Image : High Street Farmers’s Market 1910 Credit: www.westjerseyhistory.org
Author: Rekha Vijayalakshmi in conversation with Sharon Vincz, Library Director
New Jersey often hides her treasures in plain sight, on quiet, unassuming streets and in nondescript towns. When she chooses to reveal them to you, they take your breath away by their elegant simplicity and an air of quietude. The Grounds for Sculpture, The Sayen Gardens in Hamilton, the Elmwood Cemetery in New Brunswick and now, The Library Company of Burlington were all unveiled to me after several years as a Jersey girl.
The Library Company of Burlington, chartered by King George II in 1757, is the oldest continuously functioning library in NJ, and the seventh oldest in the US. (In the world of libraries, age is flaunted, not disguised 🙂 ).
It is the first library in NJ to have a building solely to house the collection. The “new” building (above) has been in use since 1864, and is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.
It is also the first library in the US to have a printed catalog of its books, and one to have a meticulous record of all its transactions. The first circulated book was The Invisible Spy by Thomas Robinson. The oldest book in the collection dates back to 1521, which is less than 50 years after the printing press was invented.
William Faulkner, the last royal governor of NJ was a patron and supporter, and so was Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant.
So many firsts, so many years being part of the history of the community and the nation… no way I could miss seeing it!
I opened the front door with hesitation. I knew that it still operated under the 1757 charter of a subscription library and was not sure if it was open to public. But Robin Boyadjian, at the Information Desk, welcomed me in with a warm smile, and introduced me to Sharon Vincz, the director of the library, who took me around the library and was very generous with her time. The history of the library seemed to come alive in her enthusiastic and knowledgeable retelling of it. (Thank you again Sharon! This article would not have been possible without your help.)
The front room of the library maintains an old world charm with shelves of dark wood, sepia tinted photographs, comfortable high backed chairs, and arched windows.
On the second floor balcony, which is cordoned off due to building safety regulations, we can see the books from the original collection. The books are arranged in chronological order, as the Dewey Decimal System did not exist in the 18th century. A visiting archivist has been engaged to restore the books and move them to a separate room.
The library is a member of the Burlington County Library System, but is still mostly privately funded and managed by a board of trusties. The oval portraits of the original trustees on one side of the room are counterbalanced by photographs of the current trustees on the other. This attention to detail, characteristic of a well beloved home, is seen throughout the library.
In the collection is a totally intact volume of the J. J. Audubon book “Quadrupeds of North America” – one of only 12 published. The book is placed open under a glass case, and the page is turned once a month for the enjoyment of patrons. On the day I visited it was opened to the picture of a black bear and its cub. The fur on the bear’s back, was pictured so realistically that I got goosebumps! Sharon told me that Audubon started this work after he finished his books on birds, but his health declined and the book was completed by his sons.
The main room opens into a spacious and airy Children’s section, built as an extension. The library conducts many events to attract young people and to keep reading alive. A teen night, complete with the screening of a Dr. Who movie, was being organized when I visited. There is free wifi, summer reading programs and scavenger hunts too. I found it very touching that Sharon visits every single school open house in the area, just to let children know that the library is there for them with open doors and welcoming smiles.
She took me upstairs, climbing up the spiral stairway past an ante room to a secure meeting room. This room was once used by Freemasons for their shadowy transactions. (Ooh! thrilling!) It is now a “mini-museum” holding photographs, paintings and prints from a bygone era. The charter from King George, which is being restored, will no doubt occupy a place of pride here once it gets back. “People bequeath so many things to us”, said Sharon. Besides tables and chairs that one might expect, donors had found it appropriate to leave a studded cane, and even a gun to their favorite library. (The gun was later sold off to buy a Holy Bible). Boy Scouts built a reading pavilion on one side of the building and a “Little Free Library” that was installed in the front yard. (Read about Little Free Libraries here)
Sharon believes that the digital age provides access to so much more information than before, but the special bond that the reader forms with a favorite book, when the book becomes a best friend, is not possible with the Kindles and Nooks of the day. I agree with her.
The one thing that I forgot to ask was about the ghosts that are said to haunt the library. I will leave it to you to visit and find out more about them.