N.H. State Library, The First In The Nation, Celebrates 300 Years

Mar 6, 2017

Credit NHPR/Michael Brindley

New Hampshire is home to the oldest state library in the nation, and this year, it’s marking its 300th anniversary. It was founded in 1717 with just two books and a proclamation by the New Hampshire general assembly.

The New Hampshire State Library has gone through plenty of changes since then. Its current home was built in 1896, located on Concord’s Park Street, next to the Statehouse.

Morning Edition host Rick Ganley took a tour of the building to learn about the history of the state library, and the role it plays today.

In the lobby, phone calls flow into the front desk as a handful of patrons conducted research on computers nearby.

“With the exception of the furniture that we’ve added," says state librarian Michael York, "it looks very much the same as it when it was constructed in 1896.”

After nearly twenty years on the job, York admits he’s developed a bit of personal bias.

“We always say we think it’s the most beautiful public building in New Hampshire," York said, "I’m sure we’ll get a lot of people who would disagree, but it is a beautiful building. The building is made of New Hampshire granite, American steel, and Italian marble.”

The original price tag for the 40,000 square foot building was $350,000; York said replacing it now would cost more than $100 million.

York says it's no coincidence that New Hampshire is home to the first state library – the state has a long history of supporting public libraries, including the nation’s first local public library in Peterborough in 1833.

“Well," York said, "we often use the term anchor institutions. There are 234 communities in New Hampshire and there are 234 public libraries. Nobody else can make that claim. Not McDonald’s, not 7-11, not Dunkin Donuts.”

In a large room with a magnificent skylight, people are sitting at microfilm machines scrolling through old newspapers; the walls are lined with aging, leather-bound books.

"The library as it was built in 1896, actually served two functions," York explained, "It was the Supreme Court building and it was also the state library. We’re currently in the room where the dais for the judges was. This was the main court room.”

A drawing of the Genealogy Room when it was the Supreme Court
Credit NH State Library

After the Supreme Court was moved to the heights, this space was turned into what’s known as the genealogy room.

“These are city directories," York said, "We have city directories from Nashua, Manchester Portsmouth; the larger cities in the states. And these are used extensively by genealogists. Town histories, family histories.”

York says it’s not uncommon in the summer to see license plates from across the country parked outside the library, as people return home to track their ancestry.

The state library maintains an extensive collection of archived New Hampshire newspapers.

Art Pease is sitting at one of the library’s microfilm readers. He traveled to the library from Lebanon.

“I’ve been coming here for two or three years now looking at microfilm, old newspapers, in particular," Pease said, taking a break from his research, "I grew up in Orford, so looking for Orford, looking for family news.”

After retiring from a job as a high school history teacher, Pease now spends his time collecting items for the Lebanon Historical Society.

“I’m looking at the Hanover Gazette, I started at 1915 today," said Pease, "I’m hoping to find a little about Orford during World War I because I’ve got almost nothing about that. And I think I’m going to. I’m only in June of 1915.”

Art Pease scrolls through microfilm
Credit NHPR/Michael Brindley

York refers to the state library as the "corporate library" of New Hampshire.

"We collect materials that the legislators need in order to do their work," he says. "We also collect material that state agencies need."

And the state library uses its federal funding to pay for programs that are offered at local public libraries across New Hampshire, York says.

"The other thing we've done is to help form a consortium of now 205 of our 234 public libraries that share a collection of downloadable audiobooks and downloadable e-books."

York explains how the staff decides what to keep as space becomes limited.

“We can’t purchase everything, we can’t house everything, so we need to make some tough decisions sometimes," York admitted,  "And one of the criteria is whether it’s relevant to New Hampshire. If that’s the case, then we would hold onto it.”

And while much of the collection will eventually be digitized, York says it's a balance. He bristles at the notion that libraries are simply "book museums."

"Because there's a reason for us to keep these original things. We can digitize them. You can digitize everything, but it's like any other endeavor. The market forces drives that. There's lots of stuff in our collection that no one would want to digitize except us." 

On the second floor, the library is home to the "map room." There are older maps hanging along each of the walls.

"These are all country maps. So we have a map from each of the 10 counties," York says. "And in addition to that, this is what's known as the Carrigan Map. It's the first official map of the state of New Hampshire. It was done in 1826. Mr. Carrigan was the secretary of state and he commissioned it."

And York shows off one of the library’s most prized possessions: the Hitchcock map.

NHPR's Rick Ganley with Michael York in front of the State Library's Hitchcock map
Credit NHPR/Michael Brindley

"There are four of these in the state," York explained, as we stood in front of a towering, 20-foot-tall map of New Hampshire; it nearly reaches the ceiling.

"All of the relief that you see – the mountains, the valleys, and the lakes – are all carved, as it turns out, by students at Dartmouth College in 1877," York explained, "And obviously it’s one of our treasures.”

The staff is celebrating the library’s 300th birthday by posting 300 facts about the state library and New Hampshire history.

You can find those facts on the library’s Twitter and Facebook, things its founders likely never envisioned.

Take your own virtual tour of the State Library! Click and drag the 360 images to explore the lobby, Genealogy Room and Map Gallery.

The lobby of the State Library in Concord Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

The Genealogy Room of the New Hampshire State Library, formerly the home of the state Supreme Court. Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

The Map Gallery at the New Hampshire State Library. Spherical Image - RICOH THETA