The NH State Library Celebrates 300 Years

A New Hampshire first marks a milestone
photo by malerie yolen-cohen, publisher,
The State Library in Concord

New Hampshire loves libraries. In fact, you might even say we helped pioneer the very concepts of lending books and preserving information for future generations. The New Hampshire State Library — the first state library in America — is celebrating its 300th anniversary throughout 2017, which was officially declared “NH State Library Year” by Governor Sununu.

On January 25, 1717, almost 60 years before the United States was even a country, New Hampshire’s 27th General Assembly met in Portsmouth to pass various orders and resolves.

During the day’s business, the assembly declared that, “Ye law books be distributed among ye severall towns of this Province in proportion according to their last Prov. tax, except two books which shall be for ye use of ye Govr & Councile and house of representatives.”

A modest start to be sure, but those two books were the beginning of the New Hampshire State Library. It was also the beginning of a strong tradition of valuing and supporting libraries here in the Granite State.

According to the NH Department of Cultural Resources, “social” or “parlor”  libraries, where dues-paying members shared books, popped up in communities around the state throughout the 1800s. They weren’t stand-alone, dedicated buildings as we know them today, but were instead often located at academies or even at factories and other businesses.

In 1833, Reverend Abiel Abbot, Peterborough’s Unitarian minister, proposed another idea — a central collection of books, owned by the people and available to everyone in town. This would become the Peterborough Town Library, the first tax-supported public library in the world. Locally, the idea caught on. In 1849, New Hampshire became the first state to pass a law permitting towns to appropriate money to both purchase books and to maintain a building for public use. 

By the 1900s, philanthropists recognized the value of access to books and began funding libraries until every town and city had one to call its own.

Three centuries after a pair of law books were set aside for elected officials, the State Library is now a vital resource for New Hampshire’s many other libraries. It offers workshops for librarians so that they can bring up-to-date library science to their communities; it serves as a central delivery point for both public and school libraries, facilitating the sharing of resources so that they can strengthen their purchasing power; and, perhaps most importantly, this working library holds more than 600,000 items. Those items include books about New Hampshire, books by local authors and illustrators, newspaper archives, government and genealogy documents, and much more.

Libraries around the state are cherished, but one is truly a work of art. Phillips Exeter Academy is home to the second-largest secondary school library in the world (the library interior is pictured below). Though that’s certainly a worthy claim to fame, what sets it apart from all other libraries is actually its architecture. When the library outgrew its existing building in the ’50s, they tossed out the first plans in favor of something much more contemporary — in 1965, the school gave the commission to Louis Kahn, one of the most influential architects of the 20th century.

photo by brian crowley
Another famous New Hampshire bibliotheque — the Class of 1945 Library at Phillips Exeter Academy

Essentially, the library is made of three concentric square rings. The outer ring, built of load-bearing brick, is the exterior. The middle ring, which is built of reinforced concrete, holds the book stacks. The innermost ring is a thing of beauty — it’s a dramatic atrium with huge circular openings in the walls that reveal the floors of bookshelves.

Among many other details, Kahn took the time to consider light. Though it might seem at first glance that a massive brick building would be dark and imposing, the library is in fact airy and full of natural light. Kahn wanted people to be able to read by windows, not lamps. In 1997, the library received the Twenty-five Year Award from the American Institute of Architects, which recognizes architecture of enduring significance. It’s given to only one building per year.

We have a world of information at our fingertips at nearly all times, yet libraries are still crucial parts of our communities. Libraries are more than just places to house books — they preserve our history, serve as cultural gathering places for people to interact and explore new ideas, help us build strong communities, highlight the importance of literature and art, fight censorship, promote civil discourse and, above all, provide unfettered access to learning to all.

Categories: Features