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By ELI GUINNEE, PATTERSON LIBRARY DIRECTOR
Amongst a recent donation of books from the YWCA was a small collection of books published in the 1890s with rather unique bookplates. Glued inside the front cover of each of these books is a list of names. Many of the names might be recognizable, like S.F. Nixon, and G.W. Holt. Especially interesting to us is the name G.W. Patterson — the man responsible for carrying out his sister Hannah’s wishes to build a library in honor of their parents for the use of the people of Westfield. Next to each name is printed a due date and then there are two blank lines for date delivered and a signature. This was Westfield’s first library, the precursor to Patterson Library.
Before Patterson Library was opened in 1897 in what is now the YWCA building, a group of people got together and organized a system in which they would collectively purchase new books and then each have two weeks to read the book before passing it on to the next person. Here’s what we can tell from the lists in these books: The lists we found range from 1890 to 1897, the year Patterson Library opened; the books were on wide ranging topics; the books were brand new. Please refer to image two for the photo of a list that starts February 1897, which was glued inside the 1897 edition of Henry James’ “The Other House.” The list includes about half male and half female names. Every list we have is different, so if one name was at the front of the line for one book, it might be towards the bottom in the next. There are no blank lines, and the “date delivered” is always written in ink as the same date as the “due date.” These books were precious — nobody missed their opportunity to have their two weeks with the books and nobody passed their books on early, but nobody passed their books on late either. At least one of the books was purchased from Peter Paul Book Company in Buffalo.
In the back of an 1891 book, “Outings at Odd Times” by C.C. Abbott, is printed a “Catalogue, 1891-92,” see image one, which includes 26 titles and the list of names in the front contains 26 names. Before Westfield had a public library in the sense we now think of it, there was enough of an appetite for literature and information that these people each contributed the price of one book in order to have access to 26 books. Rather than own one book, they shared 26.
This concept of sharing resources to maximize information, entertainment and education was taken to the entire town of Westfield by the generosity of Hannah Patterson, who left $100,000 in her will to found Patterson Library. Imagine, back then it was considered worth the expense of one book to have access to 26 new books. Today residents of Westfield still pay about the price of one new book, less actually, in order to have access to over 71,000 items, computers, programs, reference assistance, local history collections, the summer reading program, etc, etc.
Patterson Library has taken one small idea that was so simple and made so much sense — sharing the cost a few books — to its extreme.
What continues to fascinate me about public libraries is the incredible return on investment you get from a small amount of funding. As some of you have pointed out to me in the last couple weeks as I’ve been writing about the future of libraries, not all libraries are as great as Patterson Library and using Patterson Library as the example for how great libraries are may be a bit misleading. True, Patterson Library is better than average, and we may even be pound for pound one of the best libraries in the country, but how bad would a public library have to be to not be worth the cost of one book? If it’s worth the price of one book to have access to 26 books, surely it’s worth the price of one book to have access to thousands of books, computers, DVDs, programs and all those other things that even the average or below average library offers.
Marybelle Beigh is the current Public Historian for the Town and Village of Westfield. Her office is located at 3 East Main Street in Westfield, N.Y, 14787 — inside Parkview Ice Cream Parlor. Her scheduled office hours are Monday through Friday 9 to 11 a.m.; other hours by appointment.
Beigh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 326-2457 (office), 326-6171 (home) or 397-9254 (cell).
Before Patterson Library was opened in 1897, a group got together and organized a system in which they collectively purchased new books and each had two weeks to read the book before passing it on. In the photo from the back of an 1891 book, “Outings at Odd Times” by C.C. Abbott, is printed a “Catalogue, 1891-92” which includes 26 titles and the list of names in the front contains 26 names.