By Brian C. Jones
Rhode Island Library Report
NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. (Jan. 13, 2013) – One of the state’s smallest libraries has given its answer to a once-unthinkable question that increasingly is being asked across the country: Do we need libraries?
Supporters of the Willett Free Library, in the village of Saunderstown, have replied with a loud “yes,” and on Jan. 26, they’ll hold an open house to show the public just what they mean.
The event will celebrate a more than $450,000 renovation of the Willett library, whose dainty footprint belies both its substantial literary and architectural heritage.
The reconstruction has added a major section to the library at 45 Ferry Rd., providing handicapped access to the building, soaring ceilings and more room for meetings and books, while carefully refurbishing and preserving the older section of the building, which opened in 1904.
Tiny to begin with – with 960 square feet when the work began last May and only 1,425 square feet when it reopened on Jan. 4 – Willett remains one of Rhode Island’s smallest libraries no matter how you measure it.
The town’s two other libraries, Davisville Free Library and the North Kingstown Free library, have 2,500 and 26,000 square feet respectively, according to figures collected from public libraries by the state Office of Library and Information Services two years ago.
In another comparison, Willett has 253 registered borrowers, compared to 408 at Davisville and 16,393 at the North Kingstown Free Library. The state’s largest system in terms of registered borrowers is the nine-branch Providence Community Library, with 56,783 cardholders.
Willett and Davisville are independent, non-profit organizations, while the North Kingstown Free Library is municipally owned and operated. All three receive at least some local and state funds and are part of the Ocean State Library exchange, in which patrons of one library can request books from others.
Ferguson conferred with Paul Strattner, manager of Southfield Preservation Works, who oversaw the reconstruction; then she worried about the quality of invitations for Jan. 25 “rededication” event that she was printing from her home computer; eyed a refrigerator door that was to be replaced because it was dented; and noted a slight flaw in the repainted front door, also scheduled to be touched up.
Meanwhile, Barbara Streuli, the library’s treasurer, lugged in a big box of children’s books, which she had taken home when the library closed, as did other library supporters, to help clear the way for construction. The rest of library’s 10,532 books were taken to a donated commercial storage unit.
Ferguson seemed relieved that the long process of rebuilding the library – which began around 2001, when she first headed up the board – was coming to a close. It had been an arduous process, including scrapping early design plans which the board felt were too ambitious and commissioning new drawings.
But there was little doubt that the building needed an upgrade, including the important step of making the old building navigable by persons in wheelchairs – not just getting into the building, but managing the several-step drop between the main room and the children’s department.
Ferguson and many others believe Willett is an important center of activity in the small village, along with the post office, the Episcopal Chapel of St. John the Divine and the Saunderstown Yacht Club. Not far from the oceanographic campus of the University of Rhode Island, Saunderstown is bounded roughly by Boston Neck Road (Route 1A) and the shore of Narragansett Bay, with striking views of the Jamestown and Newport Bridges, only about a dozen streets and 200 or fewer homes.
“Our mission is to provide a library,” Ferguson said, but she added that the library needs to be a gathering place as well. This, children’s book bins and other furniture are on wheels, so they can be moved to clear the space for meeting-style seating.
Sounding a similar theme in an interview last summer was the library’s director, John Edwards, who, like a number of residents, lives in a house that was once his family’s summer home and now has been converted to year-round use.
“I see the Willett Free Library as really a big piece of the community’s social glue,” Edwards said. “It is an important part of the character of our community. It’s a place to go – the ‘third place’” – meaning it’s not the workplace and not home, but nevertheless a place where someone is welcome.
A one-time shipbuilding center and literary retreat
The library grew out of a Nov. 13, 1885 meeting called by Stillman Saunders (formally, Thomas Willett Stillman Saunders) for “all those interested in providing a free library.” Attended by about 50 people, the session resulted in a “Circle for Mutual Improvement,” which in turn organized evenings of literary and musical entertainment.
