Bath library changes with the times as it marks 125 years

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BATH — In an age when much reading is done via digital devices, an institution built on the storage and dissemination of print materials might seem to be growing increasingly obsolete.

But Patten Free Library, which has become as much a hub for community gatherings as it has a venerable edifice dedicated to literature, is showing it’s here for the long haul.

This year marks the 125th anniversary of the library’s opening on Summer Street.

Libraries have existed in Bath since the 1820s, when a collection of books was housed in a Centre Street apothecary shop. The Patten Library Association formed in 1847, meeting at various places around Bath until the Patten Free Library’s 1891 completion, according to a 1998 Bath Historical Society publication.

The library’s modern name, and possibly its very existence, came thanks to famed Bath resident Galen Moses. He donated $10,000 to the library construction project on the condition that the facility was named the Patten Free Library, allowing access to community members rich and poor alike.

George Edward Harding, a New York architect and son of a Bath colonel, donated the structure’s design plans.

Starting with about 4,300 books, the library’s collection exploded to about 30,000 by 1960, challenging the building’s space restrictions. The first expansion, finished in 1961, was dubbed the Wright-Barker Memorial Wing, a nod to the two deceased husbands of Clara Mildred Todd Barker, who funded the work.

Other improvements followed. A doubling in the collection and tripling of library use in the 30 years since 1960 necessitated another expansion, plus a restoration of the original structure. Construction of the new wing, giving the library its current 17,766-square-foot shape, culminated with an open house in September 1998.

The library kicked off its quasquicentennial anniversary with a presentation about the history of the building’s architecture. The talk was given by Robin Haynes, manager of the library’s Sagadahoc History & Genealogy Room, for library donors and a town history series.

In an interview last week with Haynes and Library Director Lesley Dolinger, Haynes called the building’s architectural style Richardsonian Romanesque, named for celebrated American architect Henry Hobson Richardson.

In reading about the development of the library, Haynes learned the mortar’s original color and stone foundation was red, “which was one of Richardson’s signature elements. And people in Bath didn’t like it; they made them change it.”

The library does much fundraising, since it only receives a third of its funding from its five member communities, Dolinger explained, adding that the anniversary will be a part of this year’s fundraising efforts.

That anniversary dovetails with the Bath High School Alumni Association’s 125th birthday. The library is to host an open house for the association at 10 a.m. Friday, June 10, in the history room.

That library, entrenched in its own history and the treasures that have marked that legacy over the years, is home to most of the Bath Historical Society’s holdings. But Patten also has a steady eye on both the present and the future.

The library board in 2012 adopted a new strategic plan, which addresses issues such as teen services and programming, Dolinger said. Renovating Patten’s teen space is on the horizon, with fundraising underway.

“When I think of the future, I’m looking at things like that; versatile spaces in the library,” the director of seven years explained.

Although circulation and public internet usage have declined in recent years, the library has experienced a rise in the number of programs and people who attend events, as well as visitors to the building, Dolinger noted.

“So people are using libraries in other ways,” she continued. “But we’re still being used very well, and many days we’re extremely busy.”

The print book collection has been joined by electronic and audio books, and magazines can now be downloaded online through a new service Patten offers.

“We’re constantly changing to provide the best service we can to our patrons, Dolinger said, describing a desire for the library to be a place where people can hang out for a while, use the facility’s wireless internet, print off a boarding pass from their phone, borrow an iPad or laptop computer and set up a temporary office.

“Libraries more and more are becoming like community centers and destinations, and not just coming in to check out a book,” Dolinger said.

But as shown by a recent re-branding – typified by a new logo that continues to feature that iconic structure erected as the 19th century was winding down, and now on the National Register of Historic Places – the more things change at Patten, the more much remains the same.

“The thing that’s sort of been constant is the building,” Dolinger said. “… When people think of Patten Free Library, they do think of this building.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Another 125th birthday

Patten Free Library celebrates its anniversary at the same time that the Bath High School Alumni Association marks its 125th birthday.

The association derives its name from Bath’s former high school, before Morse High School was established in the early 20th century and rebuilt, after a fire, in the late 1920s.

Current Morse students, faculty, athletic teams, bands and clubs will parade on Saturday, June 11, at 11 a.m. The parade will begin on Oak Grove Avenue, turn left to North Street, right to High Street, and pass Morse High School, then head downtown along Centre Street to Library Park.

Spectators along the route are asked to wear blue and white to celebrate Morse High’s colors. Log onto facebook.com/bathalumniassociation for more information.

Alex Lear

The 125-year-old Patten Free Library as viewed from lower Summer Street in Bath.

Lesley Dolinger is director of the Patten Free Library in Bath, which this year marks the 125th anniversary of its Summer Street headquarters.

The Patten Free Library in Bath, as seen from Washington Street around the time it was completed in 1891.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.