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A Cheap Mode of Reading

Brattleboro's Library in Its Early Years

B/W drawing of the 1880x Brooks Memorial Library BuildingAs I watched Ric Burns's New York: A Documentary Film on PBS in late 1999, I was reminded of Jack Finney's 1970 novel, Time and Again. The book's protagonist enters a portal to the past from a room in the city's famous neo-Gothic apartment building, the Dakota, and time travels to 19th-century New York City. Brattleboro's architecture likewise offers many opportunities to enter the past. In fact, just looking at the "Brattleboro Free Library" sign hanging in the library's main room right across from my office started me musing on the beginnings of the first "public" library in Brattleboro.

The earliest Brattleboro library was established in 1821, when a small group of local citizens assembled a 300-volume lending library to borrow books among themselves. It was located in the Brattleborough Bookstore, at the site of the present Hooker-Dunham block. This social library was established for those people wishing to "avail themselves of a CHEAP MODE of reading" according to the original charter. It was a common way for local elites to share their reading tastes. In Brattleboro, according to the periodical With Interest, it was also a means for the local literati to commemorate the 1824 centennial of Brattleboro's first settlement. Some intertown rivalry was at work as well: Brattleboro wanted to one-up its larger neighbor, Guilford, in the "who-has-the-truer-sense-of-history" game.

Not a public library, as we understand the term today, it was basically a private reading club limited to qualified members. Although not explicitly stated in its charter, membership was restricted to men. The lending terms were fairly generous: for a mere $3.50 per year, members could borrow books for one week (the smaller-size, or "duodecimo," volumes) or for two weeks (the larger-size, or "octavo," volumes). Fines were assessed at $.03 per day (which, as a matter of interest, is approximately one-third of our 2001 rate, 180 years later!).

Information is sketchy, but this arrangement seems to have met the needs of the original organizers for twenty years. Perhaps change was prompted by the establishment in 1833 of the first publicly funded library in the United States in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Or perhaps increasing social needs and literacy rates provided the impetus. At any rate, some Brattleboro residents undertook to broaden the private club model of the social library to one that was more publicly accessible, open to all as a subscription library. A call went out "for all of those interested . . . to meet, taking measures to organize a Public Library" in Wheeler's Hall on October 3, 1842.

The group that assembled formed the Brattleboro Library Association. Dr. Charles Chapin, Town Meeting moderator, was appointed moderator of the library meeting, and C. J. Walker was elected its secretary. The association's first members were artist Larkin Mead; Addisson Brown, first minister of the Unitarian Church; Joseph Steen, a local printer who worked for Holbrook and Fessenden publishers; Gardener C. Hall; Judge Asa Keyes, state senator from Windham County; and F. H. Fessenden, oldest son of Joseph Fessenden and a partner in the Brattleboro Typographic Company.

Although the new library was public in the sense that it circulated its books to any subscriber, no town funds were involved for its support. Membership in the association cost $2 per year and members were subject to an annual assessment of $1. Apparently, members numbered several hundred, including the town's most notable citizens.

Almond Eddy was chosen as the first librarian and served from 1842 to 1846. A share of stock was voted to Mr. Hall in return for the use of a room in his building to house the library. (The building became known as the Fisk block and later was replaced by the Hooker block.) The library's first move came in 1846, when it relocated to George Salisbury's bookstore in the Edwards Bookbindery. Salisbury served as librarian from 1846 to 1852.

In 1852 a large bequest of $2,000 came to the library association from A. H. Bull of Hartford, Connecticut. The bequest stipulated that $100 would come to the association each year for twenty years; that no books would be purchased from these monies unless approved by a resident clergyman; and that the library could not be kept open on Sundays. From this generous bequest we can see the beginnings of private philanthropy to Brattleboro's library, which continues today through the Brooks Memorial Library Endowment Fund.

In 1855 E. J. Carpenter became the librarian and served in this capacity until 1882. Later the library moved to Benjamin Marshall's jewelry store, where it remained for a few years. While the library was housed in the Blake block on the corner of Main and Elliot Streets, a fire in 1869 destroyed more than half its inventory. After the fire, the library moved to Mr. Carpenter's news rooms on Elliot Street and stayed there until 1882.

The year 1882 marks a watershed event in Brattleboro library history. On January 31 a notice was posted announcing a February 13 meeting to be held in the Crosby Opera Hall "to form a town supported public library." At that meeting Dr. G. B. Gow presented two resolutions: one, that it was desirable to establish a free public library in the Town of Brattleboro; and two, that the library association approved of its union with any library established by the Town when the Town was prepared to receive books and provide for their "maintenance, increase, and convenient use as a free library." A committee of five was to be chosen to accomplish this union.

On February 21 another meeting was held, and a second committee was appointed to secure signatures of proprietors to articles of union. The function of this committee was to transfer to the Town at the annual Town Meeting the forty-one-year-old Brattleboro Library Association. Accordingly, on March 7 the citizens of Brattleboro voted to establish a tax-supported public library. The vote also established a room in the Town Hall building to be used for this purpose and appropriated $1,000 for the library's operating costs.

A committee of nine was appointed to draft the first rules and bylaws of the new public library in Brattleboro. The 1882 bylaws established that nine trustees would have charge of all affairs of the library and make all necessary rules for its governance; operate the library for the purposes for which it was established; and have the power to appoint a librarian. Trustees would be elected at annual Town Meetings.

Who could become a member of the library? According to the bylaws, all male inhabitants of the town over the age of 21 and all female inhabitants over the age of 18 were eligible for membership. However, a person could not walk in off the street and enroll. All candidates for library cards had to be recommended by the town clerk, a selectman, the town treasurer, the superintendent of schools, or any "minister of the Gospel." Juvenile readers between the ages of 14 and 18 whose parents cosigned and met the conditions discussed above could also borrow books. Nothing in the first rules gives any indication of whether men between 18 and 21 were eligible for library cards.

The new Brattleboro Free Library opened its doors on September 18, 1882. Its hours of operation would be 9:00 a.m. to noon, 2:00 to 5:00 p.m., and 7:00 to 9:00 p.m., Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday.

Free public library service was thus firmly established in Brattleboro, and it would continue to grow and improve. With Town support and a dedicated space, the library could expand its hours and services to include everyone in the community. The next giant leap forward for library service came in 1886, with a new building constructed with funds from the library's benefactor, George J. Brooks.  Private and public partnerships continued to support the library and improve services, right up through the technological revolution in libraries at the end of the twentieth century. We expect this trend to continue in this century as well.

The sources used to prepare this article were History of the Brattleboro Free Library: Its Growth and Development (W.P.A., 1938); With Interest, Volume 5, Number 6, [June 1928 issue dedicated to the Brattleboro Free Library]; and Annals of Brattleboro, 1681–1895, compiled and edited by Mary R. Cabot, in two volumes (Brattleboro,VT: E.L. Hildreth & Co., 1921).

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