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History

For 150 years, the Topsfield Town Library has sought to be the cultural and informational resource for the community.

Origins

The Constitution of the Topsfield Library Society (1794), from the Topsfield Historical Society records. 80 Topsfield residents signed the Constitution and paid the fee of 20 shillings to join.

The Topsfield Town Library can trace its origins to the Topsfield Library Society, founded on March 20, 1794, under the leadership and advocacy of Reverend Asahel Huntington, then the pastor of the Congregational Church. The Topsfield Library Society was a subscription-based library formed by 80 residents who paid 20 shillings each, which went towards the acquisition of books.

In 1796, a bookcase was purchased to house the books in the collection (68 total, to start). The books were stored at the home of the current librarian, usually the pastor of the church or a physician. At the beginning, books were only circulated the last Monday of each month between 1-4pm; a maximum of one book was allowed checked out at one time.

This bookcase and the original volumes are currently on display in the periodical room of the Topsfield Town Library, as well as an original printed catalog of books from 1809.

Following the death of Rev. Huntington in 1813, interest in the Library Society began to wane. By 1854, the Topsfield Library Society library was placed in the Topsfield Academy. Other subscription libraries sprung up in the early 19th century in Topsfield, including an Agricultural Library, Anti-Slavery Library, and a Ladies’ Library within the Congregational Church.

Historical Gallery

Timeline of the Topsfield Town Library

Establishment of the Topsfield Town Library

By the mid-19th century, there was an increasing belief that the right to read and learn should not be reserved for a select few, but truly democratic and available to all, regardless of ability to pay. In the words of Rev. Anson McLoud, first librarian of the Topsfield Town Library, the public library “seems to be not merely the fitting but the natural and necessary crown and completion of our free school system…[the library] will become…a perennial source of gratification, improvement, and enlargement.”

Did you know? The first taxpayer-funded public library in the world is the Peterborough (New Hampshire) Public Library (1833), but the first major public library is generally understood to be the Boston Public Library (1848).

On December 21st, 1874, a committee of “concerned friends” established the taxpayer-funded Topsfield Town Library, merging the several subscription-based libraries in town (including the Topsfield Library Society’s collection from 1794) under one roof. The committee was made up of Samuel Todd, Sidney A. Merriam, Rev. Anson McLoud (future first librarian of the Topsfield Town Library), Justin Allen, Humphrey Balch, Rev. James H. Fitts. This was reported in the January 6, 1875 edition of the Salem Gazette.

A room was provided in the then newly-built Topsfield Town Hall to house the library. With the additions from the smaller libraries and proceeds from donations (money and books) of interested townspeople, at the end of its first year the Topsfield Town Library contained 1,256 volumes, with an overall circulation of 7,700 books and 243 borrowers. The new town library was open to ALL Topsfield residents aged 12 and older. It was considered an immediate success. The Library was originally located in the East Room, which now hosts the Select Board Meeting Room. In 1881, the library was moved to the southwest corner of the building (originally fit to be a high school) where it remained until 1935.

Sidney Augustus Merriam

Sidney Augustus Merriam was born on March 11, 1841 in Topsfield, Massachusetts. He graduated at Dartmouth in the class of 1861, attended a medical course of lectures in Boston, and shortly after enlisted in the Forty-third Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers, serving three years as hospital steward and assistant surgeon. After the war, he returned to Topsfield in 1872. The Salem Gazette notes that “he planned and carried out the noble work of founding a public library in his native town.”

Following Sidney Merriam’s death in 1876 at age 35, the Library Committee reported to the town that “the Library owes its existence and its effective organization” to him more than any other individual. Among his last acts in life was to secure a thousand dollar bond for the library, that will be “so administered that coming generations will bless his memory.”

The Sidney Augustus Merriam Reading Room, named after this vital library benefactor, today houses the library’s mystery/graphic novel collections.

Merriam’s cousin, Sarah Stickney Edwards, of Haverhill, served as a volunteer at the library and bequeathed $500 to the Topsfield Town Library at her death. There is a picture of her in Volume XVI page 60 of the Historical Collections, Topsfield Historical Society, taken in 1868.

Rev. Anson McLoud (First Librarian of the Topsfield Town Library)

Rev. Anson McLoud was born in 1813 and served as pastor at the Congregational Church in Topsfield from 1841-1869. In 1872, he served a term in the Massachusetts State Legislature representing Topsfield. A passionate advocate for education for Topsfield, he served on the Topsfield School Committee and was on the founding committee of the Topsfield Town Library. He served as the first librarian at the Topsfield Town Library from its founding until his death in 1883. Upon his death, his personal library was donated to the Topsfield Town Library. Rev. McLoud was responsible for what was, perhaps, the first program on record at the Topsfield Town Library on October 31, 1875; the lecture, titled “The Book,” was hosted at the Congregational Church. The foundation of the town library, the importance of libraries as the “crown and completion of the free school system,” and the importance of reading/education was discussed in this lecture. (Source: Salem Gazette, Nov. 3, 1875).

