The town of Northampton, Mass., owes its extraordinary Forbes Library to an opinionated judge, a president of the United States and a librarian who welcomed children and let patrons browse the shelves.
The Forbes Library, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is home to the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library and Museum. It also uses the same classification system as only four other libraries – including the Library of Congress.
Its first librarian was Charles Ammi Cutter, a pioneer responsible for the modern library. His lifelong goal was to develop of a classification system that included all human knowledge yet serviceable to the general user.
His vision for the Forbes was
…a new type of public library which, speaking broadly, will lend everything to anybody in any desired quantity for any desired time.
Judge Charles Forbes
The library is named after Charles Forbes, a Northampton lawyer who accumulated a fortune through frugality and shrewd investing. He was born Aug. 25, 1795, in West Bridgewater, Mass., graduated from Brown University in Providence and went into law and state politics. In 1848, the governor of Massachusetts appointed him to the Supreme Judicial Court, but he quit within a year because he didn’t like the workload.
Forbes never married and never drank, and in his later years grew ‘peculiar to the verge of eccentricity,’ according to Cutter. He was ‘somewhat formal, kindly in voice, occasionally irascible in temper, impatient of unreasonable opposition, restrained from the exhibition of feeling by an unconquerable or at least unconquered reserve.’
For 19 years he boarded with one family. When they left town, he moved to a tavern. Finally, he started sleeping in a room next to his office above a bank, where he died Feb. 13, 1881 at the age of 85.
An Unusual Will
Though Forbes didn’t earn more than $2,000 in a year, he left an estate of $252,260. He bequeathed nearly all of it to the Town of Northampton, where he had lived for 63 years. The will made clear the library’s collection should emphasize science over religion, and that only lay people could be hired to run it. His last will and testament included a rant against religion in general and Roman Catholicism in particular.
In his will, Forbes noted there were as many as 3,000 systems of religion, ‘but as a general rule these are the inventions of cunning men or the vagaries of semi-lunatics, speaking boldly and impudently in the name of God, of whose decrees and purposes they know as little as the most ignorant of their victims.’ He continued:
The importance of the education of the people cannot be overrated. It will be found the most efficient if not the only protection against the inroads of a foreign superstition, whose swarms of priests, Jesuits, monks, ministers and agents are let loose upon us, and engaged in the unholy work of enslaving the minds of the multitude, and moulding them into instruments of priestly power, a power built up on the remains of ancient paganism, and sustained in one particular at least by gross fetishism ….
He also ordered the building be fireproof.
Charles Ammi Cutter was born on March 14, 1837 in Boston. His mother died a month after his birth and his father, a fish-oil merchant, remarried two years later. When his stepmother had a baby, two-year-old Charles was sent to live in West Cambridge with his grandfather and three maiden aunts.
His aunts reared him as their own son and paid his way through Harvard. One of his aunts was the town librarian, which was fortunate for the frail, nearsighted boy who preferred reading to sports. He entered Harvard at 14, graduating third in his class four years later.
His late grandfather wished Charles would attend Harvard Divinity School. He did, but he couldn’t stay out of the library. He worked in the school’s library cataloguing its holdings. In 1860, at 23, he joined the staff of Harvard College’s library, the biggest in the country. He and Dr. Ezra Abbott spent eight years creating the first card catalog.
In 1868, Cutter became librarian at the Boston Athenaeum, a job he held for 25 years. While there he invented the Cutter Expansive Classification, which is now used by the Library of Congress. He also pioneered the interlibrary loan and invented the pouch on the inside back cover to hold the loan card. By 1893 he had a falling out with the Athenaeum trustees, quit and traveled to Europe to get away from libraries.
He couldn’t quite do it. Before he left, he wrote to the Forbes’ trustees offering to buy books and artifacts for the new library. When he returned, they offered him the job.
The Forbes Library
The building opened on July 1, 1895. Architect William Brocklesby designed it in the style of Trinity Church in Boston. The building was, as Forbes demanded, fireproof. Made of stone, steel and copper, the building also had a glass mezzanine floor and arched ceilings of fireproof tile by Rafael Guastavino.
Cutter continued to innovate, welcoming children, setting up branch libraries and a traveling library system, set up an art and music room and loaned books to teachers for use in the classroom.
Like Judge Forbes, Cutter was a boarder during his time in Northampton. His wife, Sarah Fayerweather Appleton, was too much of a Bostonian to live full time in western Massachusetts.
Charles Cutter died of pneumonia on Sept. 6, 1903 at the age of 66. Shortly before his death, he and Sarah moved into 21 Massasoit St., a home that a rising young lawyer named Calvin Coolidge had lived in.
Coolidge became mayor of Northampton in 1910 and served for a term before his election to the state Legislature. By 1920 he was governor of Massachusetts and had begun donating artifacts to the Forbes Library in his old hometown. In 1956, a bequest by Grace Coolidge allowed the commonwealth to establish the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Room at the Forbes Library.
In 1883, Cutter presented a paper to the American Library Association that envisioned what a library in Buffalo, N.Y., would be like 100 years in the future. In it, he wrote,
The desks had… a little keyboard at each, connected by a wire. The reader had only to find the mark of his book in the catalog, touch a few lettered or numbered keys, and [the book] appeared after an astonishing short interval.
This story last updated in 2022.
Images: Forbes Library By Kevin Rutherford, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37006925.