LaFrance: Once upon a time...
By Dorothy LaFrance/ Speaking Volumes
Friday, March 3, 2006

The Newburyport Public Library is distinctive, not only for its newly renovated and expanded facility, but also for its long and distinguished history as an institution and for the history of the building that it occupies.

Newburyport was among the first ten communities in Massachusetts to establish a public library after the passage in 1851 of a General Law permitting towns throughout the Commonwealth to establish and maintain public libraries through municipal taxation. In 1854, Josiah Little donated five thousand dollars and his personal library to Newburyport for the establishment of a public library.

Charles Jackson and Col. Samuel Swett of Boston, both of whom had roots in Newbury, also gave many volumes to line the shelves of the new library, located in what now is the office of the City Treasurer in City Hall. The entrance to the library room was located on the side of the building and can still be seen at that location as a bricked-up entry way. On Nov. 20, 1854, the mayor and aldermen adopted the report of the Committee on Public Instruction that outlined the management of the library and its rules and regulations: " The Library is to be opened for the delivery of books on every Wednesday and Saturday from 3 to 8 o'clock, p.m., except during the fortnight preceding the annual examination of the library." The library opened with 5,688 volumes on its shelves.

In 1863, Edward S. Mosely, Esq. took charge of seeking subscriptions for a new library building. In order to provide more space to the expanding library, eight subscribers purchased the Tracy Mansion, where George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Arnold Burr, and Lafayette had been entertained. The subscribers conveyed the property to the city to be used in perpetuity as a public library.

The Tracy Mansion was built in 1771, five years before the onset of the American Revolution. Nathaniel Tracy, who at this time was a member of the merchant aristocracy in Newburyport, was the proud owner. His father, Patrick Tracy, had purchased, for his son, the former Lowell estate on Greenleaf's Lane (now State Street) and moved the existing house to Temple Street, making way for a massive three-story brick structure, referred to as a "palace" by historians. Nathaniel, just at the onset on the American Revolution, fitted out a fleet of privateers and during the next eight years he was principal owner of 24 cruising ships and 110 merchant vessels. Privateering, or legalized piracy, contributed to the Revolutionary cause but was only great, while it lasted. After the war, Tracy unfortunately had to liquidate his assets and lost his fortune. He died at the early age of 45. When you are at the library ask to see his portrait in the Directors' Room.

Before its transition to a public library in 1865, the Tracy mansion, in addition to a residence, was used as a hotel, a "bowling saloon" and a dentist office. When you visit our handsomely renovated and expanded library and are enjoying a newspaper in the reading room, note the original woodwork with Georgian detail that adorns the room.

Presidents, senators, heroes and traitors have visited the Tracy Mansion, your library since the 19th Century. For 235 years it has graced State Street and for 140 years it has served the community as its public library. Next time you check out a book or a DVD or use a 21st Century Internet computer, take time to roam the Tracy Mansion and appreciate its history.

Dorothy LaFrance is the head librarian at the Newburyport Public Library.

(This article replicated online with permission of the Newburyport Current.)
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