History of Libraries II

History of Libraries II

When you search online for "First public library in the United States" you learn that three libraries claim this distinction. Last week I wrote about Benjamin's Library Company. This week's column is about Peterborough, New Hampshire, home of the first tax-supported library in the U.S.

By the 1790s Peterborough had a social library, probably very much like the Gering Women's Literary Club library, filled with discarded books and donations. Local fabric mills also provided private libraries for their workers. In 1827, Unitarian minister Reverend Abbot came to town. He organized a library for children, one for clergy and a library funded through subscriptions of $2 and an annual fee of $.50. "Abbot, however, perceived a need for a library open to all and not based on who you knew, how old you were, where you worked, or whether you could afford to access it" (Peterborough Town Library Website).

The Peterborough City Council voted to fund a tax-supported library in 1833. The library was housed in a series of businesses including the general store, the post office, and city hall. With over 6,000 books by 1890, space was becoming an issue. At this time, supporters collected over $15,000 to construct a separate library building. In 1957 and 1977 Peterborough Town Library underwent additions and renovations to create a children's wing, a meeting room with a kitchen, as well as offices for the librarians.

In 2018 Peterborough, a town of 6,500, voted in favor of a $3 million dollar bond to renovate their library. The remodel brought the library into ADA compliance, updated the heating and ventilation system as well as creating small meeting rooms and collaborative spaces. They also upgraded the electrical system to support modern technology.

In 1827, nearly 200 years ago, Peterborough, NH was the first town in the world to conceive of funding a library through taxes and making it available to their citizens. It wasn't until 1849 that the State of New Hampshire passed a law authorizing cities to establish public libraries through taxation. It was the first state in the nation to do so.

"The people of Peterborough have continued to support and prioritize the first free[,] tax-supported public library in the nation. The library remains as both a historic symbol of the town’s belief in free access to information and knowledge, and as a modern library with opportunities for connection and collaboration for years to come" (Peterborough Town Library Website). The original building is still in use. If you would like to see the stunning pictures of their remodel, search for "images Peterborough NH Library Annum." Annum was their architect. There is also a Peterborough in England, which I discovered in my research.

As I was researching this article I noticed several parallels between the Peterborough Town Library and Gering Public Library, although there is a 100 year difference.

After starting as a subscription library, the City of Gering voted to support a public library in 1920. In its first 40 years, Gering's library was housed in the Gering Irrigation District Office, the court house, the Swan Hotel and city hall before a building was constructed in 1962 for $82,000. At this time there were over 13,000 books in the collection. Gering's library more than doubled in size in 1980, but still lacks current ADA compliance, meeting rooms, and proper ventilation. 

I love visiting libraries when on vacation, so now I am trying to find an excuse to visit New Hampshire and spend some time in this historic library. This is the second of a three-part series on early libraries in the United States. Next week's article will conclude the series..