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OPINION: Meriden library: Look to the past for its future

OPINION: Meriden library: Look to the past for its future

I was thinking the Meriden Public Library ought to get a sports team to adopt it. Nothing brings in money like sports, and spending on sports defies criticism. All you have to do is even whisper about cutting a sports program and people will start lining up around the block wanting to tell you about how it builds character, and so on.

The library is finding itself short about a million and a half — the difference between $7.8 million and $9.3 million. That’s the difference between making basic renovations and something that would have expanded the place to a size the state figures it ought to be, based on Meriden’s size and demographics.

Now a million dollars is a lot of money, but not in the world of sports. In sports a million is like change that falls through a hole in your pocket. Just for perspective: The exit fee for the University of Connecticut to get out of the American Athletic Conference is $17 million. It’s $3.5 million to join the Big East for the 2020-21 academic year.

So let’s call it the Meriden Huskies Public Library and wait for the money to come flowing in.

OK. You might have been surprised the City Council couldn’t see its way toward the plan the library deserves. It couldn’t have escaped the notice of councilors that the library is downtown, downtown being the source of much attention. We’re trying to build that whole area up, right?

But then you have to remember that it was just a short year ago when councilors were embarrassed by a voter referendum that told them they didn’t know what they were doing when it comes to spending taxpayer money, so they can’t be blamed for demonstrating a little frugality. There was, to be fair, lots of support for the more expensive library plan, but in the end it came up a vote short.

So now we’ll get to see what maybe we’ve needed to know all along, which is how much Meriden really cares about things like public libraries. Those who were disappointed are not giving up, at least.

Since my idea about milking a sports franchise is probably not going to work, I’ll point, encouragingly, to the time when the city started working to establish a public library.

That was a long time ago, long before sports as we know it was around to build character. There was no National Football League. There was no New York Yankees. There was boxing, and there was wrestling (Greco-Roman style) and there was President Theodore Roosevelt telling the nation that the world was looking to the U.S. to take a bigger role in world affairs. When the library opened in Meriden, the addition of 25 telephone subscribers had brought the city’s grand total of telephones to 500.

Libraries had begun to take root in the U.S. in the 19th century. In Meriden, a library of sorts started when the Young Men’s Institute, a precursor to the YMCA, collected up to 800 volumes, but it was not, technically, a public library. A vigorous effort to establish a public library had its setbacks. Spending $1,000 for one, for books and maintenance, was supported at a town meeting in 1898, but there was strong opposition. Spending city money on a library was not considered frugal. But a library began operating in two rooms rented in an East Main Street house and by 1899 there was a collection of 1,000 books and growing rapidly. At one time, it was reported that the entire collection of books was checked out.

Then, in late 1900, city resident Augusta Curtis donated $75,000 to have a library built. The donation was accepted at a special town meeting and in September 1901, the cornerstone was laid at the building site on East Main Street. Sen. Orville H. Platt delivered the ceremonial address.

And the Morning Record had this to say in an editorial: “The women who inaugurated and kept alive the public library movement in Meriden (showed) patient and persistent devotion to the highest and best interests of the people.”

That library lasted 70 years. The building is now the Augusta Curtis Cultural Center.

I bring up this information, which I gathered from a 2003 article, because that $75,000 donation is roughly equivalent to $1.5 million in today’s money, and that just happens to be the bridge between the maintenance library and what is looked at as the library of the future. Let Augusta Curtis be the inspiration.

If we set goalposts up in front of the library that might help, too.

Reach Jeffery Kurz at 203-317-2213, or jkurz@record-journal.com.

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