Throughout the 1800s, under the names Greenwich Town Library and Greenwich Reading Room and Library Association, a book-lending institution existed in such locations as the Second Congregational Church and on the second floor of what is now 113 Greenwich Ave. For a subscription fee, members could borrow an allotted number of books. Around 1800, a small collection of books was acquired and circulated from the Ebenezer Mead House. In 1805, a small group of Greenwich residents, each subscribing $6 a share, formed the Greenwich Town Library. Members were allowed to borrow one book for each share they owned. In 1877, the library opened a reading room on the second floor of the Moshier Building at the northeast corner of Greenwich Avenue and Lewis Street. Beginning in 1878, non-subscribers were allowed to use books on the premises for the first time; still, only dues payers could borrow books.
On March 15, 1878, the library was incorporated by Joint Resolution of the Connecticut General Assembly as “The Greenwich Reading Room and Library Association…provided, no by-law shall be repugnant to the laws of this state or of the United States.” It was stipulated that the act should “take effect when accepted by majority vote of the members…on or before the twenty-fifth day of March, 1878.”
In 1884, the library moved to larger quarters in the Ray Building across the street. In 1895, Elizabeth Milbank Anderson gave the town a new building for the library in memory of her parents, Jeremiah and Elizabeth Lake Milbank. She offered to erect a new building if a lot could be obtained and if the library provided “free service to all town residents.” The first stipulation was met immediately. Fellow citizens amassed $11,500 to purchase the land where Saks Fifth Avenue currently stands on Greenwich Avenue. The second stipulation took longer to realize. Although the building was opened in 1895, services were not made free until 1899.
The library was incorporated by Joint Resolution of the Connecticut General Assembly on May 24, 1899, “for the promotion of useful knowledge” under the name The Greenwich Reading Room and Library Association and as “a free public library and reading room.” It was stipulated that the act should take effect when “accepted by a majority vote of the members on or before July 1, 1899. The name was changed to The Greenwich Library by act of the state legislature on March 26, 1907.
In 1901, library supporters matched an additional $10,000 donation by Mrs. Anderson, and that endowment supported the library until 1917, when the corporation turned to the taxpayer. The town appropriated $1,000 for operating expenses, thus beginning the enduring partnership of public and private funding.
In 1929, $125,000 was raised privately for a substantial addition. Records show that by 1930 the town appropriated $36,000 for the library. Library activity was dominated by librarian Isabelle Hurlbutt, an early feminist and ardent devotee of music, art and outstanding library service. She was at the core of the library “membership” and almost single-handedly selected the corporate family according to her view of who would best serve the cultural and financial interests of the library.
In the mid 1950s, the library had outgrown its space and initiated a $600,000 capital campaign to enlarge the Greenwich Avenue building. The campaign was not a success and failed to reach half its goal. However, the town appropriated $100,000 for the development fund, and the decision was made to purchase and remodel the Franklin Simon department store building. Following a successful second campaign, the library achieved its goal. The remodeling contract was awarded to Adams-Erickson. On March 14, 1960, the library moved to its present location. Additional land north and east of the building was later acquired through gift and purchase.
In 1969, an addition housing the Cole Auditorium (named for trustee Marie Cole) was built with the capability to sustain a second floor above the auditorium and the area containing the non-fiction books. A “Raise the Roof” drive in 1978 resulted in the completion of the second floor in September 1981, enlarging library space by 8,000 square feet. At the same time the east mezzanine was redesigned to house nine study rooms and a quiet reading area. In 1983, a mezzanine was added to the main reading room, opening up the original arched windows and adding seating capacity. Later fundraising appeals increased second floor office space and added the Café in the lower level.
In 1992, the library received a $25,000,000 bequest from the estate of Clementine Lockwood Peterson, the largest gift ever made to a community library in the United States. In her will, Mrs. Peterson established an independently-controlled foundation to disburse the funds and expand the business and music collections in memory of her husband, J. Whitney Peterson, and son, Jonathan.
A decision was made to remain at the present site and add a 32,000-square-foot wing, which would be integrated with the existing structure. Cesar Pelli & Associates were named as architects. $16.5 million was used for the construction of the new wing. The remaining portion of the bequest has been invested to generate income for the operation and maintenance of the new wing.
Library trustees recognized that many areas of the existing structure required renovation and modernization to meet the demands for service and changes in technology, to rectify inadequate parking, and to realize goals established by the Planning Committee and Master Building Plan. A capital campaign was launched, which raised $11,250,000 from the community for the renovation and modernization of the original building including $2,300,000 for the construction of a permanent home for the branch in Cos Cob.
In June 1995, the Library purchased a site near the Cos Cob School at 8 Suburban Street for plans to rebuild the branch. The branch had been located at several different sites around Cos Cob including above the Food Mart and the Mill Pond Shopping Center. The branch rented at three different sites for 60 years before buying this property. To make the purchase possible, the Friends of Cos Cob Library contributed nearly their entire treasury for the down payment and the Trustees’ Development Fund of the Greenwich Library advanced the balance of the purchase price against future fundraising. The resulting new building increased the size by four times over the old facility. The building was designed specifically to remain consistent with the neighborhood by Kaehler/Moore Architects. The total project cost was $2.6 million.
The Peterson Wing officially opened June 12, 1999. Renovation of the existing building was completed in 2000. The Cos Cob Library opened in September 1999.
In March 2009, a $5.6 million renovation of the Byram Shubert Branch Library was completed, $3.1 million of which was privately donated. The federal government supported the project with a Community Development Block Grant $650,000, the State of Connecticut provided $500,000 in funding and the Town of Greenwich provided $1,360,000. The expansion and renovation project nearly doubled the available space with a two-level addition adjoining the previous one-floor structure. Together, the two floors house distinct areas for children, young adults and adults. The existing interior was renovated and appointed with entirely new furnishings. The branch library offers 24 public computer terminals, up from six in the old facility. The Byram branch collection features materials for children and adults and expanded offerings for young adults. The young adult collection highlights the latest and most popular materials, including graphic novels and critically acclaimed books. A new periodicals section includes more magazines and newspapers.
With 1,100 programs and events per year, Greenwich Library seeks to serve as the cultural and intellectual crossroads of the community. Greenwich Library has a total circulation of about 1.4 million items annually, the highest reported in Connecticut. In 2009, Greenwich Library was recently named a five-star library by Library Journal. The Main Library is located at 101 West Putnam Avenue in Greenwich.