History of the Library

The Town of Groton has had a long and deep affection for its public library.  Groton’s library, the eighth oldest public library in the state, was founded in the same year as the Boston Public Library—1854.  Even earlier, in 1834, Groton residents could borrow books from Caleb Butler’s lending library, as long as they could afford his fee of two or three cents a week and could provide the required personal recommendation from an upstanding citizen of the town.

In 1854, the residents of Groton unanimously voted a sum of $500 for the creation of a library, matching the sum offered by the Honorable Abbott Lawrence for the same purpose.  A committee made up of local gentlemen—George Boutwell, George Farley, Joshua Green, David Fosdick and John Boynton—set about to find an appropriate space to house the new library.  Mrs. Margaret Blake, a local shopkeeper, whose business was on the corner of Main and Station Streets, was entrusted to care for the new library for 5 years, and paid an annual salary of $50.  The Library’s holdings grew quickly, and the 1855 Library Catalogue showed a collection of 700-800 volumes, the majority of these books being categorized as of “substantial subject matter,” rather than novels.

The Library moved to the Town House (now Town Hall) in 1860 and operated out of a small room to the right of the front door.  It was managed by Mr. Henry Woodcock, who supplemented his meager salary by repairing clocks and jewelry in the same space.  The Library continued to grow, in spite of some difficult years during the Civil War when it was without funding.

From 1867 to 1876, the Library occupied space in Liberty Hall at the corner of Main and Court Streets and was in the charge of Charles Woolley.  Controversy arose when the young people of the town clamored for more works of fiction, prompting the then-chairman of the Library Trustees to remark that if he had his way, there would be no fiction at all.  A petition was circulated and 160 residents agreed that more fiction at the Library would be welcome.  These citizens called for a town meeting to see if the Library Committee might be instructed by a public vote to purchase more fiction.  These public efforts caused Mr. Woolley to recognize the value of fiction, and he began his own circulating library that included novels.  Patrons of this separate library paid six cents weekly for borrowing privileges.  Woolley’s lending library was later disbanded when most of the titles were transferred to form the basis of the Westford Library’s collection. Any remaining novels were absorbed into the Groton Public Library’s collection.

In 1876 the Groton Public Library returned to the Town House, now with a collection of 2,500 books and circulation of over 4,500 books a year.  This return to a central location in town improved usage—in 1877, circulation increased to 8,000.  Miss Jennie H. Thayer began 16-years of service running the Library, lasting until 1891 when she went to work at the Boston Public Library.  This change ushered in Groton’s longest-serving librarian, Miss Emma F. Blood, who would serve for fifty-seven years until her retirement in 1948.

Charlotte A. L. Sibley
Charlotte A. L. Sibley

Towards the end of the 19th century, Groton’s need for a new library building became more evident.  Current and former residents of the town made bequests to the Library.  Donors included Willard Dalrymple, Augustus Fletcher, and Luther Blood.  Mrs. Charlotte A. L. Sibley offered to give the town a site for the new library building on Main Street, along with $4,000 towards its construction.  The amount of her gift was gradually increased until it reached $12,000, about half of the building’s eventual cost.  Mrs. Sibley continued to support the Library until the time of her death in 1902.

The new library was designed pro bono by Boston architect Arthur Rotch, a grand-son of Abbott Lawrence, the original grantor of funds for the establishment of Groton’s library.  Total cost of the land, building and furnishings was $27,500, of which $15,000 was allocated by the town. At its official dedication on May 18, 1893, the building committee gave the keys to the library trustees, plus an honorary set to Charlotte Sibley, publicly marking the institution’s new permanent home.

GPL 1894
Groton Public Library, 1894

In 1905, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Library’s founding, former library trustee Mary Shumway wrote the first history of the Groton Public Library.  “Its door is near the street, to invite the public to come freely in,” she reflects.  “The windows of its reading room look out on a lovely landscape of meadow and mountain, and call the mind to restful communion with the wisdom of the wise.”

By 1915, the library was ready to expand again, this time to better serve patrons in more distant parts of the community.  The West Groton branch of the Library was established in a small room at the Tarbell School.  Both branches of the Library continued to increase hours of operation and offer a broader selection of materials.  In 1919, however, the Board of Health requested the library be closed from January 15 - February 3, and the West Groton branch from January 19 - February 4, due to the Spanish Influenza epidemic that swept the nation.  In the winter of 1923, the Library also closed for nine weeks due to a coal shortage.  On this occasion a room at the Colonial Gift Shop was used for a short period of time to circulate books.

The 1920s also brought more donations.  John H. Tarbell donated a collection of books belonging to his late brother, Professor Frank B. Tarbell.  Martha P. Lawrence established the John Lawrence Fund.  Mrs. Lawrence, a trustee for nearly 35 years, additionally furnished the Children’s Room when it was created in 1928, and contributed funds for landscaping.  The Children’s Room opened on January 2, 1929, with Miss Clarissa Coburn appointed Assistant Librarian.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, people of Groton used their public library more than ever before. With its budget cut to half of what it had been, forcing a reduction in hours, the Library still saw a jump in circulation of materials and in the use of its reading rooms.  In December 1931, Children’s Room use was restricted due to a scarlet fever epidemic, and it was closed during school vacations.  The West Groton branch moved from the Tarbell School to a more central location in 1933.  This move to Rockwood House, financed by the Certified Dry Mat Corporation, placed the branch in the vicinity of what is now the RiverCourt Residences.

Conditions on the home front during World War II also affected the Library.  The 1943 fuel shortage contributed to a drop in usage, due to a cut in operating days from 300 to just 230.  In 1944, a shortage of tradesmen and certain materials caused building maintenance and some improvements to be postponed.  Sibley Hall, then located in the basement of the building, was used by the Red Cross, and the Groton Advisory Committee (GAC) was invited to use the Trustees’ Room for returning servicemen in 1945.  A small fund was provided by the Library for the purchase of books and pamphlets concerning the important function served by the GAC.

