Oldest Public Library in the Country Celebrates 185 Years…Marks Occasion With Major Expansion
The American public library movement was born 185 years ago in 1833 when the residents of Peterborough, NH established the first free public library supported by taxation. Today there are more than 16,000 public libraries across the country, affirming that the legacy of the Peterborough Town Library is alive and well.
The father of the public library movement was Dr. Abiel Abbot, who came to Peterborough in 1827 and organized the Peterborough Library Company in January 1833. Shares were $2.00 and yearly dues fifty cents. This was the first step paving the way for a proposal that was made at Town Meeting on April 9, 1833 that a portion of the State Library Fund be used for the purchase of books as the foundation of a library that would be owned by the people and free to all the citizens of town. The Library was housed first in the town’s general store and then in the Town House. In 1892, two former residents of Peterborough and descendants of early settlers, financed the construction of a new library which was opened on October 4, 1893.
New Hampshire followed the public library trend early. In 1849, the state legislature authorized towns to raise money to establish and maintain their libraries, thus becoming the first state to do so. A similar act was passed in England the following year and in Massachusetts two years later. Such laws soon became widespread.
Today, the Peterborough Town Library’s powerful legacy is alive and thriving, but the 21st Century continues to bring change and the Library has been preparing for a major renovation for over ten years. Working with Ann Beha Architects of Boston, a final design has been completed which will turn the library into a more efficient and functional facility, while preserving the overall design character of this much loved historic building. The original 1892 section is scheduled for a full restoration and plans call for replacement of two earlier additions. The new wing will shift orientation to the Contoocook River frontage and create public green spaces with beautiful views of the Main Street Bridge and downtown Peterborough.
Leading the project is the Library’s 1833 Society which was formed by a group of concerned citizens and incorporated as a 501(c)3 non-profit with a two-fold mission: to raise sufficient funds to finance a major upgrade of the Library; and to assist with the design and construction of a revitalized and updated facility.
A leading priority of the new Library is to broaden services and programming for children and teens. The Children’s area will be a separate bright and cheerful space that embraces children’s developmental and physical needs and provides much needed space for families to engage with their children’s learning. The children’s library will include space for learning activities, age-appropriate technology, makerspace activities, games and intergenerational connections.
This landmark project and design have undergone a conservative cost estimating process with Harvey Construction, the construction management team. The Library’s Board of Trustees have approved the projected cost of $8.5 million. The volunteer-driven Peterborough Town Library Campaign, chaired by Peterborough resident Audrey White, has raised $3.5 million in gifts and pledges towards its goal and anticipates raising an additional $2 million from individuals, corporations, foundations, and state agencies. Project leaders plan to ask the residents of Peterborough to consider approval of a town bond of approximately $3 million at Town Meeting on May 9th at 6:00pm as the Town’s investment in this quality-of-life improvement for the community. Construction is scheduled to start in the late summer of 2018. A temporary library will be set up to continue library service during construction.
Like public libraries across the nation, Peterborough Town Library has seen a shift in how the public uses its services, along with a steady increase in card holders and library attendance. In 2017, the Library had over 64,089 visits, circulated more than 69,934 items, and over 6,000 adult and children attended programs.
Local community leaders Dorothy Peterson, Stan Fry and Cyrus Gregg serve as the campaign’s Honorary Co-Chairs. “Having raised our family in Peterborough, Walter and I understood the importance of having access to a great public library like the Peterborough Town Library,” notes Mrs. Peterson. “It has served our family well and it’s time to create a new library to enrich and improve the lives of future generations.”
For more information about the Library’s renovation plans, contact Corinne Chronopoulos, Library Director at 603-924-8040, x401 or email cchronopoulos at peterboroughnh.gov. Visit our project website here: http://peterboroughtownlibrary.org/libraryproject/