September 27, 2022

The Chester Library Offers a Big Welcome in a Small Space

A patron entering the small and historic Chester Public Library

Visiting the Chester Public Library is more like visiting the home of a friend than going to a public facility. Head Librarian Linda Fox, who greets visitors from behind the main library desk, is the perfect hostess. In fact, most of her conversations with visitors go on for awhile, before the topic of taking out a book is mentioned.

Chester Head Librarian Linda Fox (left) with Board Chairperson Terry Schreiber (right) at the main desk

“The library is like a family room,” Fox says, “where you can find something that people are interested in.” As for her role as Head Librarian she says, “If you can’t be welcoming and friendly, you should not be here.”

In addition to her greeting skills, professionally, Fox holds a Masters Degree in Library Services from Emory University, and she has been in charge of Chester’s library for almost a decade.

The Challenges of a Very Small Library

As director of the Chester library, Fox faces the challenges of being in charge of a very small library. In fact, the library is so small that there is room for only one public computer. The smallness of the Chester Library has also meant that many Chester residents go to the Deep River library, “because it has more computers,” Fox points out.

Head Librarian Fox in the upstairs adult room amidst patrons of the Chester library

In fact, the Deep River library estimates that as many as 2,700 Chester and other towns’ residents are making use of Deep River’s computers and other services. There is also the factor that the Chester library has less than 2,000 square feet of space, whereas the Deep River library offers 6,000 square feet of space to its patrons.

You immediately feel the limits of space, as you enter the Chester library.  After the entrance alcove, you come up to the library’s main desk with its attendant librarian. From there, a small children’s reading room is on your left, and a small adult reading room is on your right. The walls of both rooms are bulging with books. The library’s sole public computer is next to the main desk.

Behind the main desk there is also a cramped area for administration functions.  Also, in addition to upper main floor of the library, there is a lower floor as well. On the landing, on the way down the stairs to this lower floor, there is “snuggled in” the books of the library’s Young Adult collection.

The steps to the lower floor of the library are steep and narrow, and it is evident that they are not handicap accessible. In fact, Fox herself admits that the steps to the lower floor of the library “may not be up to code.”

Very steep stairs to lower floor of Chester library. Young Adult books are “snuggled in” on mid-stair landi

The lower floor of the library houses most of the library’s adult reading collection, and this subterranean space is certainly more spacious than that of the crowded, first floor above.  “Meetings and quiet study space is located on the lower level as well,” the Head Librarian notes.

Though the space for books at the Chester library is admittedly limited, Fox says, “As you can see, we put a lot of stuff in here.”

A  Small and Busy Library

For all its space limitations the Chester Library has a steady stream of visitors. As for favorite books, the Head Librarian says that, “most books taken out are current fiction, although not by much. Also, cook books and garden books are always popular.”

Furthermore, if the library does not have a book on its shelves that is wanted by a patron, it can be requested from the interlibrary loan system. With interlibrary loans, Fox says, “We can get books from all over the state and beyond, including even books from the Library of Congress.”

In addition to being a place for books, “The library is a gathering place, which is important,” the director says.

Staffing and Hours at the Library

The Chester library has a staff of four. Head Librarian Linda Fox is full time, and the other three staff librarians are part time. Pam Larson is in charge of interlibrary loans, which is a big operation at the Chester library. In addition, Patty Petrus is the Children’s librarian, and Leigh Basilone is the Circulation Librarian.

Librarian Patty Petrus helps Patron Walt Smith find books for his European trip on the library’s lower floor

The hours of operation at the Chester library are: Monday 10am to 8pm; Tuesday 2pm to 6pm, Wednesday 10am to 6pm, Thursday 2pm to 8pm, Friday 10am to 6pm, Saturday l0am to 2 pm. Also, the library is CLOSED on Sundays and on Tuesdays from July l to Labor Day.

A Larger Chester Library in the Future?

Because of the admittedly small physical space of the Chester library, there have been some preliminary discussions about the feasibility of expanding the library building. The purpose of such an expansion would be to afford greater physical accessibility at the library, as well as to add additional space. These discussions have proceeded to the point where an architectural firm has been retained, and a number of expansion scenarios have been discussed with the firm.

The present classical building of the Chester Public Library is truly one of the town’s architectural highlights. The library building was built in 1907, and it has been a library for the public for 105 years. In any expansion plan, “Most people want to preserve the present space as a library,” Fox says. “Some people would like to build a whole new space for the library, but they are in the minority.”

The land on which the library sits was deeded to the town for a library by the church next door.  Also, the parking lot next to the library, which is used by library patrons, belongs to the church next door as well. This fact would make the church, the United Church of Chester, “an important stakeholder in any discussions of expansion,” Library Director Fox observes.

Off Site Programs of the Chester Library

In addition to the special programs held at the library, one of which, just recently included a ‘live” goat, other library programs are held at locations throughout the town of Chester. Among these program sites are the church next door and the Chester Meeting House. “We spread out our library functions,” is the way Fox puts it.

In contrast to the strictly public accessibility of the present Chester library, “formerly, the old library societies were largely private,” Fox points out. Testing the director, as to whether there was any anti-slavery sentiment in Chester before the Civil War, director Fox found the following account in a book entitled the “Chester Scrapbook.”

“On August 15, 1839, another library association was formed with twenty-four men and women members. They met at the house of widow Huldah Dunk Silliman … This library seems to have been more abolitionist than literary. Its constitution had a long preamble in regards to the evils of slavery, after which it stated … the object of the association … shall be to procure books that may be read by ALL persons who may be serious of receiving information on the subject of American Slavery.”

Head Librarian Linda Fox dug up this account in a matter of minutes from the materials that are on hand at the Chester library. It all goes to show that though the library may indeed be small, when it comes to knowledge of the history of Chester, among many other topics, the Chester Public Library knows just where to find it.