The Jesse Smith Library had its beginnings in 1894 when Mary E. Smith of Harrisville bequeathed a sum of money and a parcel of land at the corner of East Avenue and Main Street to the Town of Burrillville to be held in trust until such time as a public library could be erected in memory of her late husband, Jesse M. Smith.
It took many years, but the town fathers finally began construction of the Memorial Block, a three story brick commercial building which was planned to house various businesses and recreational facilities, including a bowling alley and assembly hall, town offices, and, in the southwest corner of the second floor, a library room. The Jesse M. Smith Memorial Library, was dedicated in the fall of 1906.
This served the library needs of the community until 1933 when local mill owner and philanthropist Austin T. Levy undertook the Town Buildings Project.
This project included construction of the Town Building, The Assembly Theatre, and the razing of the Memorial Block to make way for a new Jesse Smith Library building. The building was completed in 1935, and The Jesse M. Smith Memorial Library was dedicated.
Use of the new library continued to grow, and in 1944, the library was enlarged with the addition of a Reading Room at the rear. By 1970 annual circulation stood at 6,695 and the collection consisted of 6,860 volumes. By 1980 circulation had risen to 25,466, and the number of books stood at 13,506. Now, in addition to books, the library offered Large Print materials, a variety of magazines, record albums, and jigsaw puzzles for children and adults. Additionally, the building boom of the mid-eighties brought a significant increase in population to the town, which in turn increased demand for library services, particularly children's programs and materials. To meet these needs, a professional Children's Librarian was added to the staff, and the library services were updated and expanded to include loans of audio and video cassettes as well as books on tape.
By 1990 circulation had leveled off at around 50,000, but the library was now "full." The collection, grown to over 22,000 volumes, was jammed into every available nook and cranny, and the overcrowding and outdated mechanical systems were limiting the possibilities for offering new services and technologies such as computers. Since the Town was unable to undertake the construction of a new library building, it became necessary to consider the options for expanding the present building without destroying the historic character of the property. It was then that a small but determined group of people began working on the Library Renovation Project.
Renovations included an unobtrusive addition and expansion of the Reading Room, and a complete basement renovation which increased the useful building space by seventy-five per cent. The Project was completed in May 1992 at a cost of $550,000, only $75,000 of which was appropriated Town Tax funds. The balance of the renovation was paid for by foundation grants and a fund-raising campaign.
The 1992 Library Renovation Project not only increased space, it improved lighting, electrical, and HVAC systems with the goal of providing ten years of "growing space" for the library. And by 2002, as anticipated, the natural growth in the library's collection and services saw the library building again bursting at the seams.
By 2004, 12 years after the renovation, the library's collection had more than doubled in size since 1992 (to nearly 50,000 volumes!), and there was just no more space available. The children's collection had expanded into the Program Room. Shelves were overloaded, and vigorous "weeding" of older volumes had become an on-going necessity, with many older books being either placed in storage or discarded.
Sadly, it had to be acknowledged that further expansion of the current library building would be impossible. As part of the Historic District, it couldn't be altered further without damaging its character; therefore, in order to continue providing the best in library services to the citizens of Burrillville, construction of a completely new library building became the only option.
Fortunately, the Library Facilities Committee appointed by the Town in 1998 had foreseen this situation and begun the process of making a new library a reality. They hired a professional consultant, and a Building Program outlining the community’s library needs for the next two decades was developed. They even began actively investigating various potential building sites.
But it was not until the Town designated the Stillwater Mill Redevelopment Zone that the project really took hold. Suddenly, the idea of a building a new library located on the Clear River overlooking the Stone Arch Bridge and Mill Pond Falls in Harrisville became a plausible and practical goal. Funds were designated, and bids for architectural services were sent out, resulting in the hiring of Newport Collaborative Architects of Providence to design a new library facility to reflect the mill heritage of its new home
In November 2004, a bond issue appeared on the election ballot and voters approved a five million dollar bond toward construction of a new 24,000 square foot facility, paving the way for appointment of a formal Library Building Committee to bring the project to completion.
Bond approved, the Town, the Planning Department, and the Library Building Committee brought in grants from a variety of state, federal and private sources. The R. I. Office of Library and Information Services approved an application for Library Construction Reimbursement Funds in the amount of $3,681,721. Funds to assist with site cleanup were received, and the Capital Campaign Committee began fund raising efforts.
The Groundbreaking Ceremony took place on September 24, 2006.
The new library officially opened to the public on April 27, 2008.
The Jesse M. Smith Memorial Library had its beginnings in 1894 with Mary Smith's bequest in honor of her husband, and it has continuously served the community ever since. It is no wonder that the slogan chosen by the Capital Campaign Committee was:
“Jesse Smith Library — Cornerstone of the Community.”
The Jesse M. Smith Memorial Library provides the community with life-long learning, entertainment, public meeting space, and visual reminders of our Town’s industrial heritage. It has enriched the community and the lives of young and old alike for over one hundred years, and, we hope, it will continue to do so for many, many years to come.
Librarians of the Jesse M. Smith Memorial Library