Recently I happened to run across this statement on the Peterborough Town Library website: “The Peterborough Town Library, established 1833, is the oldest public library in the world.” Celebrating their 175th anniversary, Peterborough’s website states:
The library was established in 1833 due to the efforts of Dr. Abiel Abbot, Unitarian minister, who encouraged the creation of a library owned by the town for the benefit of residents. The Peterborough Town Library was the first of its kind, a successful experiment in books owned collectively by a town. Later, in 1849, a law was enacted in New Hampshire allowing other municipalities to establish similar libraries.
The original collection consisted of about 100 books and was kept in Smith & Thompson’s General Store, which also housed the Post Office. As the collection grew, it was moved first to the Town Hall, then in 1893 to its own building, specially-built by local resident John Hopkins Morison. This library building, now expanded twice, houses the current 50,000-plus library collection of book and non-book materials.
Libraries are proud of their heritage, and to claim to be “the oldest public library in the world” is not a small thing. However, according to my sources (Jean Ulitz, former librarian and local historian,) there are several New Hampshire libraries that were established before Peterborough: Dover in 1792, Portsmouth, Rochester and our own Tamworth in 1796. In 1992, Jean wrote her “Highlights of a Country Library” in which she says,
The Tamworth Social Library, one of the earliest in the state, was founded by Parson Samuel Hidden in 1796 and was supported in its entirety by the pioneer members of this small, wilderness village. Then, in 1891, the New Hampshire legislature approved the Free Library Act, appointing a State Library commission and authorizing benefits to New Hampshire tows for the purpose of establishing free, public libraries. In February 1892, the Tamworth town warrant included an article “…to see if the town will vote to accept the provision of law, chapter 8, section 21-26, in regard to having a public library in town.”
I conclude that the operative word in Peterborough’s claim is “public” (i.e free,) as opposed to “social” (i.e. membership for a fee) library. However it is a thrill that Tamworth’s social library is amongst the very first.