November 12, 2006

aWoodlawn library demonstrates
the power of cooperation

Persistence laced with a generous portion of cooperation finally came to fruition as public officials and folks from the surrounding west Wilmington neighborhood gathered to open the new Woodlawn branch of the county library system.

It was one of those only-in-Delaware things as County Executive Christopher Coons cut the ceremonial ribbon on Nov. 11 while flanked by the state's congressional delegation, the lieutenant governor, Wilmington's mayor and City Council president.

Coons said the new library came about only because of a "remarkable multi-year cooperative effort by a lot of people of different backgrounds." Federal, state, city and county governments all participated in the $8.5 million project along with Woodlawn Trustees, a nonprofit housing and conservation organization, and the volunteer Friends of Woodlawn Library. The county Department of Community Services will operate the library.

U.S. Senator Joseph Biden told a large group of residents of the area and others who turned out for the occasion that the facility and the effort which brought it into reality demonstrated that  "as maligned as government is,

Adele Meehan (left) checks out the first book to be borrowed from the new branch library -- a  paperback edition of a mystery novel. Zlva Devine handles the transaction.

there's a role for it." As a result in this instance, he said, people will be able to obtain facts and share opinions -- two vital elements of a free society.

Senator Thomas Carper noted that conveying title to the site of the former state Department of Motor Vehicles office and inspection lanes to Woodlawn Trustees was the last legislation he signed into law as governor. He was glad to do so, he quipped, because one of his first

experiences after  coming to Delaware was "going to the place where nobody liked you" to obtain a driver's license. The motor vehicle facility long had a widespread reputation for offering the public a decidedly unfriendly reception.

Newlin Wood, president of Woodlawn Trustees, which owns the property on which the library stands and is leasing it to the county for $1 a  year, said he first broached the idea of replacing the former library at Sixth Street and Bancroft Parkway at a meeting of the neighborhood association in nearby Wawaset Park in 1986.

The long-outmoded former library, a branch of the Wilmington Institute Public Library, had served the area since 1920. It originally occupied the upper two floors of a building which housed Woodlawn Trustees' office. It later was expanded to include the entire building. Closed last summer so the library's collection could be moved to the new facility, the building will be refitted to house Woodlawn's maintenance operation and two upstairs apartments. 

Replacing the library became than just talk when the motor vehicles department, now a division of Delaware Department of Transportation, proposed replacing its vehicle inspection and licensing office two city blocks away. A volunteer support organization, Friends of Woodlawn Library, was formed and retiring state Representative Joseph DiPinto took up the cause. He sponsored the legislation which enabled Woodlawn Trustees to acquire the site.

Wood said the original intent was to remodel the motor vehicles building, but the Wilmington Institute library did not have the resources to do that. So Woodlawn Trustees and the Friends organization turned to New Castle County. Former County Executive Thomas Gordon was receptive to the idea of a new library, he said. County government took it on as a capital project. Instead of remodeling, however, it was decided that the more cost-effective route was to construct a new building. It also was agreed that the branch would be operated by the county rather than the Wilmington Institute library.

The Friends raised $1.7 million toward the cost.

Related to the library project was completion of a plan to connect the southern section of Bancroft Parkway with the northern section. It originally was proposed in 1940 to build a connector street with a bridge over the then Baltimore & Ohio Railroad tracks. World War II intervened and the motor vehicle building was erected where the street would have been. With the way cleared by demolition of that building, Woodlawn Trustees provided the money to build a pedestrian bridge over what is now the  C.S.X. railroad track. It will be turned over to the city.

Concurrently the deteriorated Ninth Street bridge over the railroad was replaced with a new one.

Wood said involvement with the library project continues a tradition which dates back to William Bancroft, son of Joseph Bancroft, who founded the Bancroft textile business. William paid off the Wilmington Institute's debt so what originally was a subscription library could become a free library around the beginning of the 20th Century. William also founded Woodlawn Trustees.

U.S. Representative Michael Castle coincidentally continued the tradition in a similar vein. He donated a large carton of books he had received as "one of the [kind of] gifts Congressmen are allowed to accept" to the new library and promised that there most likely will be more books coming in the future.

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Read previous Delaforum article: Woodlawn library nears completion


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