History of the Avon Free Public Library

The roots of the Avon Free Public Library can be traced back to 1798. Records show that the first librarian was Samuel Bishop, a prominent citizen living on Ciderbrook Road in the district of Farmington called Northington (as the Town of Avon was then known), with a population of 1,750. He maintained a collection of 111 books in a room in his home and allowed borrowers access to the collection six times a year, in December, February, April, June, August and October.

When Samuel Bishop retired, Josiah Ansel Wilcox was voted librarian to succeed him in 1842. The library was moved to the Wilcox home which was also located on Ciderbrook Road. There is no record of the hours when the library was open to borrowers during Mr. Wilcox’s tenure. During this era, each member borrower was required to pay to take out a book, and they were assessed a users’ tax of $ 1.00 per year.

In 1852, the library closed. The 111 books were kept for many years by the Wilcox family. Books and reading were apparently shared informally during the next few decades. A “Literary Club” and “Debating Club” were active during the 1880’s. In 1890, a group of concerned women who felt the town should have a library started a public library in a former harness shop on the north side of what is now Route 44, near the intersection of Routes 10 and 202. In 1891, the building was needed for other purposes and the books were taken to the Bishop house on West Main Street, then moved again next door to occupy the front room of Phinenas Gabriel’s shoe store. This incarnation of the library prospered for a few years, until citizens began to patronize the Simsbury Library. The books that remained from this collection were stored in the homes of two different Avon residents for safe keeping.

Finally, in 1909, the Avon Free Public Library was on its way to becoming a valued town institution. A board of directors was elected to re-organize the Avon Free Public Library. By-laws and rules were drawn up by two men who served on the Board of Directors. Funds totaling $175 were raised to pay for the developing library and to hire a trained librarian to classify the collection. Fred Neville’s home on the site of the old Towpath School was the last to house the itinerant collection. He became the first paid librarian. and was compensated not only for his duties as librarian, but also for the space in his home used for the library. The library was open two hours each Friday evening from six to eight P.M. Each borrower was limited to two books to be returned within two weeks. The records show that 62 families registered to borrow books that first year, and that a total of 1,767 books were circulated. “Sub-stations” were started in 1911 at Mrs. Louise Lusk’s home on Lovely Street and at the “town hall” in Huckleberry Hill School. Fifty books were available in each location and were changed every two months.

It became evident over time that both a permanent building to house the collection and a more efficient way to operate the library were necessary. Fund raising began in 1929-30 to buy land and erect the first official library building. A site was purchased on the south side of Route 44 across the street from the building used for the library in 1890. On August 30, 1932, the one-room brick building was completed and the new Avon Free Public Library was opened to the public.

In the fifty years that the library occupied this building, it was enlarged three times with the help of private funding sources to keep up with the expanding population and need for additional library services. During the World War II period, the library facilities were used by the Avon Defense Council and the local American Red Cross. A bookmobile, manned by volunteers, transported books to West Avon, Huckleberry Hill and Secret Lake for two years. The “Friends of the Avon Library”, organized in 1950, established new programs and provided funds for books and equipment. They set up exhibits and conducted storytimes called the “Wee Wigglers”.

In 1969 what was left of the original 1798 collection was donated to the Library by the Wilcox family. It is kept in the Marian Hunter History Room.

Long-range planning for a new library began in 1971. By the mid-1970’s, conditions were ripe for the beginning of a boom in the town’s population growth, in fact leading the communities in the Farmington River Valley with a growth rate of 34 percent. In 1974 the population was approximately 9, 400. Annual circulation in 1973 reached 49, 500 items.

During this period, the issue of governance was addressed by the Board. Should the library remain privately owned or become a town department? If it remained privately owned, how would it be financed when private monies were no longer adequate or as available as they once were?

These issues were resolved and a formal agreement was signed on November 20, 1978 between the Town of Avon and the Board of Directors of the Avon Free Public Library, Inc. The library became a town department while retaining its identity as a private institution. Because the town recognized the importance of library services to the quality of life of its residents, it agreed to assume almost all of the funding for the library, with the exception of some contributions from the State, or donations from private citizens. Budgets were drawn up by the library Board and Director, and submitted to the town’s Board of Finance for approval.

The site of the current Avon Free Public Library building was purchased in 1973 with funds raised by the Trustees. The new location on Country Club Road was chosen because it is close to the geographical center of Avon, and within walking distance of the Avon Middle and High Schools. The library building itself was built with town funds.

With the occupation of the new library in 1982, the square footage devoted to the provision of library services in Avon increased from 4,681 square feet to 13,500 square feet, an increase of 188%. In the first five years of the new library, circulation steadily increased, the book collection grew, and the library increased the number of magazine subscriptions. The Alsop Community Room was used by local organizations for their meetings and by the Friends of the Avon Library for many special programs.

It was after the library had been at its new address for about five years when changes in the information world began to make an impact. The Library joined CircCess, the automated circulation network of the Capitol Region’s libraries. New formats such as video cassettes, books on cassettes and compact discs were added to the collection and locations had to be found to display these new items.

A building boom in the mid-80’s in Avon brought an influx of new residents whose information needs had a definite impact on the library. New part-time staff were hired to help provide the expanded services. The number of children’s programs tripled. A part-time reference librarian was hired to help patrons with their information needs.

Circulation increased by 50% from 1988 to 1992, or 126,680 to 220,886 items. Over 50% of Avon residents had current library cards at that time and that average remains constant. The library published the first edition of the “Avon Business Directory” in 1995.

The Town Council directed the Library Board and staff to assess the building needs and recommend priorities. Three thousand square feet on the second floor had been left unfinished when the building was built in 1982, so attention was paid to that space as well as the need for a reconfiguration of existing space. In 1997, a renovation was completed with changes to the building reflecting the following priorities: a dedicated children’s program room, quiet study room and computer lab, quiet study room for adults, computer workstations for both children and adults with Internet and Word access, a redesigned technical services area, improved accessibility to the library in order to comply with new requirements of the American Disability Act, and upgraded wiring to allow high speed Internet access. The library had a brighter look, helped by the introduction of a new color scheme, carpet, furnishings and paint.

Business continued to boom at the Avon Library. There were waiting lists for storytimes, and large and enthusiastic audiences for adult programs such as the popular Sunday afternoon music series and “Time for Ideas” book discussion groups. Residents became quite accustomed to Sunday hours, a service initiated in 1997. “Technology Transfer,” a computer instruction program where young adults are the teachers, did a great deal to dispel the apprehension many adults had with the new technology. Some days, the Internet workstations were filled within minutes of when the library opened.

The 1997 renovations eased the critical areas, but could not address everything. For example, at the time of the renovation, space for the collection was considered adequate. However, projections made at that time estimated that space for books would be critical in 2000. The shelves were overcrowded and space was at a premium. Parking spaces were often at a premium, too, especially on days when storytimes were being held and the community room was being used by a local organization. Once a patron got into the library there was often no place to sit.  So a much larger renovation and expansion project was envisioned, one that would more than double the size of the building to 40,000 square feet, provide parking for more than 100 cars, expand public meeting space and provide a computer lab, art gallery and teen room.

The Town Council approved an $8.7 million project in 2010. Wide spread community support was instrumental in funding the 2012 expansion, with over $1 million raised privately in addition to a $1 million grant from the State of Connecticut helping offset Town costs.  The new library opened in the spring of 2012 to the delight of the community.  While Avon residents are shifting the way they use the public library by taking advantage of remote access when they can, they continue to look to the library as a community center, the only Town department which offers services to all ages, a place where things are happening.