The Public Library of Arlington, MA


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History of the Library

Robbins Library Digital Collections


In 1807, soon after the town was incorporated as West Cambridge, the private West Cambridge Social Library was organized. This library was still in existence in 1835 when Dr. Ebenezer Learned, a physician in Hopkington, N.H. left $100 in his will to establish a juvenile library in West Cambridge. As a young man, Dr. Learned had taught in town and remembered his years here as some of the most pleasant in his life.

This bequest was used to purchase a number of books from Little, Brown and Company which according to legend were then brought to town in a wheelbarrow by the newly appointed librarian, Mr. Jonathan Dexter. The town can be proud that this was the first free continuous children's library in the nation.

In 1837 Town Meeting voted an annual appropriation of $30 for the library. The trustees immediately voted to open the library for the use of all residents. By 1872 the town changed the name of the library to the Arlington Public Library. During the next twenty years rapid growth forced the library to move to six different locations in the town center.

In 1892 a gift from Maria C. Robbins, in memory of her husband Eli, gave the library a permanent home and a new name. The building, which cost $150,000 to construct and could hold 60,000 volumes, was considered one of the more noteworthy pieces of architecture of the time. The architectural firm of Cabot, Everett and Mead chose an Italian Renaissance design, modeling the formal front entrance after the Cancelleria Palace in Rome. It was built of Indiana sandstone and finished with floors, walls and fireplaces of marble. Gold leaf accented the arches, columns and ceilings. Gas and electric fixtures from Shreve, Crump and Low and custom-made antique oak furniture completed the interior.

When the building was dedicated, the Trustees said it "is of a style which will command the admiration of future ages as it does that of all good judges today." The building is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Mrs. Robbins died before the building was completed and before her intention of creating an endowment could be carried out. Her brother, knowing of her wishes, used $50,000 from his share of her estate to create the Elbridge Farmer fund for further support of the library.

When Robbins library was built, the population of Arlington was 5,600 and the library owned 12,000 volumes. Less than forty years later, in 1930 the population had increased to 36,000 and the library's collection to 40,000. The town therefore appropriated $90,000 to add a wing to house the children's room and a public meeting room.

In 1880 library service was sufficiently in demand for the residents of the Northwest precinct to propose a branch library. From 1883 to 1938, branch services were provided from several locations. Beginning in 1907, the Arlington Heights Study Club, led by Mrs. Cyrus Dallin, its first president, conducted a campaign for a separate branch building for this part of Arlington, It was not until 1937 that Town Meeting appropriated $32,00 for construction of the branch. This building, located on the corner of Park Avenue and Paul Revere Road, was named for its leading benefactor, Vittoria C. Dallin. Due to economic constraints facing the town, the branch was closed in 1989.

It was not until the twentieth century that East Arlington's population received separate library service. In 1915 funds were voted for this service and the Crosby School opened a room for an East branch on February 15, 1917. This room served as the location for the East Branch until 1950 when it moved to a converted store building at 175 Massachusetts Avenue, which was soon enlarged by taking over two adjacent buildings. In 1965 the library learned of a bequest from Edith M. Fox for expansion of the East Branch building. In 1969 the building was completed and named for its chief benefactor. The library was closed briefly from July 1989 to June 1990 due to economic constraints but reopened in July 1990 after Arlington residents voted additional funds in a referendum. In 1994 the building became a library and community center. The combination of the two functions has proven cost effective and preserved the neighborhood library during a time of fiscal constraints.

Maria Robbins could never have imagined how library services would expand in 100 years. By the 1980's a building meant to hold 60,000 books instead held over 200,000 different items – books, magazines, microfilm, audiovisual materials, art prints, puppets and toys. During this period approximately 400,000 items were loaned, 12,000 people attended children's programs, and professional librarians answered 63,000 reference questions. The library increasingly became known as a community resource center to locate information for home, school or work. Library services suffered significant cutbacks in 1981 when Proposition 2 ½ reduced the ability of the town to raise taxes and the library budget was reduced with the eventual loss of 25% of its personnel. In the 1990's several part-time positions were added and some services were restored including Sunday hours and programs for young adults.

