Town’s Historic Blackstone Library Reaches Out

 When Timothy B. Blackstone wanted to honor the memory of his father who was born in Branford in 1793, he decided to give the town of Branford a gift, a gift to guarantee that his father’s name, James Blackstone, lives on.

To that end, he decided to build a library, a special library whose exterior would be white marble and whose doors would be bronze. The cost was said to have been about $300,000, a steep figure back in the 1890s. The library’s dedication took place on June 17, 1896. “The next day it was opened for use with a stock of 5,000 books,” Town Historian Jane Bouley reports.

This library, now a town treasure 121 years old, is far more than the 5,000 books with which it began. Yes, there are still books, both hardback and online. But within the library’s walls a new universe has evolved, on many levels.

It is now the place where townspeople can learn how to use computers. By the end of 2016, some 32,000 computer sessions had been delivered for those who needed to learn. Many return at least once a day to use the library’s computers because they do not own one.  On most days they line up on the library’s steps before the library opens. 

The Blackstone is not alone. Public libraries across the state have moved from a place to read a book or do research to a place to undertake digital work, work that may become innovative in many areas.

A Variety of Events

Over the course of a year the library provides numerous events, lectures, programs for adults and kids and most recently an on demand streaming service called Kanopy. Kanopy provides independent, classic, international films and documentaries. A library card gets you streaming up to five videos a month.

There are numerous programs for children. Indeed in October, the Blackstone Library was transformed into Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. According to the library’s website, and yes, that is another vision Blackstone himself could not have predicted, over 360 witches and wizards came through Platform 9 3/4 to enter the library’s hallowed halls. “Taking classes in Divination, Potions, and Charms, plus testing their wits to escape the Forbidden Forest, children had a magical time with our wonderful faculty, prefects, and staff,” the website said.
Branford parents take their kids to the library all the time. They spend hours there as their kids, some young as age 3, get their first taste of the world of books. 

Marcia Chambers PhotoLate last month, Andrew McKirdy (pictured), president of the library’s Board of Trustees, recalled the Blackstone family gift to build the library. He did so as he and other trustees and Karen Jensen, the library’s director, along with leaders of the Branford Community Foundation gathered on the lawn outside the library to update the community on its mission to raise $800,000 toward the library’s renovation and expansion.

Plans call for a 2,000-square-foot addition on the ground floor, and reconfiguration of many interior spaces throughout the library. The distinctive front entrance and steps will remain the same.

Marcia Chambers PhotoMcKirdy and members of the board, stood near the library’s “thermometer” which keeps track of its goal. The building renovation campaign has now reached $650,000 – 80 percent toward its goal of $800,000. With a little help from others over this holiday season it is likely to get there.

Major Gift Announced

And then McKirdy announced a major gift to the library’s capital campaign, one donated by a Branford family. The family said its donation of $150,000 was “in recognition of the library’s importance as a key cultural, educational, and architectural resource in the community.” 

For the time being the family’s name will remain anonymous, but it will be announced when the library’s auditorium is named sometime in the future. 

In addition, the library has also received a matching gift of $100,000 from the Branford Community Foundation. The foundation will match dollar for dollar up to a total of $100,000. 

McKirdy said that more than 500 people from the Branford community have contributed toward the matching gift, which has now reached $75,000 in individual donations.

“They recognize the service the library provides for Branford residents,” he said. These funds will provide townspeople “with critical services in the decades to come.” 

The State of Connecticut maintains its commitment to provide a $1 million construction grant toward the project, contingent on the balance of funding being approved by March 1, 2018. The overall cost of the project is $4.8 million. The project would bring the library up to 21st century speed, but keep the building’s historic exterior intact.

Marcia Chambers PhotoJensen (pictured) said the Board of Finance (BOF) is expected to hold a special meeting on the library’s funding project this month. Library officials presented their proposals to both the BOF and the RTM earlier this year, aware of their March 1 deadline and the need for both boards to act swiftly given the March deadline. Click here to read about it. The BOF had been waiting until the state passed a budget before it acted. At its most recent meeting, Joseph Mooney, the BOF chair, said a special meeting would be held soon. 

McKirdy is optimistic. 

“We’d like to note there is still a little bit of space left,” on the thermometer, he said. Donations are accepted on the Blackstone website. For more information on the project and how you can donate, visit the library website.

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