Springfield Republican/MassLive, February 24, 2019; reproduced by permission

By Cori Urban
Special to The Republican

The Forbes Library in Northampton is turning the page on its first 125 years and beginning a new chapter in the life of the public library that opened in 1894.

During the anniversary year Forbes Library is hosting special events and presenting exhibits both online and in its gallery about the library’s history. Histories about prominent people and events connected to Forbes Library will be published along with photos and personal stories.

“We are so proud of having served the community in the same building with virtually the same mission for 125 years. This anniversary is an opportunity to share that history with the community,” says Lisa B. Downing, library director. “We are also viewing this as an opportunity to think about the future of not only library services but our community as a whole.”

The celebration of the library’s 125th year began with a community sing in September, marking the 100th anniversary of the community sings in the summer of 1918 when, as World War I was drawing to a close, thousands gathered on the Forbes Library lawn to sing and socialize. To honor the anniversary, the community was invited to gather on the lawn to raise spirits, support peaceful resolutions of conflicts and confirm a sense of community by singing together.

Janet S. Gross, a frequent patron and member of the 125th Anniversary Committee, hopes anniversary events will make the people of Northampton more aware of the “treasure” in its midst. “The library staff works tirelessly on behalf of the city and its residents. Their efforts deserve greater recognition and reward,” she said. “As a retired academic researching the women of Northampton’s Round Hill Road, I particularly value the Forbes’ extensive local history collection and its amazing librarian, Elise Bernier Feeley.”

Upcoming events include a variety of images and historical items from the Hampshire Room for Local History and Special Collections. There will be a new display each month until September. There is also a corresponding talk on the third Thursday of each month at 3 p.m. in the “Cookies with a Curator” series that will use books, photos and other items from the special collections to bring the topics to life.

A grant-funded program, “Community Conversations,” will explore difficult and complex topics that affect the community including racial justice, climate change, deepening divides (socio-economic disparities) and safety and justice. These fit within the context of the anniversary theme, “Working for the Common Good.”

“We see one role of the library working for the common good is as a place to provide people with information and opportunities for productive conversation,” Downing said. “This feels very important these days.”

The schedule is still being finalized, but she hopes to have one of the outdoor movie screenings this summer to be a library-themed movie.

Also, the community will be invited to share library memories, favorite books and ideas about the future that will be captured in exhibits at the library as well as preserved in a time capsule to be stored in the library archives and opened on its 150th anniversary.

The unveiling of a digital timeline of the library’s history is expected soon.

Forbes Library was founded through a bequest by Judge Charles E. Forbes who wrote in his will, “It has been my aim to place within reach of the inhabitants of a town, in which I have lived long and pleasantly, the means of learning, if they are disposed to learn.”

William Brocklesby designed the three-story stone building, which is on the National Register of Historic Buildings. It was completed in 1893 and then took a year to open while the newly-hired director, Charles Ammi Cutter, went to Europe to assemble a collection in time for its opening in October 1894.

He had created the Cutter Expansive Classification System when he was librarian at the Boston Athenaeum, and he implemented his system at Forbes Library, which is one of only five libraries in the world still using the Cutter System.

“We use it largely because of its historic tradition as well as the prohibitive cost if we were to reclassify our system,” Downing explains. “We think of it as one of the many things that makes Forbes unique.”

A complete interior renovation of the library was finished in 2001, accentuating many of the library’s unique features likes the glass mezzanine floors, expansive spaces and Guastavino arches that support the second floor.

“Forbes Library is one of our community’s collectively held resources that enriches individual lives as well as the community at large through its collections and services,” Downing says. “The gorgeous and iconic building itself is a collectively held resource that welcomes everyone in our community to enter through its doors and supports people to leave richer in knowledge and more closely connected to others.”

According to Katy E. Wight, a member of the library’s board of trustees and chairman of the 125th Anniversary Committee, Forbes is providing the same basic services as it did when it opened its doors in 1894. “But today the library is so much more than a place to borrow books from,” she says. “It still fulfills its mission of providing access to information and resources, but the library also supports the civic, intellectual and cultural pursuits of our community in many other ways.”

It is a safe space for tweens and teens to learn or be entertained. It’s a place to research starting a business or a health issue, learn new skills or hunt for a job. For members of the community who don’t have Internet at home, Forbes offers access. It is a place to study, see art, check out a movie, discover books, learn new things and view the world from a different perspective.

“Public libraries are a cornerstone of democracy and are safe and welcoming spaces for everyone without regard to income, ability or background,” Wight says. “There are no other institutions like them, and I feel privileged every day that I am able to serve as a steward for such a place.”

The theme for the library’s anniversary year is “Working for the Common Good,” inspired by the book, The Common Good, by Robert Reich, secretary of labor in the Clinton Administration.

“The common good is a concept that dates back to ancient Greek philosophy and refers to the collectively held resources of a society that are there for the benefit of everyone as well as the active participation by members of a society to allow it to function,” Downing explains. “Reich’s book explores the political history that has led us to a focus on individual wealth and a decreased engagement in civics that is crumbling away at our modern society.”

The “common good” refers to what is shared by a given community for the benefit of all members, as well as what is achieved through active participation in a society through public service or collective action. “Public libraries are an embodiment of this principle and a cornerstone in our democracy,” she adds.

The Forbes Library collections include popular fiction and non-fiction as well as arts and music and children’s departments and an art gallery. It houses an extensive local history and genealogy collection for Hampshire County and the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library and Museum.

Technology is probably the most obvious change at the library over the years. The other major change is the emphasis on programming for all ages as well as the opening of rooms for the public to use.

The library has been focused on providing outstanding collections, outreach to underserved populations, preserving local history, supporting students needs, being a place to study and think since the beginning,” Downing said.

To learn more about Forbes and its programs, go online to forbeslibrary.org.