Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

Townspeople

June 15, 2010

ANDOVER STORIES: Memorial Hall Library's legacy of literacy and remembrance

Perhaps because of Andover’s successful printing business and the town’s commitment to education, books – and access to these books – were important to its townspeople. The reading public for many years enjoyed access to “Social Libraries,” often available in local stores. One existed in North Andover as early as 1770. The Andover Frye District Circulation Library Association functioned in the 1840s, under the patronage of the successful and influential Smith & Dove flax mill business. The Smith Brothers even contributed $80,000 to the Theological Seminary for the construction of Brechin Hall Library in 1865.

Then in 1870, with the country – and Andover – still reeling from the devastating losses of the Civil War, John Smith, one of the brothers, visited his hometown of Dresden, Scotland. Exploring that town’s public library, Smith hit upon an idea. On July 2 of that year, he wrote a letter to his son back in Andover:

“I have thought the corner lot, where Joseph Abbott’s shop stood, would be a fine place for a Memorial Hall to be built upon, to commemorate and keep in remembrance the names of those who gave their lives in defending our national flag.”

Smith went on to pledge $25,000 on the condition that the town, within six month’s time, pledge a like amount. Of this total, $30,000 was to go for the building and land, “and $20,000 to be invested, the interest only to be spent in taking care of the library, if there should be one, and a Reading-room.”

On Dec. 31, 1870, town meeting heard that $8,500 had been subscribed in sums ranging from $350 to ten cents. Further pledges soon followed. Still, there remained a deficit of $3, 500. When an earlier 1866 sum of $4,500 was remembered – money that the Town had set aside for a Civil War Memorial – the sum of $51,500 was reached, and the future of the Memorial Hall was secured.

Architect J.F. Eaton was hired in May of 1871, and the firm of Abbott & Jenkins was awarded the contract. The cornerstone was laid on Sept. 19, 1871, with a list of all the Andover men enrolled in the Army and Navy during the “War of Rebellion,” and those who gave their lives.

Memorial Hall’s official opening was May 30, 1873. Clergyman Phillips Brooks gave the dedicatory address. In part:

“We are going to set apart forever a Hall of the Soldiers of Andover who died for their country, and also a means of culture and education for the Town to which they belonged…If these Andover soldiers were indeed the best fruits of our institution, the best specimens of our character, then all that can educate that character is the best memorial of them.”

From an original book purchase of 2,700 volumes, to over two million books today, Memorial Hall has seen many changes and grown to be a model for the surrounding communities. Physical changes included the removal of a Victorian roof line. A children’s room was added and later enlarged. Ground was broken in 1985 for a new $5.2 million addition. When work was completed in 1988, the library had doubled in size.

Internally, books were not the only focus. In 1978 a federal grant was awarded for the Information & Retrieval Program known as ANSWERS. A computer system was installed in 1981. The following year, MHL became the central site for the 36-member Merrimack Valley Consortium. Computer upgrades continue today as the library is now a computer center for 26 public libraries. Andover is the only library in Massachusetts to provide both functions.

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