the Abbot 140 Columns
This is the first in a regular series of columns about Abbot Public Library, written in honor of the Library's 140th birthday. The columns will feature the events and people who have helped to make the Library the successful, popular institution it has been since it was established in 1878. The first three columns will focus on: the history of Abbot Public Library; the biography of benefactor Benjamin Abbot; and the biography of James J. H. Gregory, the "Seed King" who was the prime mover behind establishing a library in Abbot Hall.
By Jo Ann Augeri Silva
Since its founding, Marblehead has benefited from the foresight and generosity of its citizens, from the most humble to the most exalted. Even those who left our peninsula for other locales have held the Town in their hearts throughout their lives. The most prominent of these to date, Benjamin Abbot, moved from Marblehead as a young boy, first to become a cooper's apprentice in Salem, then to make his fortune as a cooper in Boston. In what are now locally famous words, in 1872 Abbot left the bulk of his estate, $103,000 to the Town, "because it was my birthplace."
Abbot's bequest was meant to construct a building "for the benefit of the inhabitants" of Marblehead. Abbot's will made clear that he didn't intend to restrict the use of the building, and that left an opening for another Town benefactor, James J. H. Gregory. Gregory, who made a fortune selling seeds, saw the need for a place in the Town where all could go to read and borrow books. While the Town was debating where to locate Abbot's fine building and who should design it, Gregory looked forward to the building's completion.
For the May, 1875 Town Meeting, Gregory sponsored Articles 13, "To see if the town will appropriate a sum not exceeding $10,000 from the Abbot Fund (previously donated by Benjamin Abbot) for the purchase of books for a public library and choose a committee to carry this vote into effect; and 14, "To see if the town, having invested $75,000 of the Abbot Fund in our magnificent new hall, will consecrate the $30,000 remaining to putting brains into it in the shape of a good library."
Two years later, the May, 1877 Town Meeting approved $20,000 from the Abbot Fund "to establish and maintain a free public library and reading room." The Reading Room opened that December, and by April 17, 1878, the first books were issued from a collection of 3,320 volumes. The Library dates its birthday from the time the first books were loaned.
Abbot Public Library was popular from the day it was opened. By 1923, its use by children was such that a separate Children's Room was opened. Also in 1923, the new Dewey Decimal system was installed. And, by 1924, it had become clear that Abbot Hall, large and imposing as it was, wasn't large enough to accommodate both Town Offices and the Library. Library Trustees started looking for a central location where a free standing library could be built. They found a plot of land on the corner of Washington Street and Atlantic Avenue. But, in a harbinger of many frustrated future attempts to move and/or expand the Library, Town Meeting turned down the purchase request.
In fact, it took nearly 30 years to get approval for a new, separate library building, and then only because a private citizen, Gregory O. Lyon, died and left $20,000 towards construction of a new building. In between, in 1931, an effort to build a Library at Gerry and Pleasant Streets across from Seaside Park, and another effort to build on the grounds of Abbot Hall, both failed to achieve the necessary Town Meeting support. As a stopgap measure, a branch Library was opened at the Hobbs Memorial Building on Clifton Avenue. In 1937, a proposal to purchase property next to the then location of the US Post Office on Pleasant St. failed.
Boosted by the Lyon bequest, the 1952 Town Meeting approved the purchase of the current Library property on the corner of Maverick and Pleasant Streets for $2500, and in 1953, approved, on the second attempt, $234,000 to build the library on that site. The new building opened in 1954.
Abbot Public Library has continued to grow. In 1987, after an $8,000 expansion study, the Town approved $2.8 million for the expansion completed in 1990 - though an additional $340,000 had to be approved to cover unexpected water-related issues.
Today, nearly 30 years after a renovation that was supposed to keep the Library up to date for 25 years, the Library serves 15,000 cardholders, more than ever and expanding, and circulates more than 250,000 items each year!
Next column: Benjamin Abbot, Cooper