Belding Memorial Library: Highlights of the First 100 Years – by Nancy Intres, Library Trustee

At the first meeting of the Library Trustees, Miss Julia A. Kelley was chosen librarian at a salary of $300/year.  The library was open for 22 hours.  In March 1915, the Trustees held their first meeting in the new building.  Improvements made during the decade from 1914-1924 included telephone installation with a private line, purchase of a typewriter and installation of the Newark Card System.  The trustees voted to give the librarian two weeks annual vacation.

Highlights of the time period 1924-1934 included the presentation of Dr. Walter Smith’s gift of the seven piece communion service originally used at the old Baptist Church at Baptist Corner.  A total of 550 books were donated by private citizens.  One hundred fifty of these books were sent to “the Vermont flood sufferers”.

In 1942, it was voted to use the basement room for Civil Defense.  Two years later, upon the request of the Commissioners of Taxation, the Trustees estimated the value of the “tangible personal property” of the library to be $4,500.00.

A December 1948 a special meeting was held at the home of Archibald MacLeish to consider his proposal “that several libraries in the vicinity form a voluntary federation, for the joint ownership of certain books, films and records.”  Mr. MacLeish planned to obtain a grant from the Carnegie Foundation for this purpose.  The Trustees voted at their May 1950 meeting to participate in the two-year Marshal Field Regional Library Experiment.  By 1952, the Trustees requested that the Bookmobile stop at Belding Library on trips through Ashfield.

Along with the installation of fluorescent lights in the adult alcove, the addition of a septic system, and the purchase of an oil furnace (to replace the existing coal furnace), the late 1950s and early 1960s were a busy period.  A “Reading Committee” of five persons “of varied interests” was appointed to assist the librarian in the selection of books and generally to act as “Friends of the Library”.   On October 27, 1964, the 50th Anniversary of the Belding Memorial Library was celebrated.  Miss Cornelia Church of the Regional Library spoke concerning new books.  Mrs. Emory Howes followed with a lecture on the “History of the Library” with special mention of Milo Belding’s life and generosity”.

The decade 1964-1974 was a time of great growth for the Belding Library.  Both the librarian and janitor now worked under a contract rather the previous hourly wage system.  The Dewey Decimal Classification System was purchased.  By 1972, catalogue cards could be obtained from Western Massachusetts Regional Library System (WMRLS) for books published since 1966.  That same year new policies were instituted.  In November 1973, the Trustees voted to eliminate the “two permanent members” clause (from the original Belding bequest) since none of the Belding descendants had attended meetings in fifty years.  The Massachusetts Regional Library System stated that 20% of the library budget should be spent on books.  In turn, the library would be eligible for State aid.  The problem of overdue books and how to improve their return continued to be a perennial problem.  Upon Mrs. Lilly’s suggestion, written library by-laws and policies were created and incorporated into the library’s permanent records.  By February 1974, it was decided that the librarian would work a minimum of 20 hours/week.  During 15 of those hours, the library must be open to the public.  That same year plans for written long-range planning were begun.  The Trustees voted to close the library on Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day and Christmas Day.

A library assistant was hired in 1975 to work weekly hours. The Town was asked to take over the cost of the librarian’s salary and a new job description for the librarian was created.  Mr. and Mrs. Douglas Angelman initiated the “Friends of the Belding Memorial Library” organization.  Edward & Carol Pepyne gave the library a 16mm projector and a film program was planned.  1984 brought the installation of a 6 gallon water heater.

By 1986, Belding Library obtained a VCR with the WMRLS supplying 12 tapes every 6 weeks.  Books on tape became popular.  Walter Whitney, Jr. resigned as a member of the Board of Trustees after nearly 37 years having been Chairman for 18 of those years.  A seven town Hill Town Video Circuit program was created through a grant from the Massachusetts  Board of Library Commissioners.  By 1987 the Trustees applied for state and federal grants to defray the costs of needed repairs to the library.  The MA Board of Library Commissioners agreed to underwrite the cost of the needed repairs to the library contingent upon the construction of a 30’ x 36’ addition.  Ashfield’s share of the $230,000 cost would be 13% or $30,000, (the cost of the original repairs to the building).  Townspeople contributed more than $12,000 in a fund drive.  A grant from the Mass Public Construction Program proved to be less than hoped for.

Emancipation Proclamation

Emancipation Proclamation

Around the same time, a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation was discovered in the library basement.  The document was authenticated and sold for $105,000 at Sotheby’s in NY.  Claims over ownership arouse between the selectmen and some residents for the town at large.  A special Town Meeting was held and it was agreed that $86,252 would be held in an account for the building project while the remainder ($11,116) be used to establish the Mary Priscilla Howes Fund (for the support of cultural projects, etc.).  A “Mile of Pennies” fund drive was begun to for the purchase of more videos.  By 1990 Belding Library joined a book buying co-operative with other libraries through the WMRLS.  By 1992 the library renovations and addition construction were completed.

A State grant enabled the library to purchase a computer and gained access to the WCMARS System for inter-library loans.  1996 brought the library the Joe Donald Art on Loan Program which allowed patrons to “check-out” a piece of original art by an Ashfield artist.  The year 2001 was a time to review and revise the evaluation process, job description and contract for the librarian.  As a result of a town survey, the Trustees chose to expand the library hours.   Long-range planning policies were developed by the Trustees during 2002.  The Hill Town Library Group was formed and met on a regular basis.  In 2004 a CD collection was added.

2006 began with a successful fund raiser in the form of a benefit concert by local singer, Sonia Kitchell.  2008 saw new plantings along the library walkway as well as outdoor benches donated by generous patrons.  Thanks to the generosity of “The Friends”, Belding Library became a member of the CWMARS (inter-library) system in 2009.  In 2010, the Ashfield Film Festival created a documentary about the library.  Half the proceeds from ticket sales to the Festival were donated to the library.  Another successful fund raiser in 2012 generated the funds to repair the lift and finally making it operational.  2013 brought some much needed energy efficiency improvements to the library.  2014 is the culmination of all the past and present efforts by the citizens of Ashfield to make Milo Belding, Jr.’s vision and memorial gift of a “free” library a continuing presence.

References:  Minutes of the Trustees of Belding Memorial Library 1914-1984; Annual Reports of the Town of Ashfield 1970-2013.