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 were then brought to town in a wheelbarrow by the newly appointed librarian, Mr. Jonathan Dexter.
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 $32,000 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 Mass. 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 re-opened in July 1990 after Arlington residents voted additional funds in a referendum. In 1994 the building was combined into a combined 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.
By 1951 a series of alterations began at the Robbins Library in order to keep up with continuing growth. Shelving was added to the basement to provide more space in the main building. The hallway leading to the children’s room was converted to shelf space in 1957 through a bequest by Henry C. Dodge. Although a 1958 survey recommended expansion, no action was taken. Instead, two mezzanine levels and an elevator were added in the main building. In 1963 the third floor art gallery and rotunda was enclosed with shelving. Finally in 1973, the last available space was taken by closing the public meeting hall and using this space for processing library materials. After 1978 the non-fiction collection was moved and reorganized several times in attempts to maximize limited space.
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. Each year approximately 400,000 items were loaned, 12,000 people attended children’s programs, and professional librarians answered 63,000 reference questions.
The need to expand the library was known and discussed several more times since the first survey in 1958. 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 the $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.
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.