From 1951 to 1978 a series of alterations was made to the Robbins Library in order to keep up with continuing growth of the collection. The need to expand the library was known and discussed several times following a 1958 survey. However, the need to fund other community projects left the town unable to proceed. Finally, in 1983, library supporters began working on legislation to provide statewide funding for library construction projects. Meanwhile, library administration worked with the Boston architectural firm of Wallace, Floyd, Associates, Inc. to update the building program and prepare preliminary designs. In 1987 the state passed legislation to provide funding for public library construction. Town Meeting voted to provide $3 million of $6.7 million required for the building project, with the balance to be obtained from grants and private fundraising. In 1988 the community raised over $500,000 in a resoundingly successful effort.

In 1989 Robbins Library, along with ninety-nine other libraries, applied for state funding. Fifty-nine projects were approved, with Arlington's project receiving $3.3 million, the third highest in the state. Due to a delay in the release of State Funds, construction did not begin until 1992 and was completed in 1994.

Maria Robbins could never have imagined how library services would expand in 100 years. By the 1980's a building meant to hold 60,000 books instead held over 200,000 different items – books, magazines, microfilm, audiovisual materials, art prints, puppets and toys.

As a wonderful parallel to the events of 1892, a generous benefactor came forward to further endow the library with $500,000. The Anne A. Russell Trust Fund, established by Gordon Russell in honor of his mother, supports special library services to the children of Arlington. The Robbins Library building project included significant renovation and historic restoration as well as the construction of a new addition. The Permanent Town Building Committee administered the $6,700,000 project, which resulted in a library facility of 51,000 square feet, double the size of the existing facility. The architectural firm of Wallace, Floyd, Associates designed an addition that complemented the architecture of the original building yet met needs for space and efficiency. One exterior wall of the 1892 building is now an interior wall of the new building, a much-appreciated architectural feature of the addition. The new roof line echoes the adjoining hip roof, repeating the slate tile finish. The limestone façade provides a graceful continuation of the original building. Both the Reading Room and the Rotunda were restored to their original magnificence as part of the project.

A record of the library must be written in terms of those who directed its destiny - the head librarians. Since its founding in 1835, the library has had only fifteen. Three women dominated the past century. They were Elizabeth Newton, 1873-1926; Lucinda Spoffard, 1928-1952: Judith Stromdahl, 1952-1975: and Maryellen Remmert-Loud, 1984- 2012.  

The library in the 1980's experienced significant change with the advances in technology. In 1981 the library purchased its first computer for staff functions including borrower registration. In 1983 the Town joined with thirteen surrounding communities to form the Minuteman Library Network. The Network received a $440,000 Library Services and Construction Act Grant to automate its circulation systems and in 1985 library staff converted paper records to machine-readable form. This was followed in 1990 by the computerization of the card catalog, in 1992 by dial-in-service to MLN from home, in 1993 by Internet access for library staff and the ability of the public to place their own reserves, in 1994 by the introduction of personal computers for the public with word processing and spreadsheets. Text-based Internet was offered to the public in 1996 followed by graphical Internet in 1998. Other electronic services for patrons include the notification to patrons by e-mail of reserves and overdues and the use of personal account numbers to access records from home or in the library. The library subscribes to over 18 electronic databases, many with full text articles.

The Minuteman Library Network expanded over the years and in 2004 its membership included 43 public and academic libraries with total holdings of over 1,171,000 items. Resource sharing among the Network and state libraries allows any resident unlimited access to holdings not owned by the Robbins Library. In FY 2003, the library owned 220,591 items, circulated 556,786 items, answered 71,098 reference questions, and processed 17,378 new materials. The library will be guided by the goals and objectives developed for Fiscal 2005 and will be formulating a long range plan for Fiscal 2006 - 2008. Staff and administration are committed to fulfilling the library's traditional role to provide materials and to keep pace with technological advances to meet the needs of the community.