Money raised at those events purchased books that allowed the opening of the library the following year in the Ferry Road home of Mrs. Ruth Arnold, the first librarian of what originally was called the “Willetteville Free Library,” in honor of an early landowner, Thomas Willett, the first mayor of New York City.
Later, books were moved to a little building on the Arnold property, and that structure was moved across Ferry Road to land donated by sisters Laura and Mary Carpenter, members of a prominent village family.
Meanwhile, the village was becoming a summer destination for literary figures, including magazine writer Frances Willing Wharton, wife of Philadelphia coal industrialist Henry Wharton, according to a report by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission. Their cousin was Edith Wharton, the famous novelist, who lived for a time in Newport and visited Saunderstown.
Another summer resident was Owen Wister, author of The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains, which was published in 1902 and is considered the prototype of the “cowboy novel.” Wister was a friend of President Theodore Roosevelt, also a visitor to Saunderstown. Wister’s summer home was designed by Christopher Grant LaFarge, a prominent architect who designed the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, and whose father, was John LaFarge, an artist and creator of stained glass windows.
After Stillman Saunders and five others chartered the Saunderstown Free Library Association in 1901, Christopher Grant LaFarge agreed to design a larger building for the library, opening July 2, 1904, according to Irving C. Sheldon, author of a Saunderstown history.
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The library has become a favorite destination for the village’s children and adults alike, hosting book discussions led by faculty from Salve Regina University in Newport, and featuring a children’s marshmallow roast on Thursday afternoons in front of the library’s signature fireplace. Residents walk through each other’s backyards to get to the Willett. Kate Vivian, a library board member, who lives right next door, has an opening in a hedge that allows her to make an even more direct beeline to the Willett’s front door.
While the library has a modest endowment, and raises money from donations by association members and an annual book sale, Willett, like most libraries, has struggled with finances and especially so recently, during which it’s had an uncomfortable relationship with the town council over its share of local and state funds, most of which go to the larger municipal library.
Discussions about modernizing the building extended over a decade in which library funding has lagged in Rhode Island and nationally, with some local and state governments finding library budgets easier than most to cut at a time of scarce resources. Also, some have questioned the role of libraries at a time when electronic books can be borrowed over home computers without even visiting libraries. The New York Times recently sponsored a Web-based discussion: “Do we still need libraries?”
The Willett board pressed ahead, and sought a major grant from the Rhode Island-based Champlin Foundations, which have been a major supporter of local libraries. Willett President Ferguson remembers rushing to meet the application deadline, making sure to watch as a clerk at the Saunderstown post office stamped the date on the package.
When they got the request, Library Director Edwards said that Champlin officials remarked that even if it had come from a much bigger library such as the Warwick system, the request would have been a “big ask.” Still, the foundations in late 2011 agreed to a grant of $200,000 – if the library also could raise its own funds.
“We met with the them,” said Keith Lang, executive director or the Champlin Foundations in an interview last year. “We said we were willing to help … but couldn’t do it all, and we put the question back to them: Can you go out and raise a significant amount of money?
“And they did it,” Lang said. “I say: congratulations. It was quite an effort, and they didn’t have a whole lot of time to do it.”
A design “architecturally sympathetic” with an earlier age
Clifford M. “Jack” Renshaw, the architect, said last week that the new portion, which added 456 feet square feet to the 960 square foot building, was designed “in a manner architecturally sympathetic to the original space.”
One feature is the high ceilings of the addition, which give the building an airy, light-filled feel. Still, Renshaw said the roof only increased the overall height of the building by 12-inches, to a total of 21 feet from ground level.
In discussing the project as the construction was getting underway, Edwards, the library director, noted the importance of preserving a historical building, but said that the project had an equally critical role: protecting the fiber of Saunderstown as a village. Loss of the library, he said, would turn the village into just another bedroom suburb.
“I think you take away all of the little things, there is no ‘there’ there,” said Edwards, saying that the Willett is one of those essential components: “It is an important part of the character of our community.”