History of the Fox Branch

In 2017 local historian Richard A. Duffy compiled this history to mark the 100th anniversary of the Fox Branch Library in East Arlington.  

As early as 1888 the trustees of the Arlington Public Library (as Robbins Library was known until 1892) considered the possibility of expanding library services into the “east section” of town.  Since 1883, the rudiments of a branch library had been present in Arlington Heights, with a wicker basket of books sent weekly to the railway station (which also housed the Arlington Heights post office) to enable basic borrowing facilities for patrons in that vicinity.

The suggestion five years later for library services in the east part of town did not gain traction.  The Arlington Heights railroad station was located in the center of that “village,” whereas the Lake Street depot was comparatively isolated.  Moreover, the extensive farmlands of the east meant that most of the population was thinly spread.

Still, the evolution of neighborhood library services in the Heights would provide a model for the east to emulate in another three decades.  In 1891 a Heights “reading room” opened in commercial space on Park Avenue (home to Arlington Coal & Lumber today), where library patrons could order books from the main library, read newspapers and magazines, and consult reference works.  The 1909 addition to the Locke School enabled a proper branch library to be established there, with its own small circulating collection enhancing the services offered to Heights residents.

East Arlington quickly gained a stronger identity once the extension of subway service to Harvard Square in 1912 sparked explosive growth in housing construction.  In November 1914, the East Arlington Improvement Association sought the establishment of a library branch, but commercial space was filled about as fast as it was built.  A solution was not apparent, but with prominent East Arlington resident and land developer William Muller having been elected as a library trustee in 1911, the interests of the neighborhood could not have been better represented at that level.

The opening of the present Arlington High School building in 1915 made its former home at the corner of Academy and Maple streets available for conversion into the town’s first junior high school.  This relieved the Crosby School (at the time the only grammar school in East Arlington) of grade eight, with grade seven soon to follow.   This freed-up space to allow East Arlington to have branch library facilities similar to those in Arlington Heights.  Formal planning got underway in 1916.

Nina L. Winn, a 39-year old resident of 37 Summer St., worked part-time as a library assistant at Robbins Library, and was keenly interested in the East Arlington Branch assignment.  On Monday, November 6, 1916, she wrote in her diary:

“Worked [at Robbins Library] from 10 – 12-30 & 2 – 5-15 & [then] telephoned to [library colleague] Eva Smith about East End branch of the library, as I fear Mildred Marsh may be applying.”

On Saturday, December 9, Nina Winn recorded:

“[Worked at] Library in eve 7-30 to 9.  So stormy that there was not much doing.  Went over early and had a talk about East Branch with [head librarian] Miss [Elizabeth] Newton. Mildred Marsh there to see two of the trustees. She is Miss Newton’s choice, good discipline, literary, etc., but to me quite disagreeable & lacking in manners.”

Two months later, a brief news item in the Arlington Advocate was the extent of public fanfare for the new endeavor:

“The East Arlington Branch of the Robbins Library will be open as of Thursday afternoon, Feb. 15th, at 1:30, in the basement of the Crosby schoolhouse, on Winter Street, where a room has been fitted for the purpose, with an entrance on the north side of the building.  Miss Mildred Marsh will be in attendance and will welcome those who wish to use the library.  Books can be ordered and delivered there from the library at the centre.  Magazines and reference books must be examined there.  The hours for the present will be from 1:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.”

Early on, some adjustments were needed, as described in the Advocate:

“Beginning on Thursday, March 8, the hours of the East Arlington Branch of Robbins Library will be from 1 to 6, then 6:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. This will enable the schoolchildren to leave their books before 1:30. The room has been well patronized by young people since its opening the middle of February and it is hoped that adults will soon be attracted there also.”

In 1917 the pupils of the Crosby School walked home for their 90-minute lunch break, so having the library open before classes resumed at 1:30 was an obvious improvement.  Less apparent is the rationale to keep the branch open until 9:00 on Saturday evenings.  A century ago, many people had a six-day workweek, so Saturday evening openings, be they at banks, stores, or libraries, were of great importance to adults.

The supervisor’s position at the East Branch ultimately was not that attractive to Mildred L. Marsh, for she resigned to take an office job in Boston in September, Eva Smith taking her place and serving there for many years to come.  The trustees reported that “Miss Marsh rendered important service in the establishment of the Branch and will be gratefully remembered in connection with it.”

The trustees commented on two “firsts” in relation to the new East Branch.  Prosaically, the use of “taxicabs for the transfer of books with entire satisfaction.”  And, much more compelling, “a library of Italian books was borrowed for several months from the Massachusetts Free Public Library Commission.” Later, books in Swedish, Hungarian, and Polish were also made available to serve immigrants, many of whom lived in East Arlington.

