People usually take it for granted that their local library is fully supported by tax dollars. Although that is the case for the majority of public libraries in Connecticut, the situation here in Essex is somewhat different.
Most of the public libraries in Connecticut were started in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century by groups of civic minded individuals. The Essex Library Association, for example, was formed by a handful of private citizens in 1889. Its original collection consisted of approximately six hundred volumes that were housed in a few rooms on the second floor of the building in Essex Square currently occupied by the Talbot’s store.
In 1897 the Essex Library received a bequest from the estate of Captain Joseph Tucker that included a portrait of himself, three paintings of ships he had commanded and $5,000. The Library still owns the paintings, which are displayed in the 1889 Room and main reading room. The money was used to construct the Library’s first permanent home just off Essex Square at 3 South Main Street, a half-timbered Queen Anne style building that now houses the Bealey Gallery.
By the late 1950’s the Library had outgrown this facility, but it wasn’t until 1980 that a new structure that was three times the size of the original building was finally erected at its present site on West Avenue. Twenty years later it was determined that the Library was, once again, experiencing growing pains. The building was renovated and expanded to roughly twice its original size in 2006.
For the first few decades of its existence the Library was open only to those who paid $1.00 per year to become a member of the Association. In 1924 the Town of Essex began contributing to its support, at which time borrowing privileges were made free for all Essex residents. The Library retained its status as an independent Association, however, which could be joined for a minimum contribution of $2.00 per year. Members were entitled to “…one vote in the affairs of the Association.” That arrangement still holds true today, although, like everything else, the cost of a basic membership has increased since 1924.
In 2014, the Essex Library is celebrating its 125th year of operation. Our staff, most of whom have Master of Library Science degrees, serve over 60,000 visitors each year. The Library’s original collection of some 600 books has grown to over 47,000 items including books, DVDs, CDs and other materials. In an average year over 10,000 people attend one or more of the 300 or so programs that the Library offers. The Essex Library has become the cultural hub of our community, and it plans to continue being a vibrant Town resource for the next 125 years and beyond.