World’s First Free Public Library Supported by Taxation

By Sue Coletta

Photo credit: http://www.libraryhistorybuff.com/

Our local TV station runs a short segment during WMUR’s Chronicle with Fritz Wetherbee, an old-timer who’s a brilliant historian. Every night Fritz shares fascinating stories about New Hampshire. I love learning about the statues, landmarks, buildings, rivers and lakes in my state.

The other night he shared a story about a Unitarian minister who founded the world’s first free public library supported by taxation.

Literary-minded Reverend Abiel Abbot (December 14, 1765 – January 31, 1859) moved from Wilton, NH to Peterborough, NH in 1827 and immediately set up a youth library in his home. He also founded the Peterborough Library Company, supported by membership dues. In proposing the creation of the town library, he described “a central collection of books that would be owned by the people and free to all of those that lived in the town.”

The library website offers the following…

“Inspired by the result, the New Hampshire State Legislature passed a law authorizing towns across the state to raise money for libraries in 1849. Britain wouldn’t pass its Public Libraries Act until 1850, and America’s first large public library—the Boston Public Library—was founded in 1852.”

Photo credit: http://www.libraryhistorybuff.com/

During a town meeting at Peterborough in 1833, Abbot proposed 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 the town. Books purchased by Reverend Abbot and a board of trustees were made available for public use.

Reverend Abbot housed the original Peterborough Town Library in a general store that doubled as the post office, with the postmaster acting as librarian until 1854. After a short stint at town hall, a permanent home was finally built in 1893 to house a book collection that had grown into the thousands.

In a thesis published in 1947, Sidney Ditzion commented on the Peterborough Public Library.

“The account of the establishment of a town library at Peterborough, New Hampshire, is unique in that here we have an instance of what appears to be the spontaneous generation of an entirely new form.  Here, without the stimulus of private donation, without the permission of state legislation, without the semblance of a model in the mother country, a tax-supported town library was born.

The circumstances surrounding the creation of this institution raise an interesting historical question involving local circumstance and group motivation to which no answer has yet been offered.  In January of 1833 a group of farmers and small manufacturers under the leadership of the Rev. Abiel Abbot formed a social library whose shares sold at two dollars and whose annual membership fee was fifty cents. 

On April 9 of the same year the town, apparently under the inspiration of the same Rev. Abbot voted to set aside for the purchase of books a portion of the state bank tax which was distributed among New Hampshire towns for library purposes.  This was the way the first American town library to be continuously supported over a period of years was begun.”

Reverend Abbot founded several other libraries, too, including the Juvenile Library and the Library Company of Peterborough. In 1965, on the bicentennial of Abbot’s birth, New Hampshire State Legislature passed a resolution to recognize Abbot’s role in founding the “first free public library in the world supported by taxation.” This resolution also requested that the President of the United States and the Postmaster General issue a postage stamp to commemorate the bicentennial of Abbot’s birth.

Today, Peterborough Public Library remains the oldest public library in the world. Pretty cool, eh?

For discussion, please share one historical fact about your town or state. Does your local news have a guy like Fritz Wetherbee? The name kills me. He looks exactly how you picture him.

Quick update to my previous post: I’m still keeping the raven alive 19 long, emotional days, but it’ll be worth it if she flies again. One day I couldn’t find her, and I thought for sure a night predator found her. The next day, she strutted back into the yard for breakfast. What a will to live! Here’s a quick video of Rave chowing down. See the wing?

More later. I’m hoping this story has a happy ending.

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15 thoughts on “World’s First Free Public Library Supported by Taxation

  1. Great story, Sue. Thanks. I wonder how Reverend Abbot would react to a Bookmobile? Maybe he had a bookwagon, who knows.

    My residential town of Westerville was at one time the smallest city in the United States to have its own post office. It was also the home of the Anti-Saloon League from 1909 and was known as the “Dry Capital of the World.” A small museum storing League artifacts is located in…the Westerville Library. Funny all everything is a circle, isn’t it?

    Thanks for the video of your patient. You do good work.

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    • Thanks, Joe! The longer I’m on this earth the more I see connections. Love the history you shared! There’s a quaint seaside town in Massachusetts that remains “dry”: Rockport. 🙂

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  2. Hi Sue,

    I love this story! Of course, I worked in public libraries for 32 years here in Portland, Oregon, so I would. But I didn’t not know that this was the first free funded by tax public library in history.

