by taking this step so quickly.

Support for the Library now came from the voluntary contributions of interested citizens instead of from membership dues. As before, income was supplemented, though only modestly, through fines and the presentation of occasional 'entertainments.'

The new Association soon took another step. It seemed to them a serious disadvantage to have the Library on the second floor of a building. How much more accessible, and therefore better used, if ti were on the ground floor. Besides, more room was needed for a growing collection. An so, on May 1, 1889, the old upstairs room that Louise Taylor remembered so well was given up and a new room was rented on the ground floor of the Freeman Building (no the site of Gruning's). The yearly cost of maintaining the Library in its new quarters was estimated to be $700.12

Six years passed, with the Library's collection and circulation steadily growing. Soon the one ground floor room in Freeman's and badly over crowded. The annual report of 1895 states that, "Owing to the growth of the Library, the question of obtaining a building of our own has seriously occupied the Board." But where? And how?

The answer came from a Mr. Eugene V. Connett (for who Connett Place is named). This public spirited gentleman had offered a lot of land on the corner of Scotland Road and Taylor Place "on condition that the sum of $7,500 be bonafide subscribed for the construction of a Library building..." such a building to be used "only for Library purposes." When the lot appeared too small, Mr. Connett added 50' more to his earlier gift. This offer was eagerly accepted, and a building, a whole building, begun for the South Orange Library.13

twenty years after incorporation, in 1906, the Library's collection had grown to 7,988 volumes and its circulation figure to 23,895. Once again, overcrowding, so the nest year an addition was suggested. It was envisioned as 'a children's reading room.' Though not a reality till 1929, though war intervened, the early mention of a children's room is a credit to the Library's planners.

The Library goes Public

The years since incorporation witnessed great growth. By 1916 and World War I, circulation figures rose to 37,977. But the need for more revenue also increased. No longer could 500 or so families be expected to bear the whole expense. It was time for the Library to be taken over by the people, to become a truly public institution, to be tax supported. And so, in 1926, it was agreed "in consideration of one dollar to transfer to the municipality its land, building, books and other equipment subject to the result of a referendum..."14

The referendum was held April 27, 1926; the people voted 10 to 1 in favor; the Library was now a municipal institution, it had indeed gone public. A Board of Trustees was appointed, in place of the former Board of Directors, and its first annual report stated that "The taking over of the Library by the Village mad possible a larger and better service inasmuch as funds for the operation of the Library now come from taxation rather than from the generosity of a comparatively small group of people.15

And Now

Larger and better service was indeed forthcoming. Circulation figures rose from the 55, 776 figure in 1926, when the Library became part of the Village, to 155,055 in 1960. Once again new, and this time more modern quarters were needed. We all know the result. After 8 years of devoted effort, we have the beautiful new Library enjoyed by South Orange citizens today.

What does it all mean? In the spring of our Centennial year an unknown writer expressed it this way:

"One of the most pleasant things which money can purchase is a good library. Books are friends that, no matter how the world may use you, are always ready to minister to the wants of your mind and give you useful information on every subject. As you sit before them, how kindly those old friends look down upon you. How inviting they appear, and how you secretly wish you could revel in the delight of poring over those loved pages forever! A man who has a library of good books has a fortune in his possession, whether he knows it or not."16

For 112 years such a fortune in one form or another has been a part of Village life, ever enlarging the dream envisioned so long ago in the home of a tea merchant on Scotland Road.

Mary Vorwerk for
The Historical Committee
South Orange Bicentennial

  1. Some sources say the 4th, some the 14th of November.
  2. Schnell, Harry J. The Village of South Orange, a brief history. 1937?
  3. Father of R. Allie Maxwell, who as a boy of 12 started the first newspaper in South Orange
  4. Schnell, op. cit.
  5. South Orange Bulletin, November, 1871. (a monthly news at this time)
  6. Whittemore, Henry. The Founders and Builders of the Oranges. Hardham, 1896, p. 360.
  7. South Orange Bulletin, May 26, 1876; Nov 17, 1876. (a weekly by this time)
  8. Beatrice Herman, quoting from Allee Maxwell.
  9. Taylor, Louise. South Orange Library Rakes Old Leaves. Typewritten sheet.
  10. South Orange Bulletin, November 1870.
  11. Whittemore, op. cit., p. 360.
  12. Fiftieth Anniversary of the Charter of the South Orange Library, 1886-1936
  13. Whittemore, op. cit., p. 361.
  14. Schnell, op. cit.
  15. Fiftieth Anniversary of the Charter of the South Orange Library, 1886-1936
  16. South Orange Bulletin, March 17, 1876.