History of the Library

Library History 2009

The Brookline Public Library plays a distinctive role in the Town and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, thereby qualifying it for nomination in Heart of the Community: the Libraries We Love, for its architectural, historical, and social significance. Located in Brookline Village, the handsome red brick Georgian Revival structure was designed in 1910 by renowned Boston architect R. Clipston Sturgis. The Library is associated with significant people, events, and landmarks, notably the establishment of one of the first reading rooms for children in the country.

The present library, dedicated on November 17, 1910, is the second on the site, replacing an 1869 mansard roofed building. Built with brick and Indiana limestone trim, it sits atop a knoll with a circular drive. One of its most impressive features is the oak-paneled reference room with ceiling-high windows and sterling silver chandeliers. The interior of the building was altered and an addition erected in 1970. A further renovation, completed in 2003, creatively added more than 18,000 square feet of public space by eliminating the closed stacks and moving staff offices to newly-created third floor locations, all within the original footprint of the building. The renovation restored the original double entrances, uncovered the grand-columned entrance hall, opened up access to the wings, which had been restricted in 1970, and doubled the floor space of the childrenís room. It also allowed the Library to display a large portion of its art collection. Handicapped accessibility was enhanced by adding ramps that continue the design of the original balustraded terrace. This restoration renewed the facility for the 21st century while restoring and preserving almost all of the original architectural elegance. The Brookline Preservation Commission presented the Library with a Preservation Award in 2003.

The Library as an institution has great historical significance. While not the first public library in Massachusetts, it was the first to be organized under May 1851 state legislation allowing communities to tax themselves for such purposes. In a vote at the March 30, 1857 Town Meeting, the citizens of Brookline established a free library. Among the prominent patrons and advocates of this institution at the time were William I. Bowditch, an abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor; Frederick Hedge, a Unitarian minister; Edward Atkinson, businessman, abolitionist and inventor of the Aladdin oven; James S. Whitney, president of Metro Steamship Company; and Amos A. Lawrence, abolitionist and industrialist. In honor of benefactor John L. Gardner, the Art and Music Room was named Gardner Hall.

One of its most momentous legacies is the establishment of a separate reading room exclusively for children in April 1890. The Brookline model was influential in sparking the expansion of library services to children across the country. In 1899, a reference room for children was established with its own librarian. Until 1969, the public school libraries were under the auspices of the Public Library. With the 2003 renovation, a child-sized door was added at the entrance to the new childrenís room, the space doubled in size, and a large multi-purpose room created for story hours and other activities.

By 1898, the Brookline Library was sufficiently impressive to elicit this evaluation by Melville Dewey: ìThere are few institutions of the country concerning which I should be willing to speak more frankly to one of their officials. The Brookline Public Library is commonly looked on by those familiar with library work of its type through the country, as among the foremost in efficiency and influence. It has won a place where it is often quoted and referred to as the type of the best American public library.î The Library today continues this trend of efficiency and influence. Since re-opening in January 2003, usage has increased over 20% helping to make the Public Library of Brookline the third most heavily used public library in Massachusetts.

Since its inception, the Brookline Public Library has been a center of the social and cultural life of Brookline. In addition to the services provided in the Library, it also established school and social welfare libraries, outreach programs in the public school, deposit branches, book delivery to servicemen during the wars, and services to the homebound. The Public Library also has two branches, Coolidge Corner and Putterham, serving the community with additional programs. The Library has been the home to many Brookline organizations: the Brookline Library Music Association; the Brookline Bird Club; the Brookline Art Association; the Brookline Education Society and the Brookline Civic Association. The Brookline Historical Collection, with photographs and archival material, was established in 1894. Friends of the Brookline Public Library, established in 1981, run book sales and sponsor programs for the community and staff enrichment. Incorporated in 1999, the Brookline Library Foundation carries on fundraising to support Brookline libraries.

The staff and Trustees of the Brookline Public Library have continued this tradition of service to and engagement in the community. The staff prepares ongoing exhibits, book displays and leads book discussion groups for children (Sixes and Sevens; fourth and fifth graders), young adults and adults (Food for Thought, A Taste of Poetry, and Main Library Book Group). Additional programs include a Friday morning film program for children, story hours for toddlers and three to four year olds, and a film program for seniors. The Brookline Library Music Association sponsors a concert series. An all-town reading program, Brookline Reads, has been established to inspire Brookline residents to read the same book and engage in community-wide discussions about the work. In celebration of the Townís tercentenary, the Library sponsored a town- wide photography contest, Picturing Brookline that was open to all residents, from 4th grade students to professional photographers. All the submissions have been placed in albums that will be kept in the Libraryís archive, and made available for future generations. The Library houses the recently established Brookline 300 display case that will be a visible, ever-changing window on Brooklineís past.

Over its 148 years, the Brookline Public Library has encouraged, molded, inspired, and nurtured many important icons of local, regional, and national culture. These people have not only played a role in the community, but have also contributed to our nationís history. They include landscape architects Charles Sprague Sargent and Frederick Law Olmsted, Senior and Junior; art world patron Isabella Stewart Gardner and sculptor Theo Ruggles Kitson; abolitionists William I. Bowditch and Edward Atkinson; film-makers William A. Wellman and the Maysles brothers; musicians Arthur Fielder and Roland Hayes; social activists Minna Hall and Harriet Lawrence Hemenway (founders of the Massachusetts Audubon Society); politicians John F., Robert F., and Edward M. Kennedy; scientist Percival Lowell; Nobel winners George Minot, William Murphy, and Norman F. Ramsey; personalities Mike Wallace and Conan O'Brian; writers Olive Prouty, Amy Lowell, Jane Holtz Kay, Ellen Goodman, and Arthur Golden; actress Jane Alexander, vaudevillian B.F. Keith; and sports executives Theo Epstein and Bob Kraft.

The Brookline Public Library, a member of the Minuteman Library Network, provides access to the collections of 41 area libraries. It houses historical Brookline collections including photographs, manuscripts, books, and artifacts, and offers programs for residents of all ages. As a vital community center, the Library has continued to provide excellent service while maintaining the delicate balance of preserving its rich history and embracing new technologies of the future. The Brookline Public Library deserves to be recognized as an important and influential contributor to American cultural, political and social history.

Prepared by Brookline Library History Committee
January 2006

To commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the Public Library of Brookline, reference staff members Cynthia Battis, Anne Reed, and Anne Clark wrote a new history of the Library entitled Public Library of Brookline: A History: Celebrating 150 Years of Library Service, 1857-2007. It was printed on March 20, 2009. You may view or download the PDF by clicking the link above. You will need Adobe Acrobat Reader to view it. We dedicate the library history to the generations of library staff who have made and continue to make the Public Library of Brookline a treasured cultural institution.