A historical photo of the original Curtis Memorial Library, still part of the library but now known as the 1904 Building.

If you had been an avid reader living in our area in the 1880s, you might have joined one of the few small private subscription libraries or young ladies’ book clubs. And, like some of the participants in these organizations, you might have grown frustrated by the limited books and magazines available and, too, wondered how you might better share the books you had acquired and passed around on a limited basis. Perhaps you would have been inspired by neighbors in Richmond, who had already begun a public library and were regularly publicizing the titles available in the local newspaper.

These circumstances motivated a group of Brunswick citizens to create a library association in 1883, planting the seeds for today’s Curtis Memorial Library. Unsurprisingly, fiction was one of the most popular genres from the get-go. On Jan. 30, 1885, for example, the Brunswick Telegraph noted that the “more interesting of the new books” included Helen Hunt Jackson’s “Ramona,” Louisa May Alcott’s “Spinning Wheel Stories,” and Johanna Spyri’s “Heidi.” (All great selections, book committee!)

An architectural drawing of the original Curtis Memorial Library.

In 1886, Brunswick suffered what we might today call a bacterial tripledemic, featuring outbreaks of diphtheria, scarlet fever, and typhoid (Harpswell was spared of these that year, suffering instead from measles and whooping cough). Yet, according to the first volume of “A History of the Public Library in Brunswick, Maine,” the fledgling library thrived, with record-breaking attendance, especially on winter evenings; successful fundraising events; and large book bequests from estates. We can only hope our library patron ancestors washed their hands and avoided coughing on each other.

Now, in 2023, pushing through our own tripledemic, the Curtis Memorial Library is marking its 140th anniversary. Its advanced age is a testament to the community-mindedness of its founders, and Director Liz Doucett’s recently published second volume of library history reminds us of what a 21st-century library can do for its patrons, even during a pandemic — and without putting them at risk.

The list of digital services available to cardholders is admirable in its scope and creativity. Liz notes, for example, that over the last 2 1/2 years, hundreds of virtual books were added to CloudLibrary, and many children’s books and magazines were made digitally available as well. One can still learn a language through Mango Languages, stream a great film from Kanopy, or get crafty with Creativebug videos.

William J. Curtis funded the construction of Curtis Memorial Library’s original building in 1903 and 1904. He was the son of Capt. John Curtis, for whom the library was named.

However, as we ease back into in-person activities, there is plenty beyond the well-stocked bookshelves and popular Bestseller Express collection. For example, as part of its sustainability efforts, the library regularly hosts a Repair Cafe, which helps people learn how to repair common items like clothing, small appliances, and electronics rather than throwing them away. In addition, one might attend the annual winter gardening workshop series. Half of the sessions are in person. And, of course, there are the weekly and monthly meetups for writing, crafting, book discussions, and the like.

It is no wonder that Curtis Memorial Library’s active card users totaled 10,491 in 2022, many of whom hail from Harpswell. Keep in mind that anyone in our communities — even seasonal residents — can procure a free library card to use both digital and in-person amenities.

Doubtlessly, the original founders, not to mention William J. Curtis, who funded the now-venerable Pleasant Street building in 1903, would be delighted with the scope and offerings of today’s Curtis Memorial Library. Consider honoring their intentions during this anniversary year by finding your own route to 23 Pleasant St. in Brunswick.

Curtis Memorial Library provides free library cards to Harpswell residents, year-round and seasonal. Lisa Botshon, a professor of English at the University of Maine at Augusta, chairs the library’s board of directors.

“Library Connections” is a monthly column that rotates among the three libraries that serve Harpswell: Cundy’s Harbor, Orr’s Island and Curtis Memorial.