, Newburyport, MA

January 27, 2014

Landmarks of learning


---- — Editor’s Note: This year the city is observing its 250th anniversary, and The Daily News today begins a series focusing on some elements of the city’s long and colorful history.

The multi-part coverage is being launched today because on Jan. 28, 1764, the General Court of Massachusetts passed “An act for erecting part of the town of Newbury into a new town by the name Newburyport.”

Our series won’t recreate the history of the community, but instead will focus on buildings, streets, parks and monuments that exist today in the shadow of history; to wit, many present-day landmarks are named after leading citizens of yesteryear or reflect notable developments in the city’s history.

Today we look at the city’s libraries, the main public library on State Street and the Emma L. Andrews Library and Community Center on Purchase Street.

Both of the city’s libraries reflect the city’s commitment to learning and to public discourse — and their individual histories reflect personal profiles that stand as enduring story lines in the city’s history.

The main library is nearing its 150th year as a public building, but its roots go back much farther than that.

This structure on State Street was built in 1771 by Patrick Tracy (1711-1789) for his son, Nathaniel. Patrick Tracy was a captain and ship owner and one of the most prominent businessmen in the community.

Nathaniel (1751-1796) also took to the sea, and was a patriot and privateer during the Revolutionary War. He was prominent in colonial affairs, and local historians say that guests at the Tracy Mansion included George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Aaron Burr.

Reading and exchanging ideas has always been prominent in this city, in part because so many merchants and sailors came back from distant parts of the world with much new information.

Newburyport was one of the first 10 communities in Massachusetts to establish a public library after the passage of an 1851 general law permitting towns to maintain public libraries through municipal taxation. The first public library opened in 1854 in what is now a floor of City Hall. The library was so popular that city leaders saw the need for an expanded space.

When the Tracy Mansion became available, plans to establish a stand-alone structure began in 1864, and library operations were relocated there in 1865.

Historians say that in 1870, the first public newspaper reading room in the country was established there.

A two-story addition, the Simpson Annex, was constructed in 1881 and other renovations were added in the 1880s.

In 1900 the stacks were opened for residents to browse, and in the 1920s, library leaders developed a reference department and a children’s room.

Computers were added in 1985, and online resources have become a centerpiece of the library’s mission in recent years.

For close to a century the local YMCA stood next to the library, making that block on State Street among the most picturesque in the city. But the YMCA was destroyed by fire in the late 1980s.

With an open parcel next door and demand growing for larger facilities, library trustees launched an initiative to raise $6.8 million to renovate and expand Tracy Mansion.

In October 1999, the library was moved to a building in the industrial park while construction took place.

The “new” public library at 94 State St. opened in October of 2001, and remains one of the intellectual hubs of this community.

Among its assets is an archive center in the basement that serves visitors from around the country.

“It was a nine-year project to plan to move to the park, transfer the inventory, and then begin the work on the renovated structure,” said Dottie LaFrance, who was head librarian from 1978 to 2008. “We were excited to come back and see the expansion and a restored historic library that could provide services in the 21st century.”

Cynthia Dadd, head librarian, said that both print and electronic resources will be offered for many years to come.

“Print is down somewhat, but there is still strong demand,” Dadd said. “They will co-exist for a long time.”

She said the library has added numerous digital assets, including programs to learn languages, appreciate music, study technology, download electronic books and trace one’s ancestry.

Thus an institution created from the spoils of shipping and privateering of the 18th century has morphed into a vibrant community center utilizing both hard-copy books and documents and digital assets to tie the community to the larger world in the 21st century.

The city’s ‘little’ library grows

The Emma Andrews Library at 77 Purchase St. had more modest beginnings, but its history has been marked by an equal amount of persistence and love of learning.

The story goes that in 1886, school Principal Anna Coffin and teacher Emma Landers wanted a children’s library in the old Johnson Grammar School in the South End.

A library in a school was not the norm then; and when the city proposed creating such a library there in 1899, city leaders were unable to fund the project.

So citizens donated $52, and a reading room was established at 17 Union St. The South End Reading Room Association was formed in 1900 and Emma Landers Andrews served as the energetic secretary.

Records show that in that year, it had 303 registered borrowers.

Perhaps because of such success, a house at 77 Purchase St. was purchased in 1905 for $3,500 and it still functions today.

Emma Andrews continued to be active in the library until her death in 1928.

In 1931, the “little” library was turned over to the city with the stipulation that it be used as a branch of the Newburyport Public Library.

The informal learning center served many for decades but faced hardship in 2009, when it was closed due to high levels of lead.

But showing persistence similar to that of Emma Andrews, members started an Andrews Branch Improvement Association. After an “Emma Forever” fundraising campaign in 2010, the library reopened as the Emma L. Andrews Library and Community Center.

It is now staffed by volunteers and provides books, periodicals, audio-visual materials and programs to all residents of the city.

The center is managed under the auspices of the city, not the municipal library system, and is run by volunteers.

Today Newburyport’s libraries stand as prevailing landmarks that reflect the past and ongoing institutions that serve the community’s long interest in learning.