West Newbury’s first library was formed in 1819, the year West Newbury became a town. Called the “First Social Library” it was a private institution that was housed in many different places including the #1 school house, barber shop and First Parish Meeting House.
Several other libraries existed during the 19th century including one formed around 1870 by Leonard Woodman Smith, a local historian and journalist, in his home on Maple Street. A card cost 75 cents per year.
In 1874 the Merrimac Lodge of Good Templars assisted by the Debating Club made an effort to start a town library. For a year this was located in the Good Templars’ Hall over Whittier’s Store, where Brunault’s Auto Repair now stands. In 1875 the Ladies’ Library Association was formed to help the library “in all needful ways.” The Ladies raised $114, and Hayden Brown, a local businessman in the comb industry, offered the library a room in a building that he owned, on the site of the present day Food Mart. That same year the salary for the librarian was $1 per week.
During the 1880s the local newspaper, “The West Newbury Era” campaigned for a public library suggesting that the building should be “something substantial, but nothing fancy…. An artistic edifice (in a town like this) in which to house a library, is as needless as a ten dollar hat to keep the cold from a feminine head!”
But in 1883 the Ladies’ Library Association voted against giving the library to the town and in 1886 bought Martin W. Wood’s blacksmith shop at the corner of Main and Mechanic Streets converting it to a library building. In 1891 this building was moved to land near Post Office Square. In 1894, after the State of Massachusetts offered $100 for books to any town that established a public library, the building and its contents were turned over to the town, and the first free public library was founded.
As early as 1874 the Major Boyd Post, (representing the veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic or G.A.R.) conceived the idea of a town library as a Civil War Memorial and began raising funds with such events as a “The Great and Thrilling Military, a Five Act Drama entitled SURROUNDED BY FIRE” with tickets at 25 cents and reserved seats at 35 cents. From 1894 until 1914 the librarian was Caroline Carr.
In 1902 the Major Boyd Post gave the town $2,400. for a Memorial Hall with a room for a library, and in 1917 Misses Louisa and Georgiana Emery gave the land on which the library now stands, then containing the Albion Hotel, to the town.
Operation of the library continued in the old blacksmith shop until the 1920s when the deteriorating condition of the building forced it to move. With an offer of free rent from the Charles L. Carr Post 240 of the American Legion and with money raised by the town for renovation, the town citizens moved all the books in January of 1927 to the ground floor of the Legion Hall where they remained until 1939.
By 1937 the G.A.R. fund had grown to $13,344.17 and the original library building designed by Russell Peirce, a Newburyport architect and a native of West Newbury, was erected. When the new building was dedicated in 1939 Mrs. Sarah Bailey, who had been appointed in 1914, remained in her position until retiring in 1953 when she was replaced by Esther Thurlow. Janet Smith served briefly from 1957 to 1958 followed by Harriet Campbell until 1967.
With ever expanding use of the library in 1975 the attic space was converted to a children’s room, and in 1987 the town voted to override Proposition 2 1/2 to spend $1,200,000. in order to triple the size of the library building.
The present library remains a popular and active center of the community overseen since 1967 by the director, Katharine M. Gove. “Kay” has guided the library as it has grown from a circulation of 17,000 per year to over 105,000 as well as ushering us into the modern era with the addition of computers, on line cataloging, books on tape, CDs, DVDs, and now wifi. Our Children's librarian Kate Gove has developed and continually expanded a large and ambitious program for children. Together with their able staff they provide what long time trustee Jean Berkenbush always reminded us was the our primary reason for being - books!
Based on the work of Elizabeth Thompson (1903 to 1995) for many years our most able and prolific town historian.