Identifying New England’s oldest libraries is no easy task. In the early days of European settlement, book collections took many different forms.
Many New England libraries evolved over time from private collections to public institutions. Philanthropists founded some, while collective town actions resulted in others.
Many New England towns claim to have the oldest libraries in their state. In New Hampshire, for example, the Portsmouth Athenaeum was founded as a private library in 1817, 16 years before the Peterborough Town Library. But Peterborough, funded by taxpayers from the start, claims to be the oldest tax-supported library.
We decided to exercise our editorial prerogative and limit our list to the oldest libraries that lend books. So Peterborough in, Portsmouth out.
Here are six of the oldest libraries in New England, one in each state. If you have a candidate for oldest library, please mention it in the comment section below this story.
The Scoville Memorial Library in Salisbury, Conn., started in 1771 when a local blast furnace owner named Richard Smith offered to buy 200 books from London. But the rest of the town had to chip in, and 39 people contributed. On the third Monday of every third month, patrons could borrow and return books. The library fined them for damaging books, usually by greasing – letting candle wax drip on the pages.
In 1805, another local philanthropist named Caleb Bingham donated the Bingham Library for Youth. Then Miss Harriet Church donated the Church Library. Town Meeting in 1810 voted to authorize selectmen to spend $100 to buy more books for the town library.
The library now claims to be the oldest publicly funded library in the United States.
Jonathan Scoville in the 1890s left $15,000 in his will to build a library for the town’s books, then kept in Town Hall. Miss Grace Scoville bought a tower clock, which still chimes on the quarter hour. Salisbury Cathedral in England sent the library a 15th-century stone carving, which the library placed above the fireplace in the reading room.
The library has recently redesigned its interior and now has 30,000 items, including the original books, genealogy and history of the town. Incidentally, settlers came to Salisbury after the discovery of iron nearby, and during the American Revolution the government took over the iron works to cast cannon.
38 Main St., Salisbury, Conn.
Witherle Memorial Library
The Witherle Memorial Library in Castine, Maine, began in 1801 as a private collection of books that only paid subscribers could use. The Town of Castine took over the library in 1827 and established it as Maine’s first municipal library in 1855.
Local ships chandlers George and Mary Witherle donated the money for the land and the building’s foundation. The building itself was finished in 1913. Today the library has more than 13,000 volumes and local history collections, including the story of Castine’s founder, Jean-Vincent d’Abbadie de Saint-Castin. It also includes the history of the Penobscot Expedition; books by and about Civil War journalist Noah Brooks; and the letters of Union Army soldier Henry Butler to his wife during the Civil War.
41 School St., Castine, Maine
The Sturgis Library in Barnstable, Mass., is the oldest building in the United States to house a public library. The original part of the library was built in 1644 as the house of Rev. John Lothrop (also spelled Lothropp or Lathrop).
Lothrop immigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634, having been imprisoned in England as an outspoken Puritan who advocated independence for congregations. He was pardoned after he agreed to leave for the New World. Lothrop landed in Plymouth and settled in Barnstable on Cape Cod in 1639, one of the town’s first settlers. In New England, Lothrop strongly supported the separation of church and state.
He married twice and had 13 children. Today his descendants number 80,000, including six U.S. presidents (the Bushes, Franklin Roosevelt, Millard Fillmore, James A. Garfield and Ulysses S. Grant).
One of his descendants, William Sturgis, made a fortune in the China trade. When he died in 1863, he bequeathed his family home, $15,000 and his books for a public library.
The first two rooms of the house were used for religious worship, so the Sturgis Library also has the distinction of being the oldest building in the United States used regularly for religious services. The Lothrop Room is quintessential early Cape, with wide pumpkin pine floorboards and a beamed ceiling.
It’s located on the Old King’s Highway, and has 65,000 books the Cape Cod History Collection, the most important collection of its kind in the United States; the Kittredge Maritime Collection, one of the finest maritime collections on the East Coast; and the Lothrop Genealogy Collection.
3090 Main St., Barnstable, Mass.
Peterborough Town Library
The Peterborough Town Library, founded in 1833, is the oldest taxpayer-supported free library in New Hampshire.
Unitarian minister Abiel Abbot had the idea for a collection of books owned by the people and free to everyone who lived in Peterborough. The State of New Hampshire made money available for it. A capital stock tax had been intended to build a state university, but it didn’t raise enough money. Hence, the state created a Literary Fund, and Peterborough decided to use it for books.
On April 9, 1833, Town Meeting approved the library on the principle that, like the public school, it deserved maintenance by public taxation. The people of the community should also own and manage it.
The town bought 100 books and put them in Smith and Thompson’s General Store, along with the post office. The postmaster acted as librarian until 1854, when the town appointed Miss Susan Gates to take care of the town library books. In 1873, the growing collection of books moved to Town Hall. Within two decades Peterborough had 6,000 books and not nearly enough room. So in 1893, the town gave the library own building designed by noted bridge engineer and summer resident George Shattuck Morison. The collection now includes more than 50,000 volumes.
2 Concord St., Peterborough, N.H.
The Redwood Library and Athenaeum started off as a 45-member literary society founded by Bishop George Berkeley, the great Irish philosopher. Berkeley moved to Rhode Island in 1729 to start a college. The Company of the Redwood Library in Newport, R.I., was founded in 1747 for the purpose of ‘having nothing in view but the good of mankind.’
