All Sections

Home | History

NH's State Library: Started 300 years ago with two books, it's America's oldest such institution

New Hampshire Sunday News

January 29. 2017 8:43PM
State Librarian Michael York in the map room of the State Library in Concord. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

Before America was even a country, the roots of the first state library were planted right here in New Hampshire.

It was Jan. 25, 1717, and New Hampshire’s 27th General Assembly was meeting in Portsmouth. The assembly passed a resolution that “law books be distributed among ye severall (sic) towns of this Province ... except two books wch shall be for ye use for ye Govr & Councill & house of representatives.”

And with those two books, the oldest state library in America was born.

To celebrate its 300th anniversary, folks at the New Hampshire State Library are posting 300 “fun facts” — one a day, in chronological order — about the library’s collection on social media.

So what exactly was the library 300 years ago?

“We believe it was a closet where they put these things where they could actually secure them,” said Michael York, the state librarian. “Primarily documents sent from the Crown and books dealing with the laws.”

“We became a library before we were actually a state or a country,” he said.

An impressive building on Park Street has been the library’s home since 1895. It cost $350,000 to build the 40,000-square-foot edifice of marble, granite and steel; today the replacement cost is estimated at more than $100 million, York said.

In the early years, the library was mostly a collection of law books; the building also housed the state Supreme Court until it moved to its current location off Hazen Drive in 1970.

York has been the state librarian since 1999. An unabashed booster of libraries, he’s the perfect tour guide for the State Library and its many treasures.

In the front lobby, there’s a bust of Amos Tuck, a close friend of Abraham Lincoln who is credited as the founder of the Republican party here in 1853.

(Answers to quiz can be found below.)

Under the dome of the room that formerly housed the Supreme Court, there’s a cast-iron bas-relief depicting the Mastlands, by 19th-century Cornish sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

The “map gallery” displays a priceless collection of large county maps, preserved by experts at the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, Mass. There’s also the oldest commissioned map of the state, dated 1826.

In another room, there’s a 20-foot-tall relief map created under the direction of state geologist Charles M. Hitchcock by students at Dartmouth College in 1877.

One of York’s first deeds as state librarian was to convince the state Department of Administrative Services to display the map upright for visitors to admire; it’s been a popular item for visiting schoolchildren ever since.

York grumbles about the Works Progress Administration project done in the 1930s and 1940s to add a second floor to a section of the library to house the ever-growing collection. “It really destroyed the character of the building,” he said.

So did removing the tower that once graced its top, he said. Then-Gov. John King claimed it made the building look asymmetrical, and oversaw its removal in 1966.

Political Library in 1997

The library’s collections include the New Hampshire Political Library, established by former Gov. Hugh Gregg and Secretary of State William Gardner in 1997.

The pair, York said, were deeply concerned about preserving New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary and wanted to provide resources for visiting journalists to understand its role in testing candidates for the White House.

“I used to say if Hugh got you in a corner, God help you,” York said, smiling. “You would either give him some memorabilia, or you’d have to give him a donation for the library.”

There are historical photographs, such as one of future president John F. Kennedy taking a dogsled ride. In another, Robert Taft looks pained as he holds a rooster someone thrust at him during a 1952 campaign stop.

Buttons from past campaigns show just how much remains the same even as the candidates change. “Jobs, not relief with Wilkie,” reads one from the 1940 campaign. “We don’t want Eleanor either,” reads another.

A campaign button for Gov. Meldrim Thomson in 1968 declares: “Stop Drugs.”

The library is also designated as a depository for federal documents; the idea is to spread such resources around so the public has access to them, York said.

“There’s nothing more expensive than free government documents,” he noted drily. “They send us all this stuff and it shows up at the back door and that’s it. Everything else is our responsibility.”

Anchor institutions

A history major at the University of New Hampshire, York has been a librarian since he was 26 years old. He worked at colleges, including UNH, before becoming deputy state librarian in 1999. Shortly after, the state librarian left and York got the job.

He points out that every community in New Hampshire has a public library.

“These are anchor institutions,” he said. “Think about it. The public library is generally beloved by the community. The people are always friendly; they’re always helpful.”

Libraries often were built by benefactors, he said. “Very often they’re the most beautiful structures in town.”

While there’s some debate about the location of the nation’s first public library, Peterborough rightly claims its first taxpayer-supported public library, York said. The taxpayer piece is significant, he said.

“We think that’s clearly an indication that libraries are essential for good government,” he said. “Whether it’s a democracy or monarchy, you still need people to be educated.”

Libraries have changed with the times, York said. The state library was instrumental in creating a consortium of 205 public libraries here to make downloadable books available to patrons.

“We’re always evolving,” he said.

But they also play a critical role in preserving original source material, York said.

“You wouldn’t take a digital image of the Mona Lisa and put it on the wall of the Louvre,” he said.

The N.H. State Library is open to the public Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. For “fun facts” about the library, go to: or

Answers to quiz:

1: Amos Tuck, founder of the Republican Party and namesake of Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business.

2: “Coffee With the Kennedys” was an infomercial of sorts for John F. Kennedy’s 1952 run for U.S. Senate from Massachusetts.

3: The first Gov. Sununu — John H. Sununu — for his third inaugural, in 1987.

4: Franklin Pierce of Hillsborough, elected the 14th President in 1852.

5: Gen. John Stark of Manchester, who wrote “Live free or die; death is not the worst of evils” in 1809.

6: Hugh Gregg of Nashua set up this version of the seal in the back of his pickup truck in 1952.

7: The state Supreme Court met in the McKay Room when the building opened in 1896.

Education Politics Concord

More Headlines