Community library merges history with accessibility

Wadsworth Library, located on Center Street in Geneseo, looks particularly ordinary on the outside: With red brick walls and colonial architecture, it’s the quintessential library of small-town America. But, in fact, Wadsworth Library holds over 150 years of history within its walls – a history that begins with its formation as New York State’s first public library.

In 1842, after years of advocating for state-funded libraries, James Wadsworth took matters into his own hands and opened his personal library, called Athenaeum, to the general public of Livingston County free of charge.

Wadsworth created this library for scholarly use, and its contents were almost entirely academic papers and resources as well as scientific specimens.

By 1867, the collection had outgrown the space allotted, and a new library was built. It was this new building that gained official recognition as a public library in 1869 by the New York State Legislature, and it is the building that functions as Geneseo’s public library today.

Over the years, grants, endowments and community service have kept Wadsworth Library thriving. Multiple plans for expansion and construction were made throughout the century, but the library was not altered until 1995, when an addition was put on for offices, children’s programs and increased shelf space.

“It evolved more into a community space,” said Anna Grace, director of Wadsworth Library.

With the growth of communication and technology, the library has risen to meet the evolving demands of the Geneseo community. When Grace began working at Wadsworth in 2001, the library only owned two computers and used paper cards and stamps to check out books.

The library has added more computers, wireless Internet access and a scanning checkout center since. The contents of the library have evolved as well; what started as only a book resource center now provides newspapers and magazines, audio books, CDs and even books that can be downloaded directly onto tablets.

“It really changed a lot during the past 10 to 15 years,” Grace said.

The library changed its inventory based on the development of new technology, adding cassettes and records and later replacing them with CDs and a DVD collection. In the 1970s and 1980s, the library loaned out pieces of art that patrons could hang in their homes for an allotment of time and return.

One of the most influential changes, however, was the collaboration effort recently made by libraries in Wayne, Ontario, Livingston and Wyoming counties. Started in 2002, this integrated library system has one shared database and simplifies interlibrary loans.

The potential for change extends into the future. The library is in the midst of a feasibility study to see if the town would think positively of adding a second floor to the space, and they have applied for a grant to install an elevator between the first floor and lower level.

Despite these new additions, the history of the library remains.

“I think this community is very aware of historic buildings and preservation, so I think the library building itself is very important to the community,” Grace said.u