A CHAPTER IN CHILDREN'S LIBRARIES
The following account of the beginning of children's work in Arlington, Mass., in 1835, marks the earliest date yet claimed for the establishment of library work with children, and was written for the January, 1913, number of The Library Journal. Alice M. Jordan was born in Thomaston, Maine, and was educated in the schools of Newton, Massachusetts. After teaching for a few years she entered the service of the Boston Public Library in 1900, Since 1902 she has been Chief of the Children's Department in that library, and since 1911 a member of the staff of Simmons College Library School.
"In consequence of a grateful remembrance of hospitality and friendship, as well as an uncommon share or patronage, afforded me by the inhabitants of West Cambridge, in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, in the early part of my life when patronage was most needful to me, I give to the said town of West Cambridge one hundred dollars for the purpose of establishing a juvenile library in said town. The Selectmen, Ministers of the Gospel, and Physicians of the town of West Cambridge, for the time being shall receive this sum, select and purchase the books for the library which shall be such books as, in their opinion, will best promote useful knowledge and the Christian virtues among the inhabitants of the town who are scholars, or by usage have a right to attend as scholars in their primary schools. Other persons may be admitted to the privilege of said library under the direction of said town, by paying a sum for membership and an annual tax for the increase of the same. And my said executors are directed to pay the same within one year after my decease."
This "extract from the last will and testament of Dr. Ebenezer Learned, late of Hopkinton, N. H.," forms the first book plate of the Arlington (Mass.) Public Library, founded in 1835. It appears to be the earliest record we have of a specific bequest for a children's library, free to all the children of the town receiving it.
In the late eighteenth century it was the custom at Harvard College to grant a six-weeks' vacation in winter and summer, when students could earn money for college expenses. The popular way of doing this was to teach school. Ebenezer Learned, a young man in the class of 1787, availed himself of this opportunity and taught in West Cambridge, or Menotomy. His associations there were pleasant ones, and the memory of the friends then made persisted through his later successful career. Dr. Learned became a practicing physician, first in Leominster (Mass.) and later in Hopkinton, N. H. He is said to have been warmly interested in education and science throughout his life, and was the originator of the New Hampshire Agricultural Society and vice-president of the New Hampshire Medical Society. And yet with all these later interests, his thought, toward the end of his life, was of the little town where he taught his first school.
At the time of receiving this legacy there were in West Cambridge two ministers--a Unitarian and a Baptist--and one physician. Together with the selectmen, they formed the first board of trustees, which met on Nov. 30, 1835, and voted that the books selected for the library should be such as were directed by Dr. Learned's will, "the same not being of a sectarian character." Selection of books was left largely to Mr. Brown, of the newly formed firm of Little & Brown, publishers. He was directed to spend at least half of the bequest for books suitable for the purpose, and these were sent to the home of Dr. Wellington, the physician on the board.
Then followed the task of selecting a librarian, and the obvious choice was Mr. Dexter, a hatter by trade and already in charge of the West Cambridge Social Library. This was a subscription library, founded in 1807, and consisting mainly of volumes of sermons and "serious reading." The question of the librarian's salary was the next care, for the state law authorizing towns to appropriate tax money for libraries was yet ten years in the future. At town meeting, in 1837, however, one of the trustees called attention to the clause in Dr. Learned's will which provided that others, beside children, might use the library by paying a sum for membership and an annual assessment. "Why should not the town pay the tax, and thus make it free to all the inhabitants?" he asked. And this was done. The town at once appropriated thirty dollars for the library, and the right to take books was extended to all the families in town. From this time the institution has been a free town library, the earliest of its class in Massachusetts.
The little collection of books for the West Cambridge Juvenile Library traveled to its first home on a wheelbarrow. "Uncle" Dexter would make hats during the week, and on Saturday afternoons open the library for the children. Three books were the limit for a family, and they could be retained for thirty days. That the books were actually read by the children is vouched for by those who remember the library from its beginning. Even free access to the shelves was permitted for a while. But we come to a period, later, when the by-laws declare, "No person except the librarian shall remove a book from the shelves."
One would like to know just what those books were for which one-half of that precious bequest was first spent. The earliest extant catalog of the juvenile library is dated 1855, though there exists an earlier list (1835) of the Social Library. Tradition has handed down the names of two books said to be in the first collection, but one of these is certainly of later date. The first is still in existence, a copy of the "History of Corsica," by James Boswell. One who as a boy read this book, years ago, in the West Cambridge Juvenile Library, recalled it with delight when he visited Corsica years afterward.
The other title, mentioned as belonging to the first library, is "The history of a London doll." But this delightful child's story, by Richard Hengist Home, was not published until 1846. Some of the Waverley novels are also remembered as being among the earliest purchases. Of course, we realize that books which "will best promote useful knowledge and the Christian virtues" in school children are not necessarily children's books. So we may be tolerably sure that Rollins' and Robertson's histories, as well as Goldsmith and Irving, would have appeared in the catalog had there been one.
The juvenile library remained a year in its first home, the frame house still standing near the railroad which runs through Arlington. There have been five library homes since then, including the meeting house, where the collection of books was nearly doubled by the addition of the district school libraries and a part of the Social Library.
In 1867 the town changed its name to Arlington, discarding the Indian name of Menotomy, by which it was known before its incorporation as West Cambridge. The library then became known as the Arlington Juvenile Library, and, in 1872, its name was formally changed to Arlington Public Library. With the gift of a memorial building, in 1892, the present name, the Robbins Library, was adopted by the town.
It is characteristic of our modern carelessness of what the past has given us, that we have lost sight of this first children's library. Not Brookline in 1890, not New York in 1888, but Arlington in 1835 marks the beginning of public library work with children. Here is one public library, with a history stretching back over seventy-five years, which need not apologize for any expenditure in its work with children. Its very being is rooted in one man's thought for the children of the primary schools. Dr. Learned could think of no better way of repaying the kindnesses done to a boy than by putting books into the hands of other boys and girls. A children's librarian may well be grateful for the memory of this far-seeing friend of children, who held the belief that books may be more than amusement, and that the civic virtues can be nourished by and in a "juvenile library."