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[p. 76]

The Evolution of the Medford public Library.

by Mary E. Sargent.
Read before the Medford Historical Society, Jan. 16, 1899.

IN the matter of libraries, as with individuals, we take a pardonable pride in tracing their origin to as remote an ancestry as possible. Obeying the Scriptural injunction, ‘Honor thy father and thy mother; that thy days may be long upon the land,’ as individuals we may aspire to a right to belong to the Sons or Daughters of the Revolution, the Colonial Dames, or, better still, to be a ‘Mayflower’ descendant; but in the case of libraries we are quite content with a very small and humble beginning.

In many towns the public library was an outgrowth of the district-school library, which by an act of the Legislature of 1837 the school districts were authorized to establish for the use of common schools, provided a certain amount of money should be raised by the town.

In looking through the Town Records I find, Nov. 14, 1842, that it was voted to appropriate the sum of $45 in aid of public-school libraries. In referring to the school records of that period, however, though the school committee took action with regard to the matter, the scheme was abandoned.

The public library, ‘free to all,’ is peculiar to modern civilization, and the circulating library, from which books may be taken for home use, is of comparatively recent date. The idea that books, to be of real benefit, should be put into the hands of people for use outside of the library was first put into practical execution by Benjamin Franklin, who, in 1731, established at Philadelphia the first effective circulating library, now called the ‘Old Philadelphia Library.’ This was what is known as a ‘Society Library,’ supported by subscription, and was the forerunner of the nearly one thousand ‘Social Libraries’ which sprang up so rapidly throughout [p. 77] the United States. Franklin, in his autobiography, speaking of the benefits derived from them, says: ‘They have improved the general conversation of the Americans; have made the common tradesmen and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen in other countries; and, perhaps, have contributed in some degree to the stand so generally made throughout the colonies in defence of their privileges.’ In Brooks' ‘History of Medford’ it is stated that our own library had its origin in the Medford Social Library, which was founded in 1825 by a society whose design, as set forth in their constitution, was to collect books ‘promotive of piety and good morals,’ and to aid in the ‘diffusion of valuable information.’ We find that the first thought of the library for the people here arose in the mind of the pastor of the ‘First Congregational Church’ in Medford in 1825, the Rev. Andrew Bigelow. In the records of that church is to be found the following account. Mr. Bigelow's letter to the church is as follows:

August 7, 1825.
Believing that a Library composed of serious books established in a Christian society, and conducted on proper principles is of great utility, and that such an Institution is needed by ourselves especially for the benefit of the poorer members of the Flock, I respectfully propose the formation of a religious Library as a subject for your serious consideration;—and to aid the accomplishment of the object, I further offer for your acceptance the sum of thirty dollars to be applied to the first purchase of books. It is suggested that the Library, if formed, should only comprise books of strictly Christian and practical;—not of a sectarian and controversial nature; and that there would be a propriety in its being open under due regulation to the use of the members of the congregation generally. Leaving it to your wisdom to determine on the proposed subject, and also on the disposal of the small sum herewith offered; [p. 78] —to decide moreover, (in the event of the foregoing proposition meeting with your approval) on the measures proper to be devised for the gradual increase of the Library and for the management of its concerns.

Your affte. & obliged pastor

August 28, 1825.
The committee to whom was referred the subject of a Social Library have met and had the subject under their consideration, and they now report:—

That they think such a Library under proper regulations will be very beneficial to all classes of society. They find on enquiry that few towns in our vicinity are without one; that they are highly approved of wherever established, and that they have been found to be particularly serviceable to the poor, who would not otherwise have the means of general intelligence within their reach.

Your committee therefore beg leave to recommend that a subscription paper be set on foot as soon as possible for the purpose of getting the means necessary for collecting such a Library. That all the inhabitants of the town able to subscribe be called upon, that subscriptions in money or in books, or in loans of books, if there are any so valuable that their owners may be unwilling to give them, and that a committee be now nominated generally, to carry these several objects into effect.

