This photo of the Peterborough Town Library in New Hampshire dates to 1906, but the library itself goes back to 1833. It’s the oldest taxpayer-supported free library in the United States.
It was Unitarian minister Abiel Abbot who had the idea to build a central collection of books owned by the people and free to everyone who lived in Peterborough. Money was available to buy books from the State of New Hampshire. A capital stock tax had been intended to build a state university, but it turned out not to be enough for a university. Hence, the State Literary Fund was created, and Peterborough decided to use it for books.
On April 9, 1833, a proposal was made and passed at Town Meeting “that a portion of the State Literary Fund be used for the purchase of books to establish a library, free to all the citizens of Peterborough.”
The town bought 100 books and put them in Smith and Thompson’s General Store, along with the post office. The postmaster acted as librarian until 1854, when Miss Susan Gates was appointed to take care of the town library books. In 1873, the growing collection of books moved to the town hall. Within two decades there were 6,000 books and not nearly enough room. So in 1893, the library was given its own building designed by noted bridge engineer and summer resident George Shattuck Morison. The collection now includes more than 50,000 volumes.
The Peterborough Town Library’s claim to importance is not that it was the first library to which the public had access, for such libraries had existed before 1833. Rather, its importance rests in its being created on the principle, accepted at Town Meeting, that the public library, like the public school, was deserving of maintenance by public taxation and should be owned and managed by the people of the community, who thereby ceased to be dependent upon private munificence.