Emma F. Blood
Emma F. Blood

In 1948, Emma Blood resigned as Head Librarian.  In this same year the West Groton branch opened a Children’s Room. Children’s Story Hour was established and held once a week, except during summer months.  The Ladies Aid Society of the Christian Union Church contributed a record player and the beginnings of a music collection to the Library.  The West Groton branch was a testing ground for lending phonograph records, a service later adopted at the Main Library.

In 1955, the Library underwent a major change in its style of operation.  Before this date all the books were kept in closed stacks and patrons needed to request titles from the librarian.  The books were kept in a dark and crowded stack room, with some of the shelves so high that almost half the books were out of sight.  After renovations to add windows and lower the shelves so all the books could be reached, patrons could now browse for books in the stack room.

The Library joined the State Regional Public Library System in 1963, allowing it to borrow materials on a three-to-six month basis from the Fitchburg and Worcester Public Libraries.  Shortly after joining the Public Library System, the Groton Public Library began reorganizing and moving of parts of its collection.  The Children’s Room was moved to the lower level of the Main Library building, freeing up space for an adult reading and study room.

The Friends of the Groton Public Library was established in 1967 by Mrs. John A. Bruner and Mrs. Henry R. Brown.  They hosted their first book sale in the spring of 1973, as well as a tea for the teachers of the Groton public schools in the fall.  The Friends remained an important part of the Library until 2006, funding museum passes (starting in 1981 with passes to the New England Aquarium), organizing an annual book sale, and volunteering its valuable time for numerous projects.

The West Groton Branch closed on May 31, 1974, after fifty-nine years of service. Rockwood House, where the branch had been located for 41 years, was sold.

In recognition of the Bicentennial year of 1976, the Library compiled a retrospective booklet covering its previous 122 years, similar to the one written in 1905 for its 50th anniversary.  The Library also participated in the Labor Day Bicentennial celebration at the Groton Fair with an exhibit created by the Friends.  A special exhibit in the Library was a diorama representing Groton in the 1700s, created, designed, and built by fifth and sixth grade students at the Prescott School.

In 1979, the Library began offering library cards to non-resident borrowers throughout the state. Non-resident borrowing now accounts for over 18% of the Library’s total circulation.

The Children’s Room staff heeded the requests of parents and created a story hour for 3 year-olds in 1988 and one for 2½ year-olds in 1990.  The Children’s Room continues to offer Mother Goose Story Time for babies up to two years old, a Story Time for 3-to-5 year-olds, Tales and Tunes for Tots, and Pajama Story Time for children ages 3-8.

The Library celebrated the 100th anniversary of its building in 1993, complete with a community celebration and summary history of the previous 139 years.  Members of the celebration committee included Trustees, members of the Library staff, and residents of the community.  By that time discussions were already underway to determine the possibility of substantially expanding the Library to serve a growing community’s increased demand for services.                                   

A Space Needs Committee was formed in 1994, which began drafting a library building program, researching the possibility of expansion, and starting a grant application for a state library construction grant.  Overall, the 1990s were marked by large increases in circulation, giving further urgency to the need for expansion.  On September 19, 1996, the Groton Public Library was notified that it was successful in its application for a $1.2 million state construction grant to fund 40% of the cost of an addition. The Town voted overwhelmingly to support the project―426 to 9 at Town Meeting and 3 to 1 for the override vote.

May 19, 1997, was moving day for the Library, 104 years and one day after the building’s dedication.  The former Davis Library at the old Fort Devens became a temporary home to the majority of the collection, with a satellite location at Legion Hall as a local community access point.  Despite being split between two locations, library usage remained high.

The newly renovated and expanded Groton Public Library opened on March 6, 1999.  A Library website and an art gallery debuted in October of that year.  The additions and renovations resulted in a new 17,140 square foot library building, which had only 4,000 square feet available previously for public use.  The addition complemented the original design, and façade and much of the woodwork of the old building was retained.

In the 21st century, the Library has continued to grow, with annual circulation climbing to over 230,000.  Financial support from the Endowment and various lecture funds have created new opportunities such as book readings and author visits, the formation of several community book groups, the town-wide Groton READS program, new story hours for children and other family programs, and the creation of a Young Adult Summer Reading Program (with over 200 participants in 2014) and Adult Summer Reading Program in 2014.  The Children’s Summer Reading Program had almost 600 participants in 2014, a tribute to community recognition of the Library’s contribution to our lives and the importance of reading for children of all ages.

The Library has established collections of DVDs, music CDs, computer software, and audiobooks on CD. Technology plays an important part in Library services. The website provides online access to the Library catalog, as well as periodicals, newspapers and databases, an upcoming events calendar, a museum pass reservation system, and many other resources. Reference questions are answered not only in person or on the telephone, but also via email. The Library has 24/7 wireless Internet access, 12 public Internet computers, a laptop computer lab, and offers one-on-one individual technology assistance. In October 2013, the Library joined a network for the first time. GPL is now a full member of the Merrimack Valley Library Consortium (MVLC) of 36 public libraries. We share a common catalog and freely share resources amongst our member libraries.

The Groton Public Library has been an important part of the community for more than 150 years.  We are fortunate to have a Library committed to remaining on the cutting edge of advancing technology and the acquisition of new and interesting materials, as well as to live in a community that recognizes a good public library is a priceless asset to all.  The Groton Public Library continues to uphold the motto inscribed over its doors―“Open to All” ―and will remain a center for community activity in the years and decades to come.