In the ensuing decades, East Arlington would fairly burst at the seams with residential, commercial, and institutional development; however, the East Branch did not keep pace.  The 1936 “Report of the Librarian” stated:  “The Robbins Library has two very definite needs.  First:  Branch Library buildings at Arlington Heights and East Arlington. With the estimated division of population of 15,488 at the Heights, 11,404 at the Centre, and 14, 230 at East, it would seem that something must be done.”

The Heights soon gained a spacious and handsome new building at the north corner of Park Avenue and Paul Revere Road, on a former fire station parcel owned by the town.  The Vittoria C. Dallin Branch Library went immediately from success to success.  In East Arlington, there was no comparable site, and its branch was left to wither for lack of space, and face a growing chorus of complaints that its quarters at the Crosby School were unattractive and inconvenient.  The East Branch did what it could, in particular reaching out to the Hardy School, and taking part in Library Week 1943, whose slogan that war year was “Build the Future with Books.”  But its programming had to be limited to story hours.

It was hoped that postwar prosperity would soon bring positive changes to the East Branch.  Its physical plant left it out of the mainstream compared to the other two library locations in Arlington.  Popular exhibits were routine at the main library and the Dallin Branch.  In 1949, the East Branch finally had an exhibit that it had room to display:   “small dolls, little elephants, squirrels, penguins, bird baths and others,” all made from unpainted sea shells.  The scale of the sole exhibit to reach the East Branch became unintentionally emblematic of the reality that serious improvements could wait no longer.

If the first thirty-plus years of the East Branch library’s existence were characterized by the frustrations of trying to do more with less, the following three decades rapidly made up for lost time.

In 1950 the East Branch moved from the Crosby Elementary School basement into a single rented storefront located in part of the same stretch of Massachusetts Avenue as the current Edith Fox Branch Library.  “Rushed to death,” was how Library Director Lucinda Spofford described opening day at 175A Massachusetts Ave., as 460 books were borrowed in the space of five hours.

It was a humble arrangement, but to use real estate parlance, the value proposition of “location, location, location” was never truer.  Having plate glass windows in East Arlington’s commercial center enabled staff to mount attractive book displays, and it wasn’t long before passers-by became library-card holders.  Indeed, after relocation, the East Branch boasted by far the greatest year-over-year increases of the three library locations in Arlington, in terms of new patron registrations, and in the circulation of materials in both the adult and “juvenile” categories.

Fueling patron growth at the East Branch was the surge of children of the post-World War II “Baby Boom.” It wasn’t just the overall high birthrate, but also the development of two massive tracts of land between River Street and the Alewife Brook.  The Campobasso farm and greenhouses gave way to Menotomy Manor, which welcomed its first residents in 1950 as a veterans’ family housing development.  Soon followed a series of new streets named for women’s colleges, formerly the site of Moore’s farm, with privately owned homes.  East Arlington was soon almost fully built-out.

It was clear that the storefront home for the East Branch would not be satisfactory even in the medium term.  But solving for something better posed a challenge.  Unlike construction of the freestanding Vittoria Dallin Branch Library a dozen years earlier on the site of a former Arlington Heights fire station, the town did not already own a conveniently located building parcel in East Arlington.

Fortunately, Town Meeting in 1951 readily voted to purchase the storefront already occupied by the East Branch, plus two adjacent ones, to create a coherent, roomy and purpose-built library space.  Acquisition costs aside, the vote to remove property from the tax rolls was never taken lightly.  Once underway, the building project was concluded in a matter of months.  As East Branch Librarian Evelyn Colcord wrote: “during the closing days of 1952, the branch was literally transformed from the ‘Ugly Duckling’ to the ‘Beautiful Swan’ of the Robbins Library system.”

“Beautiful Swan” does not come to mind when the 1952 library building is viewed today.  The exterior architecture was utilitarian to put it kindly (I once wrote that it had “all the allure of a penitentiary”).   But through the eyes of patrons and staff of the era, the austere new building conveyed a much longed-for sense of solidity, permanence, and confirmation that East Arlington truly “counted” when it came to significant public investment.

This facility would surpass itself by 1969, when the unabated success and growth East Branch services led to renovation and addition that created the present building, named in honor of the late Edith M. Fox, for her bequest of almost $200,000 at her death in 1965 (worth more than $1.5 million in today’s dollars, adjusted for Consumer Price Index inflation).  The branch gladly took up temporary quarters in two adjacent storefronts at 112 and 114 Massachusetts Ave. (one for children’s services, the other for adults) while its new home quickly took shape.Today the Fox Branch continues to grow.  A planned building project is underway, designed to meet modern needs (to include, not least, full accessibility for disabled persons). This initiative comes under the umbrella of the “Re-imagining Our Libraries” campaign that will benefit both Robbins Library and the Fox Branch.  That this should be taking shape in the centennial year of the Fox Branch Library seems to be the best 100th anniversary gift imaginable.