The Beginnings of the Hampton Public Library in 1881

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by William H. Teschek

March 30, 2006

This year the library celebrates its 125th birthday as Hampton’s public library.

The year 1881 began with a January 3rd meeting of the private “Hampton Library Association”. It was their sixteenth annual meeting. The Association was formed in 1865 through the efforts of Ellen A. Leavitt and Sarah E. Gillespie, two local teachers who volunteered to teach freed black slaves in the wake of the Civil War. They traveled to Harper’s Ferry, Virginia and worked on the Governor Wise plantation, and while waiting for orders to begin their teaching worked with Hampton Academy principal Bartlett H. Weston to establish a social library in Hampton.

Unlike the public libraries of today, this social library was available for use by subscription only. When it began in 1865, one hundred and fourteen shares were purchased for the price of three dollars each. The town allowed the Association the free use of a room in the Town Hall, where they soon shelved two hundred newly purchased volumes. This amount was soon to be doubled by private donations, and by August the library was up and running – open only on Saturday nights to subscribers. The first book acquired was historian Samuel G. Drake’s “Biography and History of the Indians of North America, From Its First Discovery”, published in 1857, and that book remains in the library to this day.

Over the sixteen years of its existence the Hampton Library Association had trouble raising sufficient funds from subscriptions only, so offered lectures and other public programs to raise additional monies. But by 1881 the handwriting was on the wall. The Exeter News-Letter (Hampton didn’t have its own paper until 1899) reported in its January 21st issue that:

It is with regret that we learn that the interest in the library is at such low ebb that it was voted that the secretary call a meeting of all the members, to be held on Monday evening, Feb. 7, to take such action as may be thought best to close up the Association, or to make it a “Free Town Library.”

The newspaper didn’t report the results of the February 7th meeting, but the following article from the 1881 Hampton Town Warrant gives us a clue.

To see if the town will vote to appropriate the sum of fifty dollars annually for the benefit of the Hampton Library Association in consideration of which any inhabitants of the town can have access to the Library by paying an assessment of twenty five cents annually the same as required of each share holder said sum to be expended annually for the purchase of new books.

The Association apparently made an effort to stay in business with some tax support from the townspeople. At Town Meeting on March 8th a committee of three was appointed to meet with the Association and report back at an adjourned Town Meeting to be held at a later date. These three men – The Rev. Elihu Scott, Randolph A. Delancey, and Charles M. Lamprey – issued a report of their work at the next meeting on March 24th. While the text of that report doesn’t survive, we read in the minutes that the Town voted to accept their report, and furthermore voted “That we appropriate one hundred dollars for a public library”, “That we accept the library association as a donation”, and “That a committee consisting of three be appointed by the Selectmen to take charge of the library [and] that they appoint a librarian”. The April 1st issue of the Exeter News-letter then reported:

At an adjourned meeting on Thursday last, our town voted to appropriate one hundred dollars to establish a town library, and at the same time voted to accept from the old “Hampton Library Association” eight hundred volumes of books, with all the furniture appertaining thereto, as a donation. So in all probability within a few years we shall have as good a town library as there is in the state.

The Hampton Library Association held one last meeting on April 2nd, at which they passed the following resolution:

Resolved that the Hampton Library Association accept the town proposal and agree to donate its library to the town as a “Free Public Library”, the town having voted to establish and maintain the same. The Association also agrees to sell the book cases belonging to the Association to the town for the sum of fourteen dollars.

And so we celebrate April 2nd, 2006, as the 125th anniversary of the public library in Hampton.

In May the Selectmen appointed George W. Brown, Simeon Albert Shaw and William T. Merrill as the library committee. Shaw, who had been the librarian of the Hampton Library Association, was appointed as the first Public Librarian, and George W. Brown was appointed Treasurer. The library apparently opened for the public in June, as the Committee reported in the Hampton Town Report the following March that 1933 volumes had been taken out since June of 1881. Of the $100 appropriated for the library’s annual budget, $73.71 went to books, $3 went to the printing of 300 catalogs, $14 went for book cases, and the remainder webt for library cards, labels, covering paper, a checkout book, delivery and postage. $3.60 was collected in overdue fines. Nothing, apparently, was spent on the librarian’s salary, although that was rectified the following year when Shaw received $25 from the $100 annual budget.

And one final bit of news relating to the library from the year 1881. The July 8th issue of the Exeter News-letter had this announcement: “Tuesday, June 28th, at 8 o’clock, P.M., by Rev. Mr. Cutler, Mr. S. Albert Shaw and Miss M. Isa Cole, were united in marriage at the residence of the bride’s father. Both bride and groom have the best wishes of their many friends here, both for their present and future welfare.” Shaw and his wife (whose name was actually Abbie Isabel Cole) went on to have four children – two boys and two girls – and among their progeny is a great-granddaughter, Catherine M. Redden, who today follows in her ancestor’s footsteps by being the Director of the Lane Memorial Library.

For more information on the history of the library, check out our website.

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