The first known library in Canton, the Canton Social Library Association, was formed in April 1832. It ceased operation with the formation of district school libraries. The present Canton library dates from 1887 when the Good Knights Templar opened a reading room in an office of the Town Hall.
The Women's Library Association was organized in 1891 in Canton to provide a reading room and library facilities in a shack-like building on the edge of the Village Park. Its initial collection consisted of 25 paperbound books owned by Miss Josephine Paige who also acted as librarian. Several prominent members of the Good Knights Templar, including Professors Priest and Forbes of St. Lawrence University, J. Henry Rushton, and Gilbert Manley sought support from the State of New York for a library charter and finally succeeded on March 19, 1896. This created the Canton Free Library and five officers of the Women's Library Association were named the first trustees. The library was then incorporated with 1,782 books and moved back to larger quarters in the Town Hall.
Mrs. Emma P. Benton was visiting her husband's family in Canton in 1907 and was sympathtic with the Association's desire for a library building. She offered $21,000 for a library building and $13,000 to endow it for maintenance and insurance. The building was to be known as the Benton Building to honor her husband. The Village of Canton provided the land. After the building was completed, title was transferred from Mrs. Benton's name to nine trustees of the Benton Library "to create, continue and maintain upon the premises a public library to be conducted for the benefit of the residents of the Village of Canton…" In 1910, the constitution of the Women's Library Association provided for the election of five trustees to the Canton Free Library, and it was stipulated that they choose from their number another group of women to be known as the Benton Board to assume responsibility for upkeep and maintenance of the building. Hence, the library was placed in an unusual situation of having two boards of trustees.
The consolidation of the Benton Board of Trustees with the CFL Board became necessary and possible during the early 2000s and was completed on November 14, 2003. The library's charter was amended, new bylaws were drawn, the number of trustees was modified, and the two endowments were combined. The consolidation has been a successful endeavor.
In 1919, the library received a gift of $50,000 from A. Barton Hepburn. The conditions of the gift were that branches be established in nearby Pyrites, Crary Mills, Morley and Rensselaer Falls, that the Board of Trustees of the Canton Free Library include members appointed by the Town of Canton, and that the Town Board contribute annually an amount equal to the income from his $50,000 endowment.
In 1956, a 60th Library Anniversary Campaign was launched to enlarge and modify the Benton Library Building. A bequest of $40,000 from the estate of William Kip seeded the campaign. The response from the community was remarkable, and the library was enlarged and its collection capacity expanded. This expansion served the library's purposes until the early 21st century.
What began as a space utilization study in early 2001 soon morphed into a full blown renovation project with architectural plans developed by Beardsley Design Associates of Malone. As the project grew, it became evident that a major capital campaign had to be put in place. With John Kenny as the Chair, Dr. Frank P. Piskor as the working Honorary Chair, a core group of strong library advocates, and a staff dedicated to working to gain the much needed space for future growth, the library embarked on the CFL Centennial Campaign: Renovating for the 21st Century, its first capital campaign in more than 50 years. It was a wonderful success, raising more than the initial $750,000 goal.
Renovations began in earnest on January 3, 2006. For the next eight months and, after more than three years of planning and fund raising, the Canton Free Library undertook the most extensive renovations to our 1908 building since 1957. The changes addressed included relocation of the Children’s Room to the lower level, a move that doubled its space, new shelving handcrafted by local cabinetmaker Chris Smith - a dark wood stain for the Main Reading Room that matched the original shelving units, and units of natural oak in our new reading and research room (Frank P. Piskor Room) and the Ann L. Richardson Children’s Room, a new vestibule, a redesigned entrance and lobby architecturally compatible with the original 1908 building, and major changes to the library’s infrastructure that made our building more energy efficient and more accessible to people with disabilities. The completion of the project was celebrated with a gala Open House on October 1, 2006.
CFL has expanded access to knowledge and information through the website www.cantonfreelibrary.org and through the digitization of its local history scrapbooks. The library takes part in the NOVELNY databases sponsored by the State Library, various databases available through NCLS and NNYLN, and TumbleBooks, an online e-book website for children. Ten public access computers have helped make the library the center of public Internet communication in the community.
The library continues to provide public service beyond the circulation of its holdings throughout the area. Lectures, performances, cultural programs and instructional and informational workshops are an integral part of CFL’s program of service. The library is also host to numerous community organizations that meet regularly in the library’s Paige Room. An important part of the CFL educational enrichment service is programming for children throughout the school year and over the summer months. Youth programming begins with newborns and continues through 18 years of age.
The Board of Trustees strives to ensure that the Canton Free Library continues to be a strong resource center providing valuable services to patrons of all ages and all walks of life.
Condensed by Ann Richardson from the document of the same title prepared by Joan Barrick, December 2000; revised by Lyn Swafford, July 2009 and Emily Owen, March 2016.