Two Hundred Years of Libraries in Newton

When William Jackson was fifteen years old he broke his leg while playing hide-and-seek with his Stone cousins who lived on Dedham Street. It was a bad fracture, and during the many months that he was immobilized he read extensively; the books, he tells us, coming from "our library."

The year was 1798, and Newtons first library, the West Newton Social Library, had just come into being. It boasted 165 books such as were "best calculated to raise the senses and mend the heart". All that "tended to promote infidelity and immorality" were excluded. Proprietors paid an initial three dollars and then twenty-five cents a year for each right to borrow one book a month (or two books, depending on the size). The collection, consisting predominantly of history, travel and theology, included some poetry, and was eventually absorbed by the West Newton Athenaeum.

Nearly thirty years later, in the late 1820s, Jackson, by then living in the Homestead with his growing family, was involved in establishing the Adelphian Library. With others, he managed by begging, buying and giving, to put together "quite a valuable library." Seth Davis (who had settled in West Newton a few years previously and would live to be over 100) donated the lumber for the bookcase, which was made by Rufus Pratt and placed in Daviss school (152 Webster Street, West Newton). There it remained until Davis sold the school and the books were moved to the West Parish Meeting House (the Second Church, then on the north side of Washington Street).

But before that, in 1832 or 33, part of the collection was transferred to Newton Centre where it was kept in the "vestry of Dr. Homers Church (the First Church, on the corner of Homer and Centre streets) along with several volumes donated by the Temperance Society (in the hope that people would stay at home and read instead of going out and getting drunk). Marshall Rice, who lived near-by, acted as librarian. Some time in the 1850s the books in West Newton were given to the West Newton Athenaeum and those in the Centre to the Newton Literary Association.

The West Newton Athenaeum was organized as a library and as a vehicle for promoting "liberal culture and social improvements" in 1849. Among the founders were Horace Mann (then running the State Normal School in West Newton), William Fowle (who would be the third Mayor of Newton), businessman Joseph W. Plympton (who was later active in launching the Newton Cemetery Association) and the Reverend Joseph S. Clarke (who would run many of the Athenaeums cultural programs). This library, too, was financed by subscriptions ($10) and private donations, the intention being, however, to make it ultimately free to all.

"Until as late as 1852 the Public Library was simply a reference library. The Boston Library in that year started the great experiment of book lending...." according to the Newton Free Library, 1870-1951. Newton was still some years away from this "truly democratic and somewhat delicate experiment", but the beginning of the Newton Free Library system can be traced back to January 1848, when a "few gentlemen" took into consideration "the matter of forming a Book Club for the diffusion of general literature and mutual improvement in the community."

The Club bought 111 books the first year, and the heavy use of this small collection convinced members that some sort of permanent library was desirable. As a beginning they incorporated the Newton Literary Association, acquired more books and, in 1852, extended borrowing privileges to anyone willing to pay. During the following decade the membership of the Association increased: nearly 5000 books were borrowed in 1864 when the population of the Town was barely 9000, and the need for a building to house a public library and a reading room became more urgent. At a meeting in March 1865 the Association resolved that "the Town be furnished with a Public Library."

To this end, a public meeting, to which prominent citizens from each village were invited, was held in Newton Corner in April (the week of Appomattox), at which a resolution calling for the establishment of a "Free Public Library for Newton" was adopted. Several committees were set up and months of intensive activity followed until, by 1868, over $30,000 had been donated, and the Centre Street site in Newton Corner bought.

Ground was broken the same year. The corner stone was laid by J. Wiley Edmands, who not only gave $15,000 towards the building and $5,000 for books, but furnished the architectural plans by Alexander Esty (who, in 1875, would design the near-by Grace Church). The building was faced with "Newton Centre stone" (used also in the construction of the now-demolished main gate to the Newton Cemetery on Walnut Street) that came from Samuel Goochs quarry off Langley Road. The building was dedicated in June 1870. The first superintendent was George W. Bacon; one of his two assistants was William Jacksons daughter, Caroline.

Though the Library was open to the public at no charge, it was initially owned and administered by a Board of Managers and financed solely by subscriptions and private donations. It was transferred to the City in 1876.

Because of the distance between Newtons villages, and particularly before they were connected by the Circuit Railroad or electric trolley line in the late 1880s, Newton Corner was not easily accessible from most parts of the City. As a result the Library started establishing agencies in various villages as early as 1874. The first was in the Centre, the next in Upper Falls. These agencies were run by volunteers who generally operated out of stores, and within four years accounted for just over forty per cent of books circulated. The first reading room (in West Newton) was opened in 1894 and the first branch library (in Lower Falls) in 1923.

Newtons first century as a city, despite the ups and downs of the economy, was a period of almost uninterrupted suburban development, and, as the number of residents increased, so did the demand for Library services.

In the 1880s, an addition to the Main Library that almost doubled its size was designed by George Meacham, the architect for the neighboring Channing (now Presbyterian) Church.

In 1913, a further addition was completed to the plans of Lewis Bacon (responsible for the Strong Block in Waban Square).

The last addition was in 1951, when "an adaptation of the Renaissance Style which followed the Gothic period suggested by the older structure", designed by W. Cornell Appleton, was built. This involved the partial demolition of the front of the building, so that when, forty years later, the possibility of restoring and reusing one of the finest examples of Gothic Revival architecture in Newton was considered, it proved to be not feasible. For within little more than a decade it had become apparent that, notwithstanding the addition, the building was still inadequate for the citys needs.

It took the best part of twenty years before the present building, the work of Kallmann, McKinnell, and Wood, (designers of Boston City Hall) was built at the corner of Walnut and Homer streets, on land taken for that purpose in 1950