Local history lesson: Waterville Public Library
The Waterville Public Library suffered &75,000 in damages after local firefighters spent two hours extinguishing a five-alarm fire that ravaged the building in 1959.
The Waterville Public Library, a familiar landmark of the city, was not always housed in the historic Carnegie building on Elm Street.
Originally, a small group of Waterville residents founded the library in the basement of a local attorney’s law office on Main Street in 1896. Two different people from Waterville then wrote to Andrew Carnegie, the well-known steel entrepreneur and philanthropist, to appeal for funds, and Carnegie subsequently donated $20,000 to the project.
The Carnegie building in Waterville—one of 18 Carnegie libraries erected in the state of Maine, according to Library Director Sarah Sugden—was completed in 1905.
“Like other libraries of its time,” Sugden said, “the majority of its collection, [which is] housed in three levels of stacks, was only accessible by library staff.” The stacks originally had thick glass floors that permitted light to filter through every level, a unique aspect of some early libraries that still exists in a section of the Lewiston Public Library.
The glass floors “are extremely cool to see,” Sugden said, “but I’m glad to have carpeting in the stacks instead.”
On May 2, 1959, a five-alarm fire ravaged the library building in the early hours of the morning. Waterville firefighters spent two hours attempting to extinguish the fire, and the building suffered $75,000 in damages.
“A Colby alum told me that one of her greatest memories was saving all the books from the library,” Sugden said. Borrowers had checked out between 2,500 and 3,000 books at the time of the fire, which demonstrates how essential the institution was to the local community as it continues to be today.
“We often get asked about the ‘V’ in the granite sign ‘PVBLIC LIBRARY’ on the west side of the building,” Sugden said. There are many libraries throughout the country that bear the same script, and Sugden explained that “most of these libraries were built in the same time period, when the Classical reference would have been a source of delight for communities.”
Now, as a result of the Waterville Library’s $3.1 million Capital Campaign, the building is currently undergoing massive renovations that have now been in the works for ten years.
Despite the construction, however, the library remains open to the public, and Sugden estimates that the renovations will be completed by Thanksgiving.
According to Sugden, the main concern when planning the building’s renovation was “how to make the building work better for less money.” A new energy-efficient boiler has been installed, and all the light fixtures have been replaced. The library also finally installed air conditioning, which Sugden hopes will draw families to the library during the warm summer months.
One of the most important additions to the structure was the elevator located on the east side of the building. “It will make our historic building accessible to everyone,” Sugden said. “We want to provide equal access to all information in the library.”
As part of the redesign, the majority of the library’s storage space has been converted into public areas. When library staff sifted through materials in storage, they were fascinated by the “wonderful treasures” they found, according to Sugden. “We [found] some humble and interesting bits of people’s lives,” Sugden said, including an old diary of a Colby alum.
The Waterville Library, which is within walking distance of the Hill, is one of the busiest public libraries in central Maine. The library staff consists of seven full-time and 11 part-time employees. The library has “seen a real surge in usage since 2005,” Sugden said.
“The building has a lot of architectural charm, and the location is really great because it’s right downtown. It’s accessible to the majority…[and] it’s important to be near the heart of the city,” Sugden said.
“The library has engendered a lot of affection…. I hope the community loves [the renovations] as much as I do.”