Your committee take the liberty respectfully to suggest that in their opinion the library ought not to be confined entirely to Theological works, nor of a strictly religious character. Books of general intelligence, History, Discussions in morals, even Philosophical treatises, in short, any book that is calculated to give instruction without exciting a spirit of controversy, or bad feelings, would in their opinion be a valuable acquisition and should be admitted. They think however, [p. 79] that a Committee should now be chosen to decide on the admissibility of such books as may be offered, and that, that Committee shall have the power to receive or reject them as they shall think proper. All the subscribers to the Library ought, in the opinion of your Committee, to have a voice in the disposal and management of it.

They therefore say nothing at present of rules and regulations for its government. This can be done much more properly and with equal convenience when a competent number of subscribers shall be obtained for the purpose. August 20, 1825.

For the Committee,

J. Porter, Chrm.

Some amiable discussion took place among the brethren after the reading of this report. It was thought by some that the committee had construed too liberally their powers, the plan of a religious library having been submitted by their pastor and already approved by a unanimous vote of the church, and that the committee had proposed a material enlargement of that design, and that their propositions required consideration.

Some were for adhering to the original scheme, and apprehended that on the plan newly proposed too wide a door would be opened for the admission of books to the library, and that a taste for speculative, perhaps unprofitable and polemic reading would be encouraged. The pastor, however, expressed himself satisfied with the alteration, or more properly the enlargement, of the plan of the library; and left it optional with the brethren whether to confine his donation to the founding a religious library, as first contemplated, or to apply it for the purpose of setting on foot one of a more general character. The discussion resulted in the postponement of a further consideration of the report until the next Friday (September 2) after the lecture.

Sept. 2, 1825. The brethren met by adjournment, when the committee who reported on the 28th ult. [p. 80] offered the following supplement to their paper as then read:

The Committee hope it will be distinctly understood, that they did not intend to interfere with the letter which the Church received from their beloved Pastor.

They consider that Letter indeed as the basis of their report. They only wished to enlarge and to make the plan of the Library a little more general than it was at first contemplated. The words of that Letter are: “That the Library should only comprise books of a strictly Christian and practical,—not of a sectarian and controversial nature.” Your Committee humbly conceive that the books they have recommended will not be inconsistent with this character. If they are unchristian or impractical, if they are sectarian or carry with them the spirit of controversy,—they ought to be excluded, and it is to be hoped that we shall have no subscriber who will wish to see them introduced.

For the Committee,

After the reading of the above, two or three of the brethren expressed their minds, and a seeming readiness prevailed to accept the report; but it was concluded to defer a final decision thereon to the next Sabbath, after the second public service, when a fuller meeting of the brethren was expected.

Sept. 4, 1825.

In Church meeting, the Report of the Committee to whom had been referred the proposed subject of a Library was again read, along with the supplement thereto;—and the Brethren unanimously voted to approve and accept the same. A preamble that had been prepared for a subscription paper was also read and approved of.

It was voted that a Committee of five Brethren of the Church and six members of the congregation be chosen to raise subscriptions of money and collections of books, [p. 81] and that said committee should possess discretionary power (subject to the fundamental principle of the Library) to accept or reject such books as should be offered for gift or deposit, and to act until in a meeting of the subscribers, a set of rules be formed and the proper officers be chosen by them for managing the concerns of the Institution.—The committee chosen were (from the Church) Brothers Jonathan Porter, Nathaniel Hall, Jonathan Brooks, Nathan Adams, John Symmes, jr., and (from the Cong.) Messrs. Dudley Hall, Turrell Tufts, Abner Bartlett, Joseph Swan, Ebenezer Hall, jr., and Isaac Sprague.

The meeting was then dissolved.

