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Leyden Library celebrates centennial

Birthday bash in Town Hall 6:30 p.m. Saturday

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>The Robertson Memorial Library is 100 years old. Standing out in front are trustees Trueman Robbins Jr., Carlyn Asbury, Rich DiMatteo Cornelia Reid and library director Chris Johnston.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    The Robertson Memorial Library is 100 years old. Standing out in front are trustees Trueman Robbins Jr., Carlyn Asbury, Rich DiMatteo Cornelia Reid and library director Chris Johnston.

  • FILE - In this April 12, 2013 file photo, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington before the House Ways and Means Committee hearing on President Barack Obama's budget proposal for fiscal year 2014, and the HHS.  Hospitals within the same city sometimes charge tens of thousands of dollars more for the same procedure, figures the government released for the first time Wednesday show. The list sheds light on the mystery of just how high a hospital bill might go and whether it's cheaper to get that care somewhere else.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

    FILE - In this April 12, 2013 file photo, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington before the House Ways and Means Committee hearing on President Barack Obama's budget proposal for fiscal year 2014, and the HHS. Hospitals within the same city sometimes charge tens of thousands of dollars more for the same procedure, figures the government released for the first time Wednesday show. The list sheds light on the mystery of just how high a hospital bill might go and whether it's cheaper to get that care somewhere else. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>The Robertson Memorial Library is 100 years old. Standing out in front are trustees Trueman Robbins Jr., Carlyn Asbury, Rich DiMatteo Cornelia Reid and library director Chris Johnston.
  • FILE - In this April 12, 2013 file photo, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington before the House Ways and Means Committee hearing on President Barack Obama's budget proposal for fiscal year 2014, and the HHS.  Hospitals within the same city sometimes charge tens of thousands of dollars more for the same procedure, figures the government released for the first time Wednesday show. The list sheds light on the mystery of just how high a hospital bill might go and whether it's cheaper to get that care somewhere else.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

LEYDEN — The one-room Robertson Memorial Library will celebrate its centennial Saturday, but not much has changed in the 100 years since it was built.

Library Director Christine Johnston still does things the old-fashioned way. When someone checks out a book, Johnston removes a little card from its inside cover and marks the date, denoting the borrower by initials, leaving a record of who read what, and when.

With about 300 occasional and frequent patrons, that kind of system still works in the little 342-square-foot library.

“Everything’s done by hand here,” said Johnston with pride. “I’d rather have good books than computers.”

One lone computer serves as the library’s card catalog and business PC, helping patrons find what they’re looking for. If it’s in Leyden’s stacks, it won’t take long to locate the volume in the library’s four free-standing shelves, or ringing its walls.

If it’s elsewhere, Johnston will be sure to order it, whether it’s coming from a nearby member of the Central and Western Massachusetts Automated Resources Sharing system, or the farther-reaching interlibrary loan system.

“Interlibrary loans are big; we can get anything,” said Johnston. “Some books come from as far away as California, Florida, Texas, and Washington State.”

Some of those requests are harder to fill than others.

“I only have trouble finding international books on chess,” said Johnston. “James Breeden is always looking for something on chess, and they usually come from Russia. He’s in his 80s, and loves studying chess strategies and the math behind them.”

Others are a bit easier to please.

“The kids love to request books and watch me order them online,” said Johnston. Some families, she said, are in weekly, checking out stacks of children’s books at a time.

“We have four or five families that consistently come in with their kids,” said Johnston. “There aren’t too many children in town any more.”

The library reaches local kids through a summer reading program, and hosts local authors at Pearl Rhodes Elementary School. The local author programs, also sponsored by the Leyden Cultural Council and the Foundation for Educational Excellence, include storytelling sessions, and creative writing workshops, where the children get to work with the authors and craft a story together.

The children who stop by the library can’t get enough of Tucker, the library dog, said Johnston. A rescue from New York, the English springer spaniel’s adoption was set up with the library computer, and trustee Trueman Robbins picked him up and looks after him.

Robbins also looks after the library. From the comfort of his own porch on Frizzell Hill Road, he’ll occasionally lift his binoculars and look over at the hilltop library to see who’s stopping by.

Though the library could get set up to offer e-books, infinitely increasing its capacity, Johnston feels its funds are best spent on big, bulky books.

“People in Leyden really want to hold a book in their hands,” she explained.

