The Peterborough Town Library, established in 1833, is the oldest tax-supported public library in the world.


The Peterborough Town Library, established in 1833, is the oldest tax-supported public library in the world.

In 1833, Reverend Abiel Abbot, Peterborough’s Unitarian minister, proposed the creation of the Peterborough Town Library, a central collection of books that would be owned by the people and free to all inhabitants of the town. Funds were available for a core collection because of the State Literary Fund, tax money that originally had been collected from capital stock taxes but was not adequate to build the State University which had been their original intention.

“The ancient manners were giving way. There grew a certain tenderness on the people, not before remarked,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson of this period. The 1830’s was a time of social ferment in New Hampshire, as it was throughout the Northeast. It was a time of active improvement, of the belief that “society must direct mankind towards moral perfection.” There was the temperance movement, educational reform, the beginnings of the anti-slavery movement, labor movement, prison reform and humane treatment of the mentally ill. It was a decade which witnessed a proliferation of religious denominations and utopian movements. It was a period of sincere belief in mankind’s innate goodness, the belief that moral perfection could be influenced by one’s environment, by exposure to good thoughts, music, and books. It was a time when Dr. Abbot’s innovative thoughts on books and education received a receptive hearing. He gave practical expression to an idea, the tax-supported public library, hardly second in importance to the public school itself.

On April 9, 1833, at Town Meeting, a proposal was made and passed “that a portion of the State Literary Fund be used for the purchase of books to establish a library, free to all the citizens of Peterborough.”

Reverend Abbot was experienced in establishing libraries. Since he came to Peterborough in 1827, he had already established a Juvenile Library in his home and organized the Peterborough Library Company, a dues-paying membership library. He became a trend-setter. Seeing the results of his library experiments in Peterborough encouraged the New Hampshire State Legislature to become the first state to pass a law authorizing towns to raise money to establish and maintain their own libraries. This law was enacted in New Hampshire in 1849.

Books purchased by Rev. Abbott and the Library Directors (Library Trustees) were housed in Smith & Thompson’s general store which, like all general stores, was also the post office. It was possible for a shopper to pick up his mail, his groceries, and his library books before he left the building. The postmaster acted as librarian until 1854, when Miss Susan Gates was appointed specifically to take care of the town library books.

In 1873 the growing collection of books was moved to the Town Hall, a move intended to be permanent. However, by 1890, there were six thousand books and not nearly enough space for books and users. Several citizens, foreseeing this difficulty, had begun to work quietly toward the goal of giving the library collection its own building and providing land and funds for its construction. The distinguished Peterborough engineer, George S. Morison, constructed the building at the junction of Main and Concord Streets for the collection.

Since then, the building has been expanded twice to accommodate the collection and its users. The collection has grown from the original hundred books of the 1833 core collection to over 43,000 books today. In addition, there are other print and non-print media, in juvenile and adult collections.

The Eben Jones Wing, added in 1957, honored a long-time Library Trustee and gave additional storage space. The 1978 addition added meeting-rooms and handicapped-accessibility.

The Peterborough Town Library’s claim to importance is not that it was the first library to which the public had access, for such libraries had existed before 1833. Rather, its importance rests in its being created on the principle, accepted at Town Meeting, that the public library, like the public school, was deserving of maintenance by public taxation and should be owned and managed by the people of the community, who thereby ceased to be dependent upon private munificence. In this, the Peterborough Town Library was the first – and has, since its founding in 1833, been an integral element of the Peterborough community’s identity.

A booklet, The History of the Peterborough Town Library, is available at the circulation desk. This book, written in part by Kathleen Taylor (former Director) and Elizabeth Yates McGreal (former Trustee), describes the history of the library in greater detail, as well as the portraits which grace the walls of the library Reference Room (the original library building).


Peterborough Town Library—today

As our library moves into the 21st century, its basic mission as an institution of lifelong learning remains unchanged. However, the current physical structure limits its ability to provide services and programs that are needed in an ever-changing world. With an improved physical structure, one that is flexible enough to adapt to future needs, the library could enhance the services and programs it offers and serve the community well into the future.

In 2011, seeing the need for a revitalized and updated Library facility, and with the support of the Library trustees, a group of concerned individuals created the 1833 Society.  As a 501(c)(3) corporation, the Society’s mission is to raise funds through private donations and grants to finance a major upgrade of the Peterborough Town Library and to assist in its development. Please visit the Library Project page to learn more about the renovation currently underway.