During its first 68 years, Riverhead Free Library relocated frequently before eventually finding a permanent home on Court Street.
Crucially, something supporters say hasn’t changed since the library was chartered in 1896 is its ability to enrich town residents’ lives, embrace technological advances and bridge generational differences.
“I think it’s still relevant as ever,” said Mary Kromhout of Riverhead, who volunteers with Friends of the Riverhead Free Library, which was founded in 1957 to increase awareness of the facility and help raise funds. “It’s as meaningful now as it was 120 years ago because it’s a source of information for the citizens of the Town of Riverhead.”
Today at 1:20 p.m. Riverhead Free Library will commemorate its 120th anniversary with a celebration featuring reflections and refreshments. During the afternoon, an exhibit of historic town photos curated by Ms. Kromhout will also be unveiled.
“We’re celebrating where we’ve come from and where we want to be,” said Liz Stokes, who has worked for 30 years as the library’s patron services coordinator. “And we’re asking the community to take our hand and walk with us to the future.”
The celebration comes in the wake of the resignation of its former director, Joy Rankin. East Marion resident Kathy Richter was hired to replace Ms. Rankin on Thursday.
Although it received a New York State charter in 1896, the library’s roots go back to the 1870s, when it functioned as a “subscription service.”
According to an 1875 document now owned by the Suffolk County Historical Society in Riverhead, the library’s post-Civil War book collection included titles on history, poetry and travel. For three dollars per year, townspeople could check out books such as “History of Louis Napoleon” and Tennyson’s “Queen Mary” for up to two weeks at a time. A late fee of five cents per day was charged and patrons were “held responsible for any damage [the books] may receive at their hands,” the document states.
In 1896, Riverhead Free Library began operating from a three-story house on Roanoke Avenue owned by the prominent Perkins family. The facility eventually moved to a former savings bank building and various storefronts before relocating in 1924 to what was then the town’s main K-12 school building (now Roanoke Avenue Elementary School). The presence of a library enabled the school to earn New York State accreditation and the public was welcome to browse and borrow titles whenever school wasn’t in session.
“It was one room in the school,” recalled Laurel Sisson of Riverhead, co-president of Friends of the Riverhead Free Library. “It was terribly overcrowded. They had to put books on the floor and in the windowsills.”
Ms. Sisson, a retired librarian who began working at Riverhead Free Library in the early 1960s, said space was at such a premium that then-director Elizabeth Fox Overton was forced to set up her office in a former bathroom.
“She could barely open the door,” Ms. Sisson said.
Fortunately, the library’s luck changed in 1964, when the Perkins family donated the Court Street property the facility now occupies. Since then, the building has undergone two expansions and now comprises 30,000 square feet. In addition to its formidable collection of books, the library features an art gallery and various meeting rooms.
“It’s a happening place,” said Kathy Berezny, president of the library’s board of trustees. “It’s full of information for everyone, from [age] zero to 120.”
Although books have arguably been Riverhead Free Library’s raison d’être for the past 120 years, the advent of the Internet has forced both staff and patrons to adapt in ways their predecessors couldn’t have imagined. Perhaps the most significant of these changes began in the early 1990s, when the library’s card catalogue went electronic.
“It was a difficult decision,” Ms. Stokes recalled. “I was at the meeting and they were like, ‘Do we do this? Do we not do this?’ And we decided, ‘Yeah, we have to do this.’ı”
For Ms. Stokes, the change represented the facility’s gradual transformation into what she calls a “library of today.”
Today, Riverhead Free Library is a veritable community center that hosts a daily array of programs and events, offering everything from U.S. citizenship preparation classes to drum circles to computer coding instruction.
“I think every so many years libraries reinvent themselves — with all the new media and electronic means people have to access information,” Ms. Kromhout said.
Whether Riverhead Free Library has the fortitude to continue reinventing itself for another 120 years remains to be seen. Maintaining services in a “competitive world” while adhering to its current $3.4 million taxpayer supported budget is a burden Ms. Stokes said all public libraries contend with.
This Tuesday, the library’s resilience will once again be tested when residents vote on its proposed 2016-17 budget, which carries a 2.3 percent tax levy increase.
Despite these obstacles, Ms. Sisson believes the institution is stronger than it may appear to some.
“I think public libraries will be around as long there is civilization,” she said. “I still think they’re the people’s university.”
Photo: Mary Kromhout, who coordinates exhibits for Friends of the Riverhead Free Library, adds finishing touches to the 120th anniversary exhibit in the display case. At far right is a portrait of John R. Perkins, who donated land for the library. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)