Most of those books, she said, are fiction, since the death of Leyden’s biggest non-fiction fanatic last March.

“Mike Wells, who was in his 80s, used to read all of our non-fiction, especially history,” she said.

Johnston walked to the library’s non-fiction section, and cast a reminiscent glance over the rows of books.

“Almost every history book on the shelves was read by Mike Wells in 2010,” she said. “He’d come in and tell me all about them, it was nice.”

In most libraries, silence is sacred. Robertson Memorial is not most libraries.

“Sometimes, we’ll have as many as 12 to 14 people in here, and it gets pretty loud,” said Johnston.

While people may run into each other at a coffee shop or supermarket in a larger town, the library is pretty much it in Leyden.

“Any time people are interviewed about what they’d like to see in town, they always want a gathering place,” said library trustee Cornelia Reid.

“We used to have two gas stations and a store, but there’s nothing now,” said Richard DiMatteo, library trustee. “The library is one of the few places in town that people run into each other. It’s kind of the gossip mill.”

News about the neighbors, local goings-on, and home-spun book reviews are all exchanged in the library.

One topic of discussion lately is who’s been reading the risque “Fifty Shades of Grey” series. One local woman had asked if Johnston could order the trilogy, and it’s been a popular read ever since.

“People will come up and very surreptitiously take it out,” often at the bottom of a stack of tamer books, she said.

Other popular authors include C.J. Box, Dan Brown, Louise Penney, Elizabeth Strout, Lee Child, and David Baldacci. When they’re not reading fiction, said Johnston, Leydenites can often be found buried in books on gardening, landscaping, cooking, and raising backyard chickens.

Her patrons, she said, are of a wide variety for such a small town.

“There are a lot of creative, talented people, and farmers, retirees, and children,” she said.

The library was named for James P. Robertson, of New York, who donated the building in memory of his Leyden parents, Roswell and Mary (Wheeler) Robertson. The land it sits on, which only extends about 10 feet on any side of the building, was given to the town by A.J. Shattuck, with the stipulation that it always and only be used for a library. Construction began in 1913, and in 1914, the library was open for business.

Before Robertson’s and Shattuck’s donations, books were kept in a room upstairs from the town’s general store. In 1885, with 50 patrons, the collection was moved to the selectmen’s room in Town Hall, according to William Tyler Arms’ “History of Leyden, Massachusetts, 1676-1959,” available, of course, at Robertson Memorial.

Back then, people took their books seriously. Anyone who “willfully or maliciously or wantonly” defaced or destroyed a library book was subject to fines of $5 to $50, or a maximum six-month jail sentence.

By 1938, it reads, the library’s collection had grown to 2,260 books, with 38 percent of townspeople holding library cards.

However, by the time Arms’ history was published in 1959, the library had begun to see a drop-off in use as other forms of home entertainment became available.

“Television and radio have cut into reading inclinations, and the small hill town libraries have suffered noticeably from the intellectual reverse,” he wrote.

When it was built, the library had four front steps leading up to its door. Over the years, however, they’ve been covered up, one by one, as the blacktop on Greenfield Road has been built up through resurfacing.

That one lone step is a keeper. There, history is literally etched in stone. The single step reads “Robertson Library 1913.”

Last year, on a visit to the library, Robbins nearly tripped on the reminder of the coming centennial.

“Trueman came in one day, pointed to the step, and said ‘The library’s turning 100; we’d better do something!’” recalled Johnston.

In that 100 years, said trustee Carolyn Asbury, there has been talk of expanding the library. The family that owns the hilly meadow where the library sits has offered to help.

“The Zimmermens have been very generous, and set aside an area around the library so there would be room to expand,” said Asbury. No paperwork has been drawn up, she said, merely a gentlemen’s agreement.

Others have also been generous to the little library. Asbury said many of its patrons donate cash or books. When one local group, trying to save Henry Glabach’s old blacksmith shop, “the forge,” hit a snag and its plans fell through, they gave what they’d collected to the library, said Asbury.

Since there’s not enough room in the little library for the Pearl Rhodes Elementary School Chorus, area band Zydeco Connection, guests, food, and dancing, the party will be held Saturday at 6:30 p.m. in Town Hall. In addition to music, food, and fun, there will be local poets and storytellers sharing their work.

The Robertson Memorial Library is open from 1 to 6 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays, and 10 to noon Saturdays.

David Rainville can be reached at:
drainville@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 279

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