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Library History


Vote to establish a Juvenile Library, the first publicly supported library in Massachusetts, the second in the country.


Sabbath School Library in East Village has 186 volumes.


Vote $90 to start a library in each Lexington school.


Farmers' Club urges public library; the club owns 200 volumes.


Farmers' Club is authorized to take charge of books belonging to the town; they establish a library in what is now the Lexington Theatre.


Portrait of Maria Cary Hastings
Portrait of Maria Hastings Cary, from the Cary Memorial Library art collection.

Having a regard for her native place and being prompted by a desire to increase the opportunities for culture among its inhabitants.

With these words Mrs. Maria Hastings Cary of Brooklyn, New York, offered the Town of Lexington $1,000 for books if a free public library were established. The year was 1867.

Mrs. Cary's gift carried with it two stipulations. First, the town was to appropriate $1,000 plus $40 yearly for the purchase of books. Second, it was to provide a building, maintain it properly, and keep it open without charge to all the inhabitants. On April 20, 1868, Mrs. Cary's gift was accepted and the town agreed to appropriate $1,000 when $400 or its equivalent in books was raised. This provision was overwhelmingly met when the Farmers' Club Library agreed to give its collection of books — 401 volumes valued at $575 — to the town.

A Board of Trustees consisting of the Selectmen, School Committee, and the settled clergy of the town was organized as stipulated by Mrs. Cary to oversee the use of the money and the operation of the library. In gratitude to Mrs. Cary for her gift, it was agreed that the new library should bear her name.


On January 27, 1869, Cary Library was opened to the public. Located over Bradford Whitcher's (later Spaulding's) Store, which stood on Main Street (now Massachusetts Avenue) opposite Meriam Street, it was open from one to five on Wednesdays and from one to eight on Saturdays. Marian S. Keyes was the librarian and the 1,200 books, all carefully covered in brown paper, were on shelves accessible only to her! Despite this restriction 1,670 volumes were circulated in the first three months.

Though some of the books…are not adapted to general reading, they are valuable works of reference and are what no public library should be without.


In two years the library had outgrown its original location and was moved to the first floor of the Town Hall which had just been built on Massachusetts Avenue opposite Waltham Street.

Interior of library in town hall
Interior of the library on the ground floor of the Town Hall, image from the Worthen Collection

In 1869, just one year after the opening of the library, Mrs. Cary proposed constructing a library building. In 1870 the Committee acted on her recommendation and accepted her offer of $20,000 toward building the Town Hall.


The growth of Cary Library during its first quarter century is exciting in retrospect. The original collection of books from the Farmers' Library had been augmented by donations from the Lexington Library Association, Mr. Benjamin de Forest, and the Honorable Charles Hudson even before the doors were opened. Until her death Mrs. Cary generously supported the library and left an additional $5,000 in her will. Other individuals followed her example, donating both funds and books to the cause. And the town was no less willing to support the increasing thirst for good literature; in addition to its original appropriation, the Meeting agreed to set aside the dog tax for the use of the library. In 1873 this assured the library of about $800 annually; in 1968 the library still received some of its funds from the dog taxes.


Miss Keyes was succeeded as librarian in 1877 by Grace S. Wellington, and it was during her term and that of her successor, Florence E. Whitcher, that further expansion of the library took place.


Maria Hastings Cary died in 1881, leaving the Cary Library $5,000.


The number of books is uncommonly large and exceedingly well chosen…frequenters of the library.thronged the reading room and kept the young lady at the desk incessantly busy recording the books they borrowed or returned.

These words by William Dean Howells, written in 1881 while he was working on A Modern Instance, are the key to the development of the library in the 1880s. New space was obviously essential, so in 1883 the Memorial Hall was incorporated into the main reading room and the entire library was redecorated.

Old Adams School
The Old Adams School, image from the Worthen Collection

In this year, too, library service in the community was expanded with the opening of a branch library in East Lexington. The branch began operation on April 19, 1883 in a reading room of the old Adams School. East Lexington residents could leave their library cards there and receive books from the main library twice a week. Miss Nellie Holbrook, the first librarian, took the books to and from the main library and kept the reading room open "at convenient hours six days of the week." During its first year, the branch had an average of ten patrons a day.

At first the Branch was open only twice a week, but latterly the requirements are for daily access, while a considerable number of volumes from the main library find circulation through this agency."

During this period the reference section of the library was enlarged and the library subscribed to twenty-eight magazines and one daily newspaper. By the end of its first twenty-five years of service the Trustees could report that "Cary Library is filling a larger place in the interest and affection of our people. It was never so much sought and used as today.


WARRANT FOR A TOWN MEETING: Thursday, October 13, 1887. Art. 2
To see if the Town will accept the proposition of William A. Tower to the Selectmen, in regard to purchasing a site for a Public Library Building, or act in any manner relating thereto.

