The West Hartford Public Library is celebrating its 120th anniversary with a birthday party and a retrospective look back at how it became an official town department in 1897.
Martha Church, the director of the library, said that in 1893, the Connecticut state legislature passed a bill offering matching funds to towns that created public libraries.
"It's not surprising that West Hartford comes along in 1897 and goes ahead and does that," Church said.
But the presence of a library in West Hartford goes back much further, to 1753. The church congregation now known as First Church had a library for its members.
"If you think about it, most people in town in the 1750s, you belonged to the church," Church said. "That's the beginning of a library in this community."
In 1837, Noah Webster donated 78 books - one of which the library believes is a book published in 1834 that is still in its possession - to the church.
"He said this is so you can create a subscription library that anybody can belong to," Church said. "That becomes the West Hartford Library Association and you become a member if you pay. That's what libraries were like all over the country. They were subscription libraries. But you don't have to be a member of the church. And this is all before West Hartford is a separate town."
Later, in 1880, James Talcott gave $5,000 to help establish the Free Library of West Hartford at the church.
"That was a lot of money in 1880," Church said. "He said it was to make it free to everybody and use this money for the books."
On Nov. 10, 1897, West Hartford's selectmen made the decision to start the town's public library. They gave $200 - the maximum the stage legislature would match - and it was the first library budget. Elizabeth Elmer became the first librarian, and the library stayed in the church until 1917, when the first library building was built at 7 North Main.
"She had been working for the church," Church said. "Now, there's a little salary for her and money to buy books. Prior to that, books are coming to them donated."
The library will celebrate that day's events - and all of the changes that happened in those 120 years - on Nov. 12, with a birthday party complete with party games, balloons, cake, and entertainment. It will take place at the Noah Webster Library, from 2 to 4 p.m. There will also be a display of historical photos and information.
Church said this history shows how interested in reading West Hartford has always been.
"From its earliest beginnings, it's a community of people who read and value a library," Church said.
One of her favorite parts of West Hartford's library history is the Elmwood Library Association, a group of readers in the Elmwood part of town that requested books be delivered to them by wagon. Church said that was basically the advent of a branch library.
Agatha Monahan, the library's local history librarian, said it was fascinating during her research into this to see all of the changes in the library, and in what the library has offered.
"What I thought was interesting was how the library addressed the changes," Monahan said. "They had a record player for music. Then they had different formats of tapes, VHS, and DVDs. As the town developed, so did the library's services and materials to address those needs."