“It is to the efforts of Mr. Sidney Merriam and Rev. Anson McLoud that we owe the town library. It is a grand monument to their memories, and an incalculable benefit to the town…” (The Life and Work and Rev. Anson McLoud, by Miss Helen E. Peabody).

 

The Library in the 21st Century

Influenza Pandemic closes down Library

The Spanish Flu pandemic ravaged the world following World War I (causing approximately 25-50 million deaths worldwide). Topsfield, unfortunately, was not immune to this pandemic; to prevent spread of the highly contagious virus, the Topsfield Town Library shut down for at least four weeks total: two weeks in late 1918 (approx. Sept/Oct) and two weeks in early 1919 (Jan).

Building at South Common Street

In 1912, space issues in the library at Town Hall led the town to purchase a parcel of land at South Common Street for construction of a separate Town Library from George Francis Dow.

A young Boston architect, Harold Field Kellogg, drew up plans for a library to be built at the site. 

Donations from George L. Gould and David Pingree (made in 1921 and 1932 respectively) were crucial in finally getting construction underway after a twenty-year wait. The town also secured funding under the 1933 National Recovery Act . Once approval for the building was in place, and minor revisions made to Kellogg’s 1912 plans, the Library was built. The new building opened to the public on February 16, 1935. The building cost $36,593 and provided space for 34,000 volumes. Approximately 40% of the building was funded by the federal Public Works Administration.

Harold Field Kellogg

Harold Field Kellogg (1884-1964) studied architecture at Harvard University and then attended the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris from 1906 to 1910. Upon his return to the United States, he trained with several prominent Boston architectural firms, including Shepley, Rutan, & Coolidge, Kilham & Hopkins, and Peabody & Stearns.

Mr. Kellogg was the architect for the classic and beautiful Longwood Towers in Brookline, Massachusetts. Sometime in the 1920s he converted to modernist thinking as evidenced in his 1930 design of the massive Public Service Building on Batterymarch Street. Mr. Kellogg’s other principal works in the Boston area included alterations to the Cathedral in Boston in 1946, construction of the South End’s Cathedral housing project in 1950, and numerous hospitals throughout the state.  Sometime later, he moved to California and continued his work there as an associate architect of the Forest Memorial Park in Glendale until his death at 79.

Shortly after Mr. Kellogg died in 1965, his son, also named Harold, visited the Topsfield Library with his wife. He recounted how, in 1912, the young Boston architect and friend of trustee Franklin Balch, drew up the original plans for the library. It was many years before the hoped-for building was erected. The twenty-year old plans were brought out again in the early 30s and were followed with only minor changed.

Mr. Kellogg painted the eleven murals depicting the early settlement of Topsfield which adorn the lobby of the Library. His son remembered coming to the job with his father when he was 10 or 11 years old. He noted that the bas relief of the three Muses, now over the doorway of the meeting room, was designed and executed by his father who also personally applied the gold leaf that surrounds the Muses. The son felt sure that his mother posed for the Muses as she did for many of his father’s works. The murals and Muses were cleaned and restored during the renovation and expansion of the Library courtesy of the Gould Fund. Source

World War II

Victory Book Campaign poster, 1943.

The Topsfield Town Library was local headquarters for the Victory Book Campaign, which sent books to American troops overseas fighting during the Second World War. In 1943, the Topsfield community donated 822 volumes for men in the service. In addition, the library was closed on Wednesdays through for most of 1943 to conserve oil for the war effort. During the summer months, the library was used every Tuesday by the local Red Cross as a community work room for making surgical dressings, and Thursdays the library was used by the local Red Cross sewing unit.

Post-War

The town’s population continued to grow, and needs changed. The number of new materials available for libraries also increased. Space was shrinking while demand for books and programs was increasing. In 1969, the Friends of the Library were formed with the mission of supplementing Library services and programs. The original logo of the Friends of the Topsfield Town Library was a Pegasus; chosen, as Martha Morrison explained, as a nod to the famous bas relief of the Muses in the library; the Pegasus was a companion to the Muses in ancient mythology. The purpose of the group was stated to “stimulate the interest of the community in the needs and services of the Topsfield Town Library and to enrich the cultural life on the community.”

A “much-needed” (Tri-Town Transcript, Feb. 24, 1965) renovation completed in 1966-1967 located a new Children’s Room in the basement of the building to make room for more materials, coming in at approximately $30,000. This was the first major renovation since construction of the building in 1935. Former Trustee (1967-1973) Barbara Booth recalls: “it was nice to have a place particularly for children…(but) there was a definite dampness…I mean, we made it work, but it was a little tight and damp.” This expansion more than doubled the library’s seating capacity.

After a proposed addition (with an expanded Children’s Room, drama court, and glass-enclosed adult reading room) expanding the library approximately 71% was rejected as too costly, a 1973 renovation sought to make the building more accessible, fix structural deficiencies on the second floor and allow for a secondary means of egress, and alleviate over-crowding in patron areas. While the renovation took place, the library temporarily relocated to its old home at the Town Hall. This renovation cost approximately $150,000.

