There were several places to hang out during my years growing up in Rockland. Two of them were neighbors on downtown Union Street and both were owned by the city: the Recreation Center (known as the Community Building back then) and the distinctive Carnegie Public Library.

While I must confess that I spent much more of my time at the Recreation Center, I shared the community’s pride in having a free lending library made possible by the generosity of the wealthy industrialist Andrew Carnegie. The library introduced me to, what are to this day, many of my favorite books.

The library of my youth seemed to serve the needs of the community quite well. Conceived as a free public library by a group of local citizens in 1891, the City Library of Rockland opened on Main Street in 1895 and has, from its inception, been a department of city government. In 1901, the library trustees successfully pursued an application for a gift from Carnegie to establish one of the nation’s many libraries bearing his name. The Carnegie Library opened in 1905 and has been a major community cultural resource ever since.  

However, by the late 1980s, the building’s size, unchanged since the library’s opening, was deemed inadequate to meet changing needs. Deferred maintenance had also become a major problem, the product of several lean budget years as the city struggled to meet its many municipal obligations.

“There were buckets scattered throughout the building to catch the water dripping from the leaky roof,” said longtime volunteer Roberta Axelson. “Storage was a huge issue, especially book storage. The basement [now the home of the Rockland Historical Society], the primary storage area and small to begin with, was unusable after heavy rains. Mildew was a problem. Much of the furniture was in need of repair or replacement, especially the chairs in both the children’s and main reading rooms.”

Carol Miller, another veteran volunteer, said: “The interior walls in the Children’s Room were cracked, but perhaps the biggest problem was that there was no room to grow. The library’s shelves could not begin to accommodate the demand for books and periodicals. In addition, the Internet age was beginning, and the library had no place to house computers.”

Another volunteer and parent of young children at the time, Lee Carver, said: “About half of the ceiling light fixtures did not work, and there was peeling paint and a dingy atmosphere throughout the building. Most distressing for the younger parents, the space devoted to children was cramped and uninviting.”

Deputy librarian and 21-year staff veteran Linda Barnes concurred and said “the lack of adequate space made story hour a very uncomfortable experience.” 

Both Roberta and Carol said that behind all of these problems was the lack of volunteers and money to resolve them. Something had to be done. That something began in 1992 with the reactivation of the Friends of the Rockland Public Library, originally founded in 1964 but moribund for several years. The group’s mission was to provide volunteers to help staff the library and to raise funds to sponsor programs with an emphasis on children and help supplement the city’s book budget for the library. A dedicated group stepped forward to form the organization’s board and under the leadership of its first president, Jean Nickel, good things began to happen. Books and chairs were repaired and replaced. The book budget grew. The Children’s Room was painted by a group of volunteers, who also furnished the room with new carpet.

But the library’s inadequate size, leaky roof and other costly deferred maintenance items presented a formidable challenge to a group of volunteers with the limited mission of the Friends of the Rockland Public Library. At a meeting of the group in late 1995, an idea was born to determine what the people of Rockland wanted for their library.  Endorsed by the City Council and the city’s Library Advisory Board, 27 individuals attended a strategic planning session at the library in April 1996. From that meeting, committees formed to develop a long-range plan; the process culminated in the recommendation to form an important new organization. 

In December 1996 the City Council authorized the establishment of the Rockland Public Library Endowment Association “to raise funds, to be kept separate from municipal accounts, for purposes of improving and preserving the excellence of the Rockland Public Library.” The PLEA was to consult with the council before any funds were spent. Mike Stumbo, the executive manager of one of Rockland’s largest employers, FMC, agreed to serve as the PLEA’s first president.

Under the PLEA’s leadership, supported by professional consultation and in partnership with city officials, the Library Advisory Board, library staff, and Friends of the Rockland Public Library, planning for the library’s future continued well into 1998, ending with a decision  to undertake a capital campaign anchored by the following vision: “For all its granite splendor, the library is … old! It was built in the gaslight era … and today’s telecommunication age has yet to fully reach Union Street. Since opening its doors … the library has increased its book collection five fold but has never increased its operating space … Rockland area citizens, particularly children, require a 21st century library. The Rockland PLEA is moving to build a quality library addition, tastefully integrated with the existing beautiful and classic Carnegie building … The library will anchor the north end of a new Union Street ‘community campus’ with the Farnsworth Wyeth Center anchoring the south. The fundraising goal — $3,000,000.”

