History of the Saxton B. Little Free Library
The Columbia Free Library opened its doors to townspeople on a chilly Friday, December 14, 1883, at 3:30 P.M. and again at 7:30 P.M. The Willimantic Chronicle reported “it may seem a long time to the waiting public to get the library in running order but the erection of the building by gratuitous labor necessitated its being done more slowly…” Citizens began campaigning for the library at a town meeting held on December 12, 1882. One year later, almost to the day, library officials kept their promise to open a free public library. According to Columbia Libraries 100th Anniversary 1883-1983 the long wait was rewarded. In the first 3 weeks of operation the Columbia Free Library circulated 285 volumes to 168 patrons serving roughly ¼ of the total population of Columbia, at that time a farming community. It cost $130.47 cash and 92 ¼ hours of “gratuitous labor” valued at $184 to construct the library. A wood burning stove provided heat and kerosene lamps provided light. Framed prints of Samson Occum, a Mohegan Indian trained at Moore’s Indian Charity School, and a painting of Yosemite Valley graced the interior of thetiny 120 square foot library. In 1886 and again in 1890 shelves were added to the north and south walls. In 1899 floorboards were added to the attic space for the storage of unused books. By 1903 the building had reached its limits. It was sold at auction for $38, moved from the original site, and used again as a private residence.
A second larger library was built in 1903 and named Saxton B. Little Free Library after a prominent educator and generous benefactor of the library. This fine post and beam, architect designed library measured 2,025 square feet. This building is now known as the Meeting Place. By 1983 every inch of space in the 1903 building was used to house collections. Staff circulated 30,000 items that year in a building with no plumbing inside and no parking outside. The building was used for 80 years, and it was time to campaign for a new facility.
On Tuesday, November 12, 1985 the new Saxton B. Little Free Library opened to the public. This building, now used as the free public library of Columbia, measures 4800 square feet, cost ½ million to build and furnish. The previous owner of this completely remodeled farmhouse was Gladys Rice Soracchi, who served as Head Librarian from 1959 to 1975. Her mother, Lillian Rice, served as Head Librarian from 1908 to 1959. The present library features a well-rounded core collection of fiction and nonfiction, books on discs, DVDs, large print books, music on CD, reference, e-books, periodicals and newspapers for all ages and more. The current collection totals almost 57,000 items and has been circulating over 70,000 items a year. The building is handicapped accessible, though space restrictions inside the building do not allow full access. The Library is automated, having an online catalog and 21st Century technology. Programs are offered year round for children and adults. An active Friends of the Library group supports the Library with fund raising and additional programs. In 2010, the 25th anniversary of the present location was celebrated with a reception, speeches, and an official citation from the Connecticut General Assembly introduced by Senator Edith Prague.
In 2005, the Library contracted a consultant to assist in a long range plan. Surveys were sent to all residents, focus groups arranged and it became clear the Library did not have the room to support the needs of a modern community. By 2007, a town committee was formed to investigate the feasibility of a renovation / expansion. By 2012, that committee had revised plans several times and a referendum question to bond a library expansion went to vote. The vote did not pass. The building committee has reformed and continues to explore the possibilities, as the situation within the Library has become critical. In 2014, an expansion went to vote, and again did not pass.
In 2015, the Town Selectman approved funds for building improvements and expansion that did not require a town wide bond. Working with the Town, the Library received a matching library construction grant from the Connecticut State Library. By the Fall of 2016, much needed and long over due building improvements were completed, such as repairs to the roof and HVAC systems. An approximate 2000 square feet were added to the end of the existing building, 500 of which is a programming room. Through the generous support of the Library Board, The Friends of the Saxton B. Little Library and our patrons, new furnishings were purchased and the Children’s area was transformed with an artwork forest.