This last date, as you see, was September, 1825. I have been unable, as yet, to find any report of that committee as to the success of their mission; but there is in the possession of the Public Library the financial record of the Medford Social Library, from April, 1826, to January, 1856, at which latter date it became the property of the town and was made public. The presumptive evidence is that these records show the perfecting of the scheme for a Social Library above alluded to, as the names of the committee chosen by the church to perfect the undertaking are the same as those which first appear in the financial record. From these records it would seem that the library, during the first years of its existence, had its home in a room in some house, the occupant of the house acting, perhaps, as librarian; for I find as one of the first items (1826-1837), cash paid Mrs. Hepzibah Hall five dollars per year for rent of room. The first name which appears as librarian is that of Ebenezer Hall, 1827. A catalogue must have been published very soon, for in 1827 is to be found the following entry: ‘Paid Bowles Dearborn for catalogues, nine dollars.’ A copy of this catalogue I have been unable to find, but from Mrs. Susan M. Fitch we have received a copy of one containing the constitution, [p. 82] bearing no date of imprint, however, but presumably printed in 1837, as at that time a new constitution was framed, when the shares were made one dollar, and Article 3 of this constitution reads as follows: ‘The price of a share shall be one dollar, each share shall be subject to an annual tax of fifty cents, commencing at the annual meeting, January, 1838.’ Their privileges, in one respect, were at that time the same as in the Public Library of to-day, as in Article 4 we find: ‘Each proprietor may take out two volumes at a time, for each share he may hold, for fourteen days, and if they have been in the library over a year, thirty days.’ From Article 8, after a long list of duties belonging to the librarian, this astonishing rule appears: ‘And if there are any books lost, injured, or defaced, of which the Librarian can give no satisfactory account, he shall himself be answerable for them and bound to make them good.’ With such a rule it is not astonishing that librarians were 10th to have the books long out of their sight. In the early days of this Social Library the duties of a librarian must have been purely a labor of love, as not until 1837, when the library consisted of six hundred and ninety-five books, is there any record of remuneration for services. The salary, from 1837 to 1856, was twenty-five dollars per year. Luther Angier was librarian from 1837-41, S. S. Green from 1841-42, O. Blake from 1842-43, J. J. B. Randall, 1844-46. From 1846-48 Mary B. Barker received, for use of room and as librarian, thirty dollars per year, which would indicate a most remarkable fact that at that time a woman's services were valued the same as a man's. From 1848-56 S. B. Perry acted as treasurer and librarian.

Jan. 1, 1843, was the first receipt from the Turrell Tufts' donation. In 1851 the amount paid for moving the library was fifty cents. Besides the amounts received from shares, which were at one time five dollars, changed in 1837 to one dollar, money may have been sometimes raised by means of entertainments or lectures, [p. 83] as several times in the town reports there are to be found that certain sums were paid by the Social Library for use of the Town House. These meetings may have been, however, simply social gatherings. At a town meeting, March 12, 1855, it was voted that a committee of three be chosen to confer with the trustees of the Social Library to consider the subject of establishing a town library according to an act of Legislature passed in the year 1851, and to report to the adjourned meeting in April. Messrs. William Haskings, Judah Loring, and Charles Cummings were chosen said committee. The conference resulted in the gift to the town of the books and property of the Social Library. The first Library Committee under the new conditions, Peter C. Hall, Alvah N. Cotton, Charles Cummings, obtained a room in the second story of the railway station, and the Public Library was opened for the delivery of books, under the name of Medford Tufts Library, July 26, 1856; and to give an idea of the progress of the library from that time it seems fitting to quote from some of the reports of the Library Committees. In looking through these reports it has been interesting to note what a high standard the trustees (sanctioned by the town) have always had in the selection of books. It is also interesting to see how history repeats itself, for some of the conditions and problems of those early days of the library are still to be found now. From the first report, in 1857, I quote as follows:

The number of volumes received (from the Social Library) was 1,125. To these 8 have been added by donation, and 203 by purchase; so that if none have been lost, the present number is 1,336. Accounts with more than 300 families have been opened, and the number is constantly increasing.

