The Metuchen Public Library
The history below was written by retired Library Director Grace Halsey in 1970. Additional text and images were added in 2015 by Tyreen Reuter on behalf of the Metuchen-Edison Historical Society.
The Free Public Library of Metuchen has not always been a "free" library.
It has its beginning in 1870 when “The Order of the Sons of Temperance" collected a few books and opened a reading-room in the annex of the First Presbyterian Church (later torn down). The purpose of this was "to promote mental culture and good morals."
By 1879 culture had progressed to the formation of the “Metuchen Book Club.” Members paid 25¢ every two weeks for the privilege of borrowing from the collection of 620 volumes donated by the townspeople.
This was followed in 1884 by the formation of the “Metuchen Library Association,” to which members paid an initiation fee of $ 2.00 and $2.00 annually. The Association had a room in the Old Franklin Schoolhouse building to house its books.
In 1889, a tiny building was erected on Hillside Avenue near Main Street. The one room measured about 11 by 19 feet and had two chairs a table, a librarian's desk, and a captain's chair. There was also a small stove and, necessarily, shelves.
The library was open one-half day a week and was presided over by Miss Ruth Thomas. In 1901 the library was made free to residents and by 1919 the hours were increased under the guidance of the second librarian, Miss Julia Bogert, and the circulation reached 1830.
As Metuchen grew, so grew the library and the tiny building became inadequate. The first move was to three small rooms over the National Bank Building and the circulation soared to 7,304. Outgrowing these quarters, a move was made to the entire second floor of the Commonwealth Bank Building, just across Main Street. The annual circulation there reached 14,120.
In 1924 the Borough Hall was built and the library was again moved to the second floor in that building at the crossroads of Main Street and Middlesex Avenue. Hours were increased to three afternoons and two evenings a week and circulation increased to 18,076.
In 1928 the library was made a municipal one and has since January l, 1929, been supported by the Borough.
At the time of his death Dr. Theodore Hunt, a former resident of the Borough and later a professor at Princeton University, left a sum of money to go towards the building of a library and later another old resident, Miss Elzira Whittier, also left a bequest for the same purpose. In 1936 with this money, plus a W.P.A. grant, our lovely Colonial style building was built at 480 Middlesex Avenue. The cost was about $75,000.
The new library was opened January 2, 1937, and the circulation this year reached 28,752.
With a separate children's room at the rear of the main floor, plus a meeting room, stack room, work room, magazine file room and storage space in the basement, it seemed that the building was more than adequate. Hours were increased to six afternoons and four evenings and later two mornings were added.
In 1946 Miss Bogert retired and Miss Grace Halsey, who had been connected with the library since 1920 and assistant librarian for some years, was appointed librarian.
Year by year Metuchen's population grew beyond all expectation and the library became more and more crowded, as both readers and book-stock increased, and by 1959 it was necessary to move the children's room downstairs, freeing the rear main floor room for a young adult collection, reference books and part of the non-fiction. It was this year that the record collection was begun with about 90 recordings.
In 1962 the circulation topped the 100,000 mark for the first time. As the circulation increased, so increased the problem of setting books back after a reasonable length of time, so in 1964 an ordinance was passed by the Borough Council making it a punishable offense to hold for more than a proscribed time. After three overdue notices were sent and a telephone call made, if possible, a registered return receipt letter was sent to the delinquent borrower, who was given 30 days grace, after which time a warrant could be filed for arrest. No arrests have been made to date but the threat of such action has proved most effective.
Late in 1964 plans were started for a federation between the Free Public Library of Metuchen and the Highland Park Free Public Library. In 1965 such plans had advanced to the point of having the two Borough Attorneys draw up the contract, but the resignation of the Highland Park librarian of necessity postponed the plans. However in August of 1966 the contract was finally signed. This move made the facilities of each library available to the residents of both communities and resulted in a sizeable increase in state aid to both institutions.
In February of 1967 the library obtained the services of its first degreed children's librarian and activities for the younger children were increased. A series of classes for preschool children was inaugurated; two groups a week for six weeks in the fall and spring were held plus regular film programs for older children on alternate Saturdays.
This year (1967) the circulation was 104,429, the record collection had grown to almost 500 items and the book stock to over 26,000 volumes and our lovely building which had seemed so spacious in 1937 was bursting at the seams. An addition was considered necessary, as soon as possible.
Laying of the cornerstone for the new Public Library in Metuchen was marked with appropriate ceremonies on May 3. The Library, which was begun on December 19, 1935, is a WPA project sponsored by the Borough Council and is being built by funds provided jointly by the Works Progress Administration, the Metuchen Library Association and the estate of the late Professor Theodore Hunt of Princeton. The Federal contribution total[s] $68,444.00. The sponsors contribute $18,000.00.
The building is a one-story brick structure in Colonial style, the design in keeping with the historic character of the section, yet having the latest equipment and facilities requisite for the modern Library. It has a basement which contains a meeting room, magazine storage room, historical data space and heating equipment. The first floor includes a general reading and reference room, a work room and children’s department. The population of Metuchen in 1930 was 5,748.
-“The Dawn,” June 1936.
In 1968 plans were drawn up by Mr. Charles Fitch, a local architect, and they were approved by the State Committee on building requirements, but Metuchen was tenth on the list for State Aid for new buildings and the City Fathers did not see how they could swing the necessary $350,000, which sum was increasing each week as building cost rose, so the plans had to be set aside for another year.
Woodbridge Library had by this time been designated as an "area library" and thus various kinds of assistance became available to the Metuchen Library. Inter-library loans were transferred from the State Library in Trenton, where f or years excellent service was given by mail, to Woodbridge,
where books could be requested by telephone and delivered or called for several times a week by car. A film library was available; photo-copies of magazine articles for a small fee, poster printing, a book selection center and many other splendid aids were ours for the asking.
Early in 1968 Miss Halsey tendered her resignation, to take effect January 1, 1969 or as soon thereafter as a replacement could be found, so on September 1, 1969, Mrs. William (Leola) Symonds became the fourth director of the reading public of Metuchen in a period of 70 years.
–Grace Halsey, February 1970.
After this history was compiled by Miss Halsey, the hoped-for addition by architect Charles Fitch was indeed built. Author and Poet Laureate John Ciardi served as Vice President of the Board of Trustees during its construction.
Since that time, the Metuchen Library has continued to expand its services to the community and keep up with the changes in technology and needs. This work has been guided by the Trustees of the Library with great support from the Friends of the Library. In 2013 the Childrens Room was renovated, and the Library Gallery opened in the newly refurbished Community Room in 2014. That same year the library became more accessible with the addition of automatic doors as well as an ADA compliant service desk and bookshelves. In 2015, the Library converted a storage room into a makerspace with modern technology such as robotics and 3D printing to inspire innovation and creativity.
Currently more than half of the population of Metuchen are library card holders (7297 out of the overall population of 13,756) and the library greets over 130,000 visitors yearly who come to the library for books, movies, use of various equipment, and to participate in an array of free activities.