William A. Tower, a successful business man who had served in the House of Representatives and on the Governors Council and was most active in town affairs, offered to erect a new building on the corner of Clarke and Main Streets, if the town would provide the site. He also suggested that the Library should thereafter be run by a "Library Corporation" rather than the Trustees. At the same meeting at which Mr. Tower's offer was read, there was a communication from Alice Butler Cary, the adopted daughter of Maria Hastings and William Harris Cary, offering funds from her mother's estate to purchase the site. According to the minutes, both communications were received with great applause and cheers and committees were formed to negotiate for the site and the investigate the proposed change in library management. Unfortunately, by a ruling of the Supreme Court which stated that transfer of library affairs from the Trustees was not permissible, the town lost the opportunity to have a new library as Mr. Tower withdrew his offer.


Front facade of the Stone Building
The Stone Building

As the 103 East Lexington families began to use the East Branch more and more, new quarters were sought. In 1891 Miss Ellen Stone offered the Stone mansion and about one half acre of land adjoining Follen Church to the trustees for $2,000. The offer was accepted and the East Lexington Branch was moved to the new building from a room over Holbrook's store where it had spent the previous nine months.

The Stone building which housed the East Lexington Branch Library was an interesting acquisition for the town. Erected in 1833-34 by Eli Robbins, it was a public building where lectures, sermons and other meetings could be held, and where freedom of speech could be allowed. Through the years it had been used as a private school, a meeting place for the Unitarian Society led by Charles Follen, and as a lyceum for lectures. Those who had spoken there included Emerson, Thoreau, Charles Sumner, Wendell Phillips, Theodore Parker and Josiah Quincy, Jr.

Our satisfaction is peculiarly great in recording the fact that not only among the members of the various literary clubs and among the mature minds but also on the part of the pupils in the schools there has been pronounced advance in the appreciation and use of…literary tools.

With this statement the Trustees adequately described the role of the library under Marian P. Kirkland who had served as first assistant librarian since 1892 and became librarian in 1897, remaining in that position for the next forty-two years. Her counterpart at the East Lexington Branch, Emma O. Nichols, served during the same long period. Perhaps the concerns of these years can better be understood by quoting some of the Trustees reports. Written by such men as Carleton A. Staples, pastor of the First parish Church and co-founder of the Lexington Historical Society, these reports show that the Trustees were greatly concerned with the reading habits of the people of Lexington.

Not that the best works of fiction should be reckoned among that which is not improving and helpful, but the majority of that class are sought for amusement rather than instruction; a demand which should be gratified in the public library, so far as it can be within the limits of pure and wholesome reading.

Gift books were always gladly accepted but selectivity proved to be of importance in this area too.

While the Trustees are grateful for gifts of really useful books, they cannot cumber the shelves with those that are old, worn out and worthless, which people are glad to be rid of.

The principles of book selection set forth by the Trustees in 1899 best sum up their guiding standards.

The practical idea for those selecting the reading matter for a free people is to choose the strongest, best books that will be read.

The fiction problem previously mentioned was solved in the minds of the Trustees when they declared that a large percentage of the fiction being circulated was "stories about real life with glimpses of the ideal to inspire the reader." And the perennial problem of unreturned books cropped up in the annual report of 1897.

It would seem that any honourable person would willingly replace a book accidentally destroyed or pay for it. But these persons have taken no notice of requests repeatedly sent to them to have the books returned.

The report continued with the information that since the culprits were known, they were barred from further use of the library.

Coming up to the turn of the century, Cary Library owned about 20,000 volumes, including about 2,000 in a juvenile section which had been set up in 1897. Circulation had passed 30,000 volumes per year and the librarians were finding increasing demands on their time for aid with reference material.


Original Cary Libary
Cary Library, image from Library of Congress

Our outlook toward the future is bright with the anticipation of a new building to be furnished by the generous spirit of Mrs. Cary, and our counsel are already shaping toward ampler services and worthier recognition of the place that may be filled by Cary Memorial Library in Lexington.

The year 1906 was another landmark in Lexington library history. In that year the Cary Library moved into new quarters at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Clarke Street, the site which it still occupies. Dedicated on July 16, 1906, the building was the gift of Miss Alice Butler Cary in honor of her mother. During the ceremony a speaker referred to Mrs. Cary's good qualities at length calling them corner-stones of the new edifice, which led one witness to remark that "he didn't leave a corner-stone unturned!" In the words of the Trustees who re-named the library Cary Memorial Library,

The building commemorates the sterling qualities and upright character of William Harris Cary and Maria Hastings Cary. It is a token of fervent, filial devotion and of loyal citizenship, and it is dedicated to the advancement of character through the love of literature.


The Library building was officially named Cary Memorial Library.


