In 1864, William Beebe, a tea merchant, established the South Orange Public Library. Beebe assembled his friends and fellow intellectuals to spearhead the initiative. The group was comprised of many whose legacies are preserved by street names throughout South Orange, such as Edwin Mead, Eugene Durand, and Joseph Taylor.
During 2015 and continuing through September 2016, the South Orange Library will celebrate its 150th anniversary. Initiatives will focus on the founding and history of the library. In addition to the annual coloring contest run by the Children’s Room during Thanksgiving, where patrons decorate turkeys, patrons also decorated pictures of founder William Beebe. The Children’s Room displayed games and books children from 150 years ago would have read and played with.
The South Orange Library also presented Around the Village in 80 Days, where patrons were encouraged to take photos of themselves in their favorite place to read and post the photos on social media with the hashtag #sopl150. For the coming year, an ongoing project is a timeline chronicling the development of the library from the nineteenth century to the present, alongside events worldwide.
The library began as one room on Sloan Street. It was a subscription library – members paid dues. In 1886, spurred by New Jersey legislation seeking to expand access to public libraries, the library became a free public library open to all. The library was then funded by donations.
The library grew rapidly, and became far too frequented for the small space it occupied. At the time, the library was located on the ground floor of a shared building. The Board sought to obtain a building for solely the use of the library, but lacked the funds. Eugene V. Connett, namesake of Connett Place, offered the land on the corner of Scotland Road and Taylor Place for this purpose.
With the land secured, the library then needed funds for the construction of the building. Miss Page, Miss Redmond, Mrs. Milligan, and Mrs. Sanford, whose family names are also preserved in local street names, held a “fete champetre” (outdoor festival) at the Orange Lawn Tennis Club as a fundraiser. Mrs. Pulsford hosted a production of Tom Cobb, Mrs. Conway held a production of A Lifeless Man, and Mrs. Connett, Eugene Connett’s wife, hosted a musical, all to benefit the library. In 1896, the South Orange Library opened its doors in its new location.