In 1991, in support of U.S. troops participating in the First Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm), Topsfield Town Library once again served as a book donation site, with three big boxes of books (along with letters from Topsfield children) sent to troops stationed in Saudi Arabia.

George Gould, the Gould Fund, and Library Addition

In 1988, the Library received surprising news. The will of George L. Gould, an original contributor to the 1935 building, was revealed. Mr. Gould had drawn up his will in 1921, but his bequest to the library was not revealed until his last living heir, Rosamond Gould Childs, died at 100 years of age. Library Trustees were notified that the bequest was significant. Gould’s will expressed “his strong conviction that the Topsfield Town Library should not only be a repository of the printed word but also a cultural center promoting the aesthetic in the lives of Topsfield residents. 

Topsfield’s population continued to increase and the building was not ADA compliant; smaller scale renovations in the 1960s and 1970s proved insufficient for a modern library. It was decided an addition to the 1935 building was needed. 

The addition was funded by the Gould Trust, a grant from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and the people of Topsfield. Groundbreaking day came on November 7, 1997. Two hundred residents helped staff move 7,000 paper bags of books to and from the Library’s temporary location in the Topsfield Village Shopping Center. The Library reopened on February 27, 1999 amid much celebration.

The George L. Gould Fund continues to support the library mission to this day by funding ending materials, programs, concerts, artwork and more. 

Signature of George L. Gould

George L. Gould (1852-1921)

Painting of Library benefactor George L. Gould, artist Cameron Bennett (1998) , sitting by the main desk of the Topsfield Town Library.

George L. Gould was born in Woburn, MA in 1852. He was a proprietor of the Gould and Cutler paint and varnish business in Boston, and served on the board of directors of Benjamin Moore paint. Although a resident of Malden for much of his life, George Gould had a summer home on Washington St. in Topsfield (which he called “Pinelands”) and formed a great attachment to the town which was home to his ancestors, including Zaccheus Gould, one of the first settlers of Topsfield in 1644, and Joseph Gould, who captained the Topsfield company that marched to Lexington on April 19, 1775.

George Gould passed away on October 30, 1921 and is buried at Pine Grove Cemetery in Topsfield. Item #27 of his will states that, upon the death of his last living heir, funds held in a trust were to be released, including a significant bequest to the Town of Topsfield. One half the income of this bequest was “to be expended in the purchase of books for the Public Library, and the balance for the purchase of works of art…and upkeep of the library building and grounds…” The Probate Court ruled that income from the art portion of the will may be used for architectural purposes, paving the way for the construction of a library addition.

The Library in the 21st Century

In June 2000, to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the founding of the town of Topsfield, visitors contributed to a time capsule that is scheduled to be opened in June 2100. The time capsule currently sits in the Sidney Merriam Reading Room (Mystery Room).

The Library constantly seeks to push the boundaries on the definition of “library.” Our Seed Library (launched 2014, re-launched 2024) encourages our patrons to consider returning harvested seeds from plants that are considered easy to moderate difficulty to save. The Library of Things (launched 2018) expands the library’s collection beyond traditional books and movies, offering for checkout diverse items like board games and lawn games, music instruments, technology like mobile hotspots providing internet access, and more. Our Puzzle Exchange (2022) encourages patrons the opportunity to drop off or pickup puzzles.

 

COVID-19 Pandemic

The Topsfield Town Library continued to provide service during the COVID-19 pandemic (2020-2021), including a curbside pick-up window located by the front doors for patrons to still access holds and, later, appointment-style visiting. The library re-opened to patrons without need for an appointment by June 2021.

Celebrating the Sesquicentennial of the Topsfield Town Library

In 2024, we recognize the sesquicentennial of the Topsfield Town Library. Today, we continue to push the boundaries on the definition of “library” in fulfilling our mission to the cultural and informational resource for the community.

  • In 2023, the Library contained over 107,000 volumes, and lent over 104,000 items to the community. Over 2,500 residents of the town have a currently-active library card. 
  • Patrons can borrow e-books and e-resources from the library using the Libby app. 
  • The Library hosted over 150 programs in 2023, for audiences of all ages. 
  • Our Library of Things collection expands the library’s collection beyond traditional books and movies, offering for checkout diverse items like lawn games, a projector and inflatable projector screen to watch movies outdoors, instruments, podcasting equipment, a seed library, and much more. 

The History of the Topsfield Town Library by Joan Panella and Harry Groblewski

Joan Panella and Harry Groblewski’s The History of the Topsfield Town Library highlights the history of the library from its beginnings in 1794 through the 1997-1999 addition. The authors, who were former Trustees of the Library, dedicated the book to “all of the volunteers who have faithfully served the library…from its beginning to the present day.”

“The story of the library reflects in many ways that character and growth of the town itself…one cannot pass by the [1794 bookcase] without thinking of the enormity of change that has occurred in a little over 200 years and about the contributions of so many townspeople who…have helped bring to fruition the present library as a cultural center for the education, enrichment and enjoyment of the Town of Topsfield.”

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