Readers multiply faster than the books, each addition of the latter bringing more of the former than can be supplied. All classes have been benefited, but we have been especially gratified to witness the eagerness with [p. 84] which the numerous young men, who otherwise would have no profitable employment for many of their evening hours, have taken out and read the books. By law, the town can annually appropriate for the support of the library but twenty-five cents for each ratable poll, and it would require several years for the library, with such aid only, to attain a size adequate to the demand for books. We venture the hope that some philanthropic citizens will covet the blessing promised the liberal soul, so far as to make donations in books or money to supply a want which the town in its corporate capacity cannot legally meet.

The town in 1855 appropriated $150; in 1856, $200. The salary of the librarian, $50. The library was opened every Saturday from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 P. M. Now, though not limited by law as to the amount to be raised for the use of the library, there seems to be the same need of appeal to the generosity of the citizens.

It would be wise for Massachusetts to look well to her honors, as the West, recognizing the value of the library as an educational factor in the community, far out-distances us in liberality. A small bookcase and eight volumes of the American Encyclopaedia represented the beginning of the Kansas City Public Library in 1874; to-day it has a building which cost over $200,000, with 25,000 volumes. It was stated by a Western librarian, recently, that there was something radically wrong if the appropriation for the library did not equal in amount at least one-third of that appropriated for the schools. With much less than such a sum at the disposal of the trustees, to-day, very much more could be done to adequately supply the ever-increasing needs of a progressive people.

In 1858 the Library Committee ‘would assure the taxpayers that the town makes no investment that yields a surer, larger, or more enduring profit, than the appropriation yearly paid to the public library.’ In that year the Everett Grammar School devoted to the use of the [p. 85] library the proceeds of their exhibition, $27.20,—a good example for the friends of the library now. In 1861, the room in the railway station becoming too small, one much more ample and convenient was secured upon the second floor of the Medford Exchange. From the report of that date: ‘It is very desirable that ladies should, if possible, make all their exchanges of books in the afternoon, as the crowd sometimes present in the evening is too great to make the room a convenient or a proper place for them. The number of volumes taken from the library each year is supposed to be about 10,000.’

‘In obedience to the instructions of the town, most of the works purchased the past year have been standard, and we think that reference to the new catalogue will satisfy the impartial that the several departments are now very appropriately balanced.’ This time $3.35 was paid for moving the library. In 1869 the library was moved to the Town House and a reading-room was opened daily, Sundays excepted, from 3 to 5 and 7 to 9 P. M., the library being opened only on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, and Saturday evenings. In 1871 it was opened every evening except Sunday and Wednesday, and also on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons. By act of the Legislature the dog tax was devoted to the use of the library. In 1872 the charging system of the Boston Public Library was substituted for the ledger system, which had up to this time been used. In 1875 was the generous donation by Mr. Thacher Magoun of the present home of the library.

In 1886 about $20 was received as income of the fund left to the library by Miss Lucy Osgood. In 1897 the library received a gift of $500 under the will of Mrs. Adeline A. Munroe, formerly with her husband, the late Mr. Charles Munroe, a resident of this city. This was given at the request of her husband, in consideration of the pleasure derived from the library by him. [p. 86]

In 1876 a branch delivery was established at West Medford, 1886 at Glenwood, 1890 at Wellington.

The first law passed in Massachusetts, in 185, authorizing any town to establish and maintain a free public library, was due to the action of one of the smaller towns in the State. In 1847 President Wayland of Brown University offered to give $500 to the town of Wayland for a library, provided the town would contribute an equal amount. This the citizens in town meeting assembled pledged themselves to do. But the question came up as to whether the citizens in their municipal capacity had a right to do this or to compel the taxpayers to devote their money to the buying of books and the support of a town library. It was finally decided that it should be optional with the individual citizens to pay the required tax, and with this understanding the library was opened to the public in August, 1850.