If the goal were achieved, the library floor space would be doubled from 8,800 to 17,000 square feet and the existing interior completely renovated. The expansion would substantially upgrade children’s services, increase space for adult fiction and nonfiction materials, and provide sufficient computer stations to offer adequate opportunity for all patrons to access the Internet. In addition the city’s heritage would be celebrated by establishing special reference sections and by becoming the headquarters for the Shore Village Historical Society (now the Rockland Historical Society).

As compelling as the project was, it seemed a daunting task to the people involved, including the project’s most ardent supporters. At that time, no nonprofit organization in Rockland had ever raised $3,000,000 in a capital campaign. But one person was undaunted by the challenge and stepped forward to chair the fundraising effort – Tom Putnam. 

A retired pediatric surgeon, Tom and his wife, Barbara, had relocated from Rochester, N.Y., to Jameson Point in Rockland in 1996. Soon after moving in, the Putnams’ neighbor Roberta Axelson invited Tom to a meeting of the Friends of the Rockland Public Library board. He became a member shortly thereafter and then joined the PLEA board when it was formed. “Becoming involved with the library was an easy call for me,” said Tom. “A first-class library serving the public is an essential ingredient of a healthy community.”

Tom had never been involved in fundraising before. “I knew nothing about raising money but figured I could learn, so I talked with several experienced fundraisers along the Midcoast, got some training and enlisted a large group of volunteers to help me set out to raise the $3,000,000 needed to fulfill our building plan and start an endowment to protect against a recurrence of the deferred maintenance and other problems that had gotten the library into the fix we were trying to address,” he said.

Under Tom Putnam’s infectious leadership and armed with an attractive design plan created by Camden architect Stephen Smith, the PLEA board and other volunteer solicitors persistently pursued contributions from late 1998 into early 2000. The result – the goal of $3,000,000 was met by close to 1,000 donors. Gifts ranged from a 7-year-old boy’s life savings of $20.28 to just over $1,100,000 from the combined generosity of MBNA New England and the Charles Cawley Family Foundation (for whom the Children’s Wing is named). In between, there were many individual gifts ranging from $10,000 to $100,000. Rockland area businesses responded enthusiastically. Every bank in Rockland contributed. The Friends of the Rockland Public Library gave an additional $30,000. Library patrons placed well over $1,000 in coins and bills in a “candy” jar at the library’s circulation desk. In addition to the Cawley Family Foundation, five other foundations made substantial donations.

On April 8, 2000, formal groundbreaking ceremonies were held. Carol Miller, who at that time was president of the Friends of the Rockland Public Library, recalls that a large crowd gathered for the festivities on a beautiful spring afternoon with a band playing in the background. Special guests included Sen. Susan Collins who, together with Carol, Library Advisory Board President Jean Chalmers and Mayor Jim Raye, turned over the first soil to begin construction of what would officially become the “new” Rockland Public Library on Aug. 26, 2001.

While many people share in this success story, those closest to the project agree with the sentiments expressed by stalwart supporters Kenneth and Roberta Axelson. “Without the dedicated determination of Tom Putnam, this project would not have been completed,” said Ken. To which Roberta added, “Yes, that’s true, but it was the rebirth of the Friends of the Rockland Public Library that got the whole thing started.”

And what has been the impact of Rockland’s reborn Carnegie Public Library? Current Librarian Amy Levine reported the following: “In 2002 the library had a record-breaking year with about 150,000 items checked out and over 126,000 borrowers served. Five years before about 45,000 items were checked out and 31,000 people served.”

Statistics indicate that meeting room usage and program attendance at the library showed similar growth patterns. The library continues to serve the community in growing numbers to the present day. As Tom Putnam said, “A dream for a modern Rockland library, like it did a century before, has become a new reality.”

I salute the contributors to Rockland’s resurgence in the last two decades, including Tom Putnam, Mike Stumbo and the other devoted members of the PLEA; all of the generous donors to the capital campaign from Charles Cawley to 7-year-old Charlie Carver (who gave his life savings of $20.28); and Jean Nickel, Roberta Axelson, Carol Miller, Lee Carver and the many other dedicated Friends of the Rockland Public Library for all they have done to support the library’s capable and committed staff and to enrich the quality of life in Rockland. They are all local heroes. Thank you.