History of the Library

"Free to All"

A History of the Amesbury Public Library


Reading Rooms & Buying Books

The community of Amesbury has supported and celebrated reading and literacy for decades. Lyceums and assorted libraries, from social libraries to factory libraries, arose as early as 1800 to fill the growing desire among the citizens to learn and to read.

In its earliest inception, the Amesbury Public Library (APL) operated as the Salisbury and Amesbury Social Library, a membership organization that allowed subscribers to borrow on behalf of the household. Typically, the male head of household held the membership on behalf of the family. Members paid dues to receive access to the library, and pupils visited the library reading and reference rooms with their teachers. Catalogs from the earliest days indicate broad interests ranging from travelogues to romance and the classics.

Amesbury's philanthropic community galvanized support to expand the library in the 1850s.

In 1895, the community voted to make the library free and open to the public as a town library. This eliminated the need for membership fees for borrowers and allocated town funds to support new purchases. In Amesbury, as was true in many Massachusetts communities, dog tax income became the primary source of financial support. Various donors and supporters contributed to the success of the endeavor: Joshua Aubin's donation of books formed the core of the original collection; John Greenleaf Whittier served as a trustee for decades; and Mary Barnard and Lucy Ordway provided unparalleled support with financial and real estate donations respectively.

In 1897, the trustees requested an allocation of funds from the town budget for library operations and acquisitions.

Library Interior Circulation Desk
Free Library Clipping

A Building to be Proud of

Two women offered considerable support for the construction of the new library building in 1901. Lucy Ordway's property was purchased for the purpose of building the public library building. The generosity of Mary Barnard opened the doors of the new library to an ever-growing number of residents. Mary's gift funded the majority of the library building and included an additional gift for operating costs for the first several years. The free public library has operated from its current location since opening day on April 24, 1902. And yes, the library had public restrooms!

Penn Varney designed the striking building in the Romanesque Revival style, which is characterized by elongated arched windows, brick, and masonry. The woodwork includes the iconic library lions carved into the front door façade, which is both welcoming and grand.

In 1954, the library staff recognized the need for expanded shelving and collection storage. A construction project allowed for additional stack shelving and the installation of the mezzanine level in the rear wing. A vaulted tin ceiling still hangs hidden behind the dropped ceiling installed during this construction. Since 1954, no major alterations have been made to the building.

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Cataloging & Collections

The library's collection grew from several hundred titles in the 1850s to include more material about trades and practical arts, such as farming and engineering. The library expanded its hours to ensure the working population had some access to the collections and the facility. This included opening during the lunch hour to accommodate those residents who labored in the factories, as well as offering evening hours so that patrons could visit after the workday concluded.

Serials (journals and magazines, many of which included narratives published over the course of several issues) and newspapers satisfied the interests of many patrons and proved to be one of the most popular collections for use in the library. The periodicals room in the new building featured a fireplace and seating with long tables to lay out newsprint.

For many years, the library shared space with the Natural History Society. A collection of taxidermy, including dozens of birds as well as seashells, was presented in a museum setting on the second level of the library.

Alice Follansbee Librarian
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Library Interior Reading Room
Library Exterior Kids Stairs