In 1851 the Rev. John B. Wight, Wayland's Representative in the Legislature, introduced a bill authorizing any town to establish and maintain for its citizens a public library. This bill became a law in May, 1851. This law, which was restrictive as to the amount of money the town might raise for the support of its public library, was followed by similar ones of a more liberal tendency, until in 1866 a law was passed removing the restrictions as to money and permitting the towns to appropriate what they saw fit for the support of their libraries. Thenceforward the laws passed tended to foster and protect the public library by imposing fines for those persons who wilfully defaced or destroyed the books or other property of libraries; and one very important law was enacted, and is still in force, of which very few people probably are aware, or the librarian would not so often be obliged to act the part of police-officer and prohibit the use of the library to certain disturbers of the peace. This law reads: ‘Whoever wilfully disturbs persons assembled in a public library, or readingroom connected therewith, by making a noise, or in [p. 87] any other manner, during the time in which such library or reading-room is open to the public, shall be punished by imprisonment in the jail not exceeding thirty days, or by a fine not exceeding $50.’ In the majority of instances, of course, this lawlessness arises from an overflow of animal spirits, and not from a wilful desire to disturb others, a few moments of personal enjoyment being of more importance in their minds than the discomfort of many others. A wholesome restraint is considered an act of oppression. A few lessons in altruism would not be amiss. There should be one room, at least, which studious people can have free from unnecessary interruptions.

It is interesting to note that the modern library movement began in 1876, the centennial year of our existence as a nation, a fitting time for the inauguration of a new era in the educational history of our country. In September of that year a comparatively small number of prominent librarians met in the old city of Philadelphia to discuss library methods, and as a result of their deliberations was formed the American Library Association, whose avowed purpose is ‘the promoting the library interests of the country, and of increasing reciprocity of intelligence and good — will among librarians and all interested in library economy and bibliographical studies.’ It adopted the ‘Library Journal,’ the first number of which had already appeared, as its official organ, and a perusal of its pages will bear testimony to the work it has sought to accomplish.

It is worthy of note that the new association, like all other educational associations, has never for a moment proposed to itself as an object the obtaining of higher salaries for its members, or the passage of any ten or eight hour law, but has devoted itself to finding out how it could best benefit the public, by enlarging their privileges, by securing the best trained assistants, and by cooperation with the public schools. For the school and the library, according to our modern ideas, are but [p. 88] parts of one educational system and should always work in harmony together toward the one end, the elevation of the people. Among the good works accomplished through the influence of the A. L.A. may be mentioned the establishment of schools for the training of librarians; the adoption of good systems of classification of books; the advocacy of the admission of the public to the shelves; the formation of State library clubs, holding meetings more frequently, to supplement the work of the larger association and to keep up the interest in whatever concerns the advance of the library movement. Without doubt the A. L.A., through its individual members, has had some indirect influence on library legislation.

‘All things must be judged by results, and the only test of success is usefulness.’ It has been said: ‘Agassiz always insisted that something resembling miracles might be wrought in reforming the people by informing them.’ It is customary to measure the importance of a library by the amount of its circulation, as if the more books a man reads the wiser he necessarily becomes. But quality, not quantity of reading is what makes the good citizen, and here it is impossible to tabulate statistics, so dear to the average mind.

The Right Hon. John Morley, at the dedication of a public library in Scotland, says:

‘Show me a man or woman whose reading has made him or her tolerant, patient, candid, a truth-seeker and a truth-lover, then I will show you a well-read man. I have always thought that an admirable definition of the purposes of libraries and of books by an admirable man of letters years ago, when he said their object was to bring more sunshine into the lives of our fellow-countrymen, more good-will, more good-humor, and more of the habit of being pleased with one another. I will make a little addition to that; namely, the purpose is to bring sunshine into our hearts and to drive moonshine out of our heads.’ [p. 89]

