On Wednesday (Dec. 14) the Lawrence Township Headquarters Branch of the Mercer County Library System will hold a birthday party to celebrate the 50th anniversary of “The Lawrence Library.”
The event, which will feature displays, a door prize and cake, will take place from 10 to 11 a.m. at the library at 2751 Brunswick Pike (Business Route 1), at the corner of Darrah Lane East.
It will be followed at 11 a.m. by a children’s concert by Grammy-nominated performer Miss Amy.
The party and concert are the latest in . One of those events was a lecture on the history of the library given on Nov. 15 by Lawrence Township Historian Dennis Waters.
While the Lawrence Library opened in 1961 – the same year and Lawrence Township was in the midst of a population boom – the history of libraries in the area, according to Waters, dates back to 1750 when Thomas Cadwalader and Ben Franklin founded the first library in Mercer County.
In 1920 the New Jersey Legislature enacted the County Library Act to support the creation of county-wide library systems. In 1921 Burlington became the first county to start such a system. Mercer County’s library system was started in 1927, making Mercer one of the last counties to do so.
Mercer County’s library actually began as a bookmobile. For about 30 years, according to Waters, books were transported throughout the county on a regular though infrequent schedule. The primary function of the bookmobiles was to provide books for school libraries, and also serve as “a supply station to reach people in rural areas so they could swap books,” Water said, noting that the number of routes increased as populations grew.
“By the late 1950s, the bookmobile system was running out of steam,” said Waters. In 1956 there were only two 20-minute stops every other Wednesday in the Main Street area in the northern half of Lawrence Township.
It was time for a change and so a room inside Lawrenceville Elementary School was opened as a library. Run by volunteers from the school’s PTA, it was open two hours a day and for one evening a week.
As the population boom continued, however, the school needed to use the space as a classroom. In 1960 volunteers moved some 3,000 books across the street to the Lawrenceville Fire Co. firehouse. The Lawrenceville Community Library, as it was known, had about 300 patrons who each paid $1 per year for a library card.
In 1965, a fire broke out in the firehouse, damaging a third of the 6,000 books in the library collection. The Jaycees loaned the library a van and the bookmobile service was revived until a new location could be found. The Lawrenceville Community Library continued to operate until 1972 when it was disbanded and its collection turned over to the Mercer County Library System.
Meanwhile, following a long struggle, Lawrence Township was finally able in early 1961 to convince the Mercer County Board of Chosen Freeholders to open a county-run library branch in the southern half of the township.
Long-time township residents remember that library opening in December 1961 at the rear of the then brand-new Lawrence Shopping Center. At that time, the strip mall stretched only to where the Staples store ends today. The library was small – occupying only 1,600 square feet – and had no access to the stores out front.
In 1967, the library moved to the front of the shopping center into an addition built next to the present-day Staples. The move exposed the library – now with a total of 3,000-square-feet of space – to the foot traffic at the mall.
The library experienced several setbacks in 1975. The library was closed for three weeks as a result of flooding caused by heavy rain in July. Later that summer, a problem with the filtration plant in Trenton left the library and the surrounding area without water for several days. And on Oct. 31, 1975, the library and nearly a dozen stores in the shopping center were damaged by a fire.
In 1976, the library relocated across the Lawrence Shopping Center parking lot to a 5,000-square-foot location next to the space formerly occupied by R&S Strauss. Three years later the library outgrew that space and put on a 3,000-square-foot addition.
Waters used old photographs and newspaper clippings during his 45-minute lecture. He explained that in the late 1970s, with Trenton in decline and the population of the city’s suburbs steadily increasing, the Mercer County Library System began thinking about building a new library headquarters. Lawrence Township, being situated near the center of the county and with easy access to major roads like Route 1, was chosen as the ideal location, he said.
About the same time, it was decided that seven new county-owned libraries would be built in the municipalities served by the county library system. At the time, the county libraries were all located in rented spaces.
In 1982 Mercer County purchased an eyesore of a building – an old trucking company on the corner of Brunswick Pike and Darrah Lane East. That building sat on 12 acres of land. The county deeded five acres to Lawrence Township – space now occupied by the Lawrence Senior Center – and in 1983 broke ground on construction of the new Lawrence Township Headquarters Branch of the Mercer County Library.
Waters noted that a time capsule was buried during construction and said he is not aware of any plans to open the capsule any time soon. The library opened in 1984.
The age of computerization arrived in 1990 and by August 1991 the library had stopped using the old paper card catalogue system. In November 1991, the Friends of the Lawrence Library organization was formed.
In 1994 the library expanded by 40 percent to its current size. Additions at that time included new meeting rooms, a larger reference department and new offices for the county library staff. The library embraced the internet in 1995, and expanded its availability with the addition of WiFi in 2004.
So, in 50 years, the Lawrence Branch of the Mercer County Library has grown from 1,600 square feet to 58,000 square feet and from only a few thousand books to a collection of 215,274 items – books, music CDs, movie DVDs, books on tape, eBooks and more.
But that’s not all. Lawrence residents can borrow books from the other Mercer County Library System branches – there are over 763,000 items in the county collection – or borrow items from other library systems through the Inter-Library Loan service.