Once in its new quarters, Cary Memorial Library made advances in many areas. Added space made exhibits possible and the Massachusetts Library Art Club provided 17 exhibits of photography in the first year of Cary's operation. In 1910 a music collection was added through the generous gift of Mrs. Charles C. Goodwin and, in that same year, the Lexington Historical Society transferred its book collection to the library's care.


From World War I through the Depression there were few drastic changes in library affairs. The bulletin board, a gift from Hallie C. Blake, was set up in 1919 and aroused much interest in library circles as a means of educating the public to the many library services. The effect of radio on the reading public was a source of worry in one Trustee's report, but the people of Lexington continued to use the library more than ever before.


When Miss Kirkland retired in 1939, Ralph A. Nason was appointed to take her place.


Again the problem facing the library was space, but World War II intervened and it wasn't until 1946 that any changes were authorized. In that year the East Lexington Branch was completely remodeled and renovated. Two years later the stacks of the main library were remodeled, creating space for a children's area and for 10,000 additional volumes.


During the 1950's Lexington began to experience its tremendous postwar expansion and again the library needed more space. By votes of the Town Meeting in 1955 and 1956, an addition to Cary Memorial Library was authorized and ground-breaking ceremonies were held in March of 1957. With the exception of the Lexington Room the entire project — addition and renovation of the original structure — was completed and opened in 1958 with no interruption in library service. The Lexington Room was completed in 1959. The new building included a Children's Library, a music and art room, a reference area, and other facilities which proved a boon to library service.

A collection of recordings, started in the 1940's and considerably expanded during the next decade, continued to be used heavily by the library's patrons. Mr. Nason also initiated a project of microfilming the Lexington Minute Man. (The library now has every issue from 1871 to the present on microfilm.)

By 1960 circulation had expanded to over 400,000 books, the highest per capita circulation of any medium-sized public library in Massachusetts. When Ralph Nason resigned in 1961, the Trustees' report mourned the "end of an era, characterized by the dedicated service of a few faithful employees who lived in Lexington and for Lexington and Cary Library; who gave of their time and effort with little thought of numbers of hours scheduled or salary increases granted. We shall be ever grateful to them for their outstanding contribution to this town."


Plans have been made for programs throughout 1962 in the areas of adult education, art exhibits, and film showings. An increased effort in public relations will stress talks to groups, publication of book lists, and newspaper publicity in the hope that 1962 will see the potential of this library more fully realized and its position of leadership in the community strengthened.

In his first annual report Karl Nyren, Cary's sixth director, thus indicated that his efforts would be put toward making the community aware of the library and its services and toward increasing its use as a cultural center. The first project in this endeavor was a film, "The Fifth Freedom," made at the Cary Memorial Library under Mr. Nyren's guidance. The film explained the operation of a medium-sized library with emphasis on the essentials of good library served; its purpose was to encourage people to exercise their freedom to read.

Monthly art exhibits became a regular feature at Cary in 1962. An anonymous gift in honor of Dr. Fred S. Piper provided the curtains and picture mouldings which transformed the area adjacent to the reference room into a small gallery. At the same time the library established an original print collection, including the works of about fifty American artists, which allowed patrons to rent prints for use in their homes or offices. As far as it is possible to determine, Cary was the first library to circulate original prints. (This service has since been discontinued.)

Mr. Nyren was an innovator. He instituted special children' s programs, film showings in off-hours, musical programs, and adult discussion groups.

Members of earlier Boards of Trustees would have rejoiced in the report of 1964 that "the demand among adults is for less fiction and more non-fiction." Already noted for its collections on Thoreau (gift of Dr. Fred Piper) and on the American Revolution, Cary concentrated on its non-fiction acquisitions in those years, strengthening them in the special areas of business, science, etc., often aided by donations from local businesses or individuals.

Perhaps the most significant development of Mr. Nyren's term was that of a book selection policy, placing emphasis on the individual's freedom to make his or her own choice of books, and putting the responsibility of children's reading in the hands of parents. The policy concludes,

The value to society in maintaining a library which encourages the free development of the individual, a library which old and young know is in no sense a propaganda agency of any dominant class or government, is too great to be sacrificed to the comfort of those who would extend their personal taboos to the community at large.


In 1967 Robert C. Hilton succeeded Mr. Nyren as director and it was under his aegis that the first century of Cary Memorial Library ended and the second hundred years began.


A second addition was completed.


Shortly after the arrival of Carol Mahoney as director of the Cary Memorial Library, plans for a third renovation got underway.


The Cary Memorial Library opened in its temporary location at Cary Hall on January 21, 2001. A ground-breaking ceremony was held on the lawn at Cary Memorial Library on June 28, 2001 and demolition and construction began soon after.


On April 20, 2004 the newly renovated and expanded library opened featuring enhanced public service space, a Children's Room nearly tripled in size, and state-of–the-art technology and systems. Gracefully restored historic spaces and a meeting room were  equipped to serve the community's 21st century needs.