The smallness of Medford's appropriation prevents its library from doing as much good as it otherwise could. It has for some time sent carefully selected collections of books each month to the public schools, with very gratifying results as shown in the better class of books called for by the children when they come to the library. But it is to be regretted that for lack of funds it cannot supply its patrons with many books in the fields of art, literature, and science well worth the reading. Few people are aware how much more valuable is even the smallest library with an exhaustive catalogue of its contents. In the report of the Bureau of Education, speaking of the Boston Public Library, the writer says that ‘its peculiar advantage lies less in the great number of its books than in the fact that exhaustive catalogues guide the student to just the book he wants; he is not compelled to swell the statistics of circulation by taking out ten books that were not wanted in order to find the volume of which he stands in need.’ During the last nine or ten years the effect of the modern library movement has been more manifest in this place. The progress of the library up to 1890, as can be seen, was slow, and the trustees felt that something more was needed to make the people acquainted with the wealth of literature at their command, and to have the library do the most effective work. Up to this date the library of about 15,000 volumes had not been classified. Some attempt had been made to furnish extra books for the use of the High School pupils, but very little reference work, on any special subject in a library, can be advantageously done with books arranged only according to size, and new measures were necessarily taken. The first change made under the new conditions was to remove the open-work screen between the library and the people; then upon shelves in the delivery room were put the newer and more desirable books to allow the patrons to handle and to make their selection from them instead of from the catalogue. Gradually people were admitted to [p. 90] the stack-room to make their choice from any part of the library. The age limit of 14 years for admission to the privileges of the library was abolished and a careful selection of books for young people was made; the idea being not only to stimulate a reading habit in the young people, but to introduce them to the best in literature.

These radical changes had a corresponding effect upon the use of the library; the circulation of books for home use having increased from a little over 28,000 in 1890 to 71,456 in 1897, and again more room was found to be indispensable. As the result of an appropriation made by the city in that year, supplemented by the generosity of one of the library trustees, a new, commodious, well-lighted, well-ventilated stack-room was built, with a present capacity for 30,000 volumes, and room in the future for 30,000 more. The old part of the library was enlarged and very much improved, and is devoted to the reading and reference room, a librarian's room, a delivery room, and a good-sized, sunny, children's room. From the patronage in this department we are assured that the younger people find the library a pleasant place to come to. It has been the aim to make the people feel an ownership in the library; all unnecessary restrictions have been removed; the red tape has been cut in many places; no personal cards for the patrons to care for or lose; no weary waiting while books are charged; no long lists of books an absolute necessity; the privilege of two books to each person has been granted; and the number which any person can have for reference or study limited only by the supply at our command. In all ways is it the desire to make the library seem like a home library. But the most satisfying, the most necessary, the most effective work is that done with the schools and the younger people. A lack of sufficient funds, the last year, has very much restricted this important work, but we have great hope for the future. The value and importance of a child's early reading can hardly be overestimated; [p. 91] cultivate in the children a taste for good reading, patriotism, love of truth and beauty. The choice should be not of books written down to children, but the purity of their English should be one of the first considerations. There are so many works that are considered classic and interest all ages to which the attention of children should be drawn. ‘Children derive,’ wrote Sir Walter Scott, ‘impulses of a powerful and important kind from hearing things that they cannot entirely comprehend.’ The hearty cooperation of the teachers, and especially of Mr. Morss, the Superintendent of Schools, makes our work in this direction much easier and very much more effective. The plan has been to send a selection of twelve books to every schoolroom in the city, these books to be used by the children in the school, or to be taken home by them at the discretion of the teacher; thus, by making the fifty-nine school-rooms so many branch libraries, every part of the city is represented in our patrons; at the end of six weeks these books are replaced by another set. By this choice selection not only is the reading of the young people improved, but they learn to have a higher ideal in their own choice; thus preparing themselves to become better citizens and able to take their part in the future welfare of the community.

What shall be the future of our library? Let us hope that the citizens of Medford will recognize it as an equally important educational factor with the public schools, and tax themselves as liberally, as cheerfully, and as constantly for its support and improvement. For it is with a town or city as with the individual: it is on the verge of decay when it has reached that state of self-satisfaction where it sees nothing to improve in itself.

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