Newport merchant Abraham Redwood gave the library 500 pounds sterling to buy 751 used books from London.
When the British occupied Newport in 1776, they used the library as an officers’ club. Many of the books disappeared. In 1806, the library began advertising for their return, but didn’t get many back. In 1947, the library staff tried again and recovered 92 percent of the missing volumes or copies of them.
Peter Harrison, the first professionally trained architect in the United States, designed the building. He later designed Newport’s Brick Market and Touro Synagogue. Ezra Stiles, who later helped found Brown University and served as president of Yale, served as its most well-known librarian.
The Redwood Library and Athenaeum is the oldest community library still occupying its original building. Unlike the Peabody Library in Vermont, the Redwood is private. It began charging $10 for admission in 2016.
50 Bellevue Ave., Newport, R.I.
The Peabody Library in the Post Mills Village of Thetford, Vt., was built in 1867, making it the oldest active library in the state federation of public libraries. George Peabody gave it to the town as a gift.
In the first decade of the 19th century, Peabody was a teenager from South Danvers, Mass., who wanted to visit his grandfather in Post Mills. Too poor to pay for a horse or carriage, he walked for 10 days He chopped wood for innkeepers along the way and slept in their stables. Once he arrived he then spent the winter with his grandfather and became close to his aunt and uncle.
By 1867 Peabody acquired great wealth and gave some of it away from his home in England. He gave the village $5,000 to pay for land, building construction and 1,500 volumes from a London book dealer. Peabody founded and endowed museums at Harvard, Yale, and Salem, Mass. He also gave a Peabody Conservatory of Music and Peabody Institute Libraries in Baltimore, Danvers, Newburyport, Mass., and Georgetown, Mass. The town of South Danvers renamed itself Peabody in his honor.
Today in Thetford the one-room library building still has a long wooden table and rows of white bookshelves. Two curved staircases lead to an open balcony. Everything in the building is original except for the carpet and the paint.
Today the library has 6,000 volumes, DVDs, audio, e-books and WiFi – which some people who don’t patronize the library use while sitting outside.
7922 VT Route 113 (Junction of Routes 113 and 244), Post Mills, Vt.
Images: Scoville Library By Phinisi Stuart – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21632787; Sturgis Library By John Phelan – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22634220; Redwood Library, By slgckgc – The Redwood Public Library, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38248325; Peabody Library By Doug Kerr from Albany, NY, United States – Post Mills, VermontUploaded by Magicpiano, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29767643
This story about New England’s oldest libraries was updated in 2021.
Why wasn’t the Providence Atheneum included in this list?
It was hard to choose the ‘oldest’ from each state because there are so many ways to define oldest. But the Redwood Library was started six years earlier than the predecessor organization to the Providence Athenaeum.
Wayland, Massachusetts: http://waylandlibrary.org/aboutus/about-wpl/history/
“The Wayland Library was founded in 1848 as arguably the first free public library in Massachusetts. Some people have claimed that it is the second free public library established in the United States. However, the library movement began in Wayland much earlier, in 1796 when Rev. Josiah Bridge, pastor of the First Church, organized the East Sudbury Social Library. By 1832 the Library’s collection had grown from a first purchase of 36 volumes to 227 volumes, all kept in the homes of the librarians. In 1815, Rev. John Burt Wight developed a collection of 300 moral and religious books known as the “East Sudbury Charitable Library.” Both of these early libraries formed the original collection of the Wayland Free Public Library when it was established in the Town house (now Collins Market) in 1850.”
The Portsmouth Athenaeum does lend books to subscribers…http://portsmouthathenaeum.org/membership.html.
The Durham Book Company in Durham, CT was founded in 1733. Its beginning was preceded by Franklin’s library in Philadelphia by one year only. The latter was privately owned and was comprised almost wholly by books on theology, while the Durham Book Company with its collection of books on various subjects was not individually owned. Hence, we have been known to claim title to the first Public Library in New England and second in the country.
Only residents of Durham could belong to the Book Company, but exceptions were made. The President of Yale College was among the distinguished men who joined.
Fascinating! Thank you for sharing!
Very interesting article. Thank you for sharing. I am one of the 80,000 descendants of Rev. John Lothrop and have had the opportunity to visit and do research at the Sturgis Library and walk the floor where my 9X great grandfather walked…a very humbling experience…
Isn’t the Sturgis wonderful? It must have been quite something to walk on your ancestor’s floorboards!
The Salem Athenaeum was the 1810 incorporation of a merger between the Salem Social Library of 1760 and the Salem Philosophical Library of 1781.
Actually, the Peterborough Town Library is the oldest tax-supported library in the world, not just in New Hampshire.
I was surprised that the Boston Anthenaeum wasn’t included. Founded in 1807 it is one of the oldest (and distinquished) libraries in the United States with a collection of over one-half million. If you are into Libraries, don’t miss a chance to visit. They have a seven-story “stack” that is “below ground”. Along with George Washington’s book collection it is quite an experience to visit. Be sure to see the ‘quiet room’.
You may be interested in our story about William Smith Shaw, John Adams’ nephew, the Athenaeum’s first librarian. https://newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/john-adams-seriously-ocd-nephew-founds-boston-athenaeum/
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