    The library system I worked for, the Multnomah County Library (the county is named after a local Native American tribe), was founded in 1864, a relative newcomer by comparison 🙂 The Central Library was built in 1910, which reminds me of a joke I heard a few years when on a tour of the Seattle underground. Our guide asked if anyone in the tour was from Europe and two hands went up. She leaned forward, and said, in a dramatic voice, that “here in Seattle we have buildings over one hundred years old!”

    Portland is an older city than Seattle, founded in 1845. Two business partners, Asa Lovejoy and William Overton filed claim on land along the Willamette River (named after another local tribe), and a settlement grew on the land. In 1845, Asa Lovejoy and Francis Pettygrove, who’d bought Overton’s share of the claime, decided to flip a coin to decide the name of the new settlement. Lovejoy was from Massachusetts and wanted to name it Boston, while Pettygrove was from Maine and wanted to name it Portland. A copper penny (they were much larger coins back then) was flipped to decide, and Pettygrove won the toss, so Portland became the name.

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    • Love that bit of history, Dale! I had no idea that’s how Portland, OR got its name. Fascinating. Thanks for sharing. I love learning new things. 🙂

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  3. Benjamin Franklin was all about free libraries for free citizens. It’s rather surprising it took so long for one to finally happen.

    North Carolina had the first state symphony orchestra, the first state public university (University of NC, Chapel Hill,) and the precursor to the US Constitution (The Mecklenburg Compact). It also had the the first gold rush and flourishing wine industry. Take that, California, Virginia, and South Carolina!

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  4. Since many here are practicing writers or newbies, I thought I’d share these especially useful writing-as-business links from today’s “The Morning Coffee” by Digital Reader (email newsletter.)

    I don’t agree with some of “Digital Reader’s” op/ed articles on publishing and copyright, but he provides useful links about the business and technology side of writing.

    https://the-digital-reader.com/category/morning-coffee/

    Evaluation by Copyright Office of Section 512 (Safe Harbor for Internet providers) No surprise that authors are being screwed:

    https://copyrightandtechnology.com/2020/05/26/copyright-office-releases-section-512-report/

    Dean Wesley Smith (well-respected sf/fantasy writer, publisher, writing business expert) compares traditional vs self-publishing as viable options:

    https://www.deanwesleysmith.com/why-am-i-so-against-traditional-publishing/

    Victoria Strauss (Writer Beware) on evaluating publishing contracts:

    https://accrispin.blogspot.com/2020/05/evaluating-publishing-contracts-six.html

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  5. Where there’s a will there’s a way, as the saying goes.

    My hometown-Yakima, WA- eagerly anticipated the coming of the Northern Pacific Railroad. 1884 was the year.

    But, as luck would have it, the railroad gurus decided to bypass the main downtown area and located its depot some ways away. What to do?

    The enterprising citizens then prepared giant rollers and moved (can you visualize rollin’ rollin’ rollin’?) approximately 100 of its main buildings nearer the depot. Problem solved! There are pictures of the entire process in the archives of our historical society.

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    • Wow, Deb. That was a huge undertaking to move those buildings. Love the perseverance in the nineteenth century. Folks back then blow me away. Such an industrialist community of good, hardworking people. Thanks for sharing WA’s fascinating history.

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  6. Great subject, Sue. On Vancouver Island, we have an excellent network of regional libraries that serve all communities from urban to rural. The book sharing system started in the early 1800s when the British colonized the area and brought boatloads of books from Europe for the commonwealth of colonists. It’s still very active and an anchor of education.

    We also have Literacy Central which is a volunteer tutoring organization that works with folks to improve their reading and writing skills. And, then we have the book-nooks 🙂

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  7. Fascinating story, Sue! Reverend Abbot provided incredible gifts lasting many generations throughout the country and world.

    Here in Kalispell, MT, the library was founded in 1897 with the first building, funded by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, opening in 1904. It’s a gorgeous sandstone building in Colonial Revival style with a domed octagonal entrance.

    The library lived in that building until 1969 until it moved to a “new” home. It’s now in the former federal building, circa 1917, which is also Colonial Revival architecture.

    Classic old buildings are wonderful venues for libraries, with history inside and out.

    Rave looks pretty spry. You’re a good bird nurse!

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    • Thanks, Debbie! Rave looks better and better each day. I can’t wait till she flies, and I can finally get a restful sleep without worrying about her nestled under the bush in my yard. 😉

      The old Kalispell Library sounds beautiful. I love old buildings. They have so much character.

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  8. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday! For Writers & Readers 06-04-2020 | The Author Chronicles

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