West Haven Public Libraries
In 1792, West Farms was but a small, isolated community of less than 100 farming families that was located more than an hour’s horseback ride from New Haven. Then as now, First Church stood on its Green, and the minister of that church from 1760-1811 was one Rev. Noah Williston.
Rev. Williston was a man of vision: he clearly recognized the changes taking place in the community after the close of the Revolutionary War. New Haven and West Farms were beginning to make the transition from rural, agricultural communities to trading and industrial communities; he saw in all of this change a growing need for a more literate community. Williston believed it was First Church’s duty to minister to this need, and in 1792, he enlisted some members of First Church in the establishment of a public library in connection with the church.
The initial group of backers for the library numbered 18, including Rev. Williston. The little group immediately set themselves to the task of selecting and purchasing books from the New Haven book merchant, Mr. Isaac Beers. It can be surmised that the group itself was well-read, to judge from the titles selected—many of them are classics, still to be found today on library shelves. The little library grew steadily: it was open every Sunday, and lent books for a period of four weeks at a time. Each year, First Church appointed a librarian and several assistants.
By the 1880s, the library had more than 1,000 books on its shelves, and it was lending books at the rate of five thousand per year, which is impressive even by today’s standards. We can imagine the bustling activity within the library each Sunday after worship, as one hundred books were checked out!
By 1892, the little community of farmers had grown into a busy suburb of New Haven, and it now supported several factories and a shipyard. By this time, it had been linked to New Haven for years via horse-drawn streetcar; in that year, it was making the transition to modern electric trollies, which transported passengers to New Haven in a mere half hour.
The New Haven Railroad transported passengers from West Haven to New York or Hartford in only a couple of hours. As Rev. Williston had foreseen, the nature and character of West Haven and its residents had changed dramatically in the hundred years since the inception of the library, and the library sought to serve their changing needs.
The Borough of West Haven as it was now called, was booming. In 1906, a group of interested citizens from First Church formed the Village Improvement Association. This group saw as their mission: town beautification, a shade tree planting program, encouragement of lawns and gardens, and establishment of parks (including Bayview and Shingle Hill parks, on either end of Main Street). There was one other plan that they developed: that there should be an established public library, that stood independently of First Church.
And so it was that in 1906, a library committee was formed. Funds were raised by subscriptions, and later in 1906, the library opened in a small room in what is today the Altschuler Building, at the corner of Campbell Avenue and Main Street. So popular was this new library, that in 1909, a permanent library, funded by the Andrew Carnegie Library Foundation was opened. It was located at Ward’s Corner—the corner of Campbell Avenue and Elm Street, where it still stands today. During the 1950s, a wing was added to enlarge the original library building.
And what became of the library at First Church? After one 118 of operation, and the opening of the West Haven Public Library building in 1909, the members of First Church voted to close its own library in 1910.