What is the earliest record of a library in the town of Sunderland? John Montague Smith, editor of History of Sunderland 1673-1899, wrote that a group of citizens in the late 18th century had pledged to mutually maintain a library in Sunderland. An old document, dated December 1799, survives confirming Smith’s statement. That document lists the names of Sunderland residents owing the one shilling fee as voted December 2, 1794 and those owing fines and forfeitures. Smith concludes that a more definitive date could not be established but said the existence of a library “some little time previously to the 1794 date is a reasonable conclusion based on these old records.”

The 1800s and the Social Library

In June 1801, John Montague, Sr. who was believed to be a sponsor of the new Social Library wrote, “We … engage to form ourselves into a society … to be governed by such rules and regulations as we shall hereafter adopt, and we likewise further promise and engage to our equal proportion of the cost of those books that shall be purchased … at the venue on Monday the 22d day of June … out of the list of books … of the present library.” Twenty-two others of the community joined the first Social Library, including Sylvanus Clark, Benjamin Graves, Eleazer Warner, and Lt. Col. Daniel Whitmore, all American Revolutionary War veterans.

A generation later, on June 6, 1828, Horace W. Taft, Justice of the Peace, issued a warrant to Dickson Graves requiring proprietors of the Social Library “to meet at the Town house in said Town, on Monday the twenty third day of June current, at seven o’clock in the afternoon, to act on the following articles.” The articles required selecting a Moderator, Clerk, Librarian and “such other Officers as may be deemed necessary” and to adopt a Constitution. The minutes of the meetings of the Social Library from 1828-1855 have been preserved by the Swampfield Historical Society.

The Social Library grew by merging with two other libraries in town. Both the Juvenile Society and the Platonick Society voted to unite their libraries with the Social Library. The constitution of the Social Library offered honorary membership to the members of the Juvenile Society. A provision in Article V of the Constitution required the books of the Juvenile Society be returned to the Congregational minister if the new Social Library should be dissolved. A catalogue of these books includes  Cook’s Voyages, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and Chalmer’s Sermons. The members of the Platonick Library were required to pay a fee but were admitted as a group, not by individual vote of the members. We have no other records of the Platonick Society or their membership. Frances Clark and Dickson Graves were chosen “to provide a book case” for the expanded collection. Defoe’s

The Graves Family Contribution Begins

Each member of the Social Library was called a proprietor (owner) and paid “a fee of fifty cents for admission and one dollar annually for purposes of increasing the library.” New members were admitted by a two-thirds vote of members. Three books might be borrowed from 6 to 7 p.m. the first Tuesday of the month from October to March and from 7 to 8 p.m. during the remaining six months of the year. Books were returned the next month. If a borrower should lose or destroy a volume from a set, “he shall be holden to pay for the whole set.” A note in Smith’s history states that William Delano was paid $2.50 for keeping the library at his home for 7 years, 4 months 25 days. Within a few years, in 1834, a “Library Room” is mentioned. The following year Horace W. Taft’s office is identified as the site, and he is chosen librarian. Smith’s history says that in 1838 or 1839 a reading room and library occupied the second floor of Horatio Graves’s store. The Social Library minutes at that time only mentions a vote “to have the Inspectors furnish a cupboard or some other convenience for the Library if they see fit.” The store was on the site of the Graves Memorial Library building at North Main and School Streets.

By 1853, “persons were chosen as a Committee to consider the expediency of selling the Library to the Town to form a part of a Free Town Library.” The next year the proprietors asked the Town “to raise $125.00 the first year and $50.00 annually towards defraying the expense of a free town library.” That year, 1853, Horatio Grave’s store and the library burned to the ground. The proprietors met once more in 1855 and elected officers but the plans and the library were in ashes.

In 1869, two sons of Erastus Graves, Rufus R. and E. Augustus, then living in Brooklyn, N.Y., made a gift of $1,000.00 to found a public library in town. Many Sunderland residents made contributions, and A.J. Johnson, publisher, gave a gift of $500.00 and uniformly bound copies of all his published work. Horace Greeley, a close friend of Johnson’s, offered a $200.00 prize to any Farmer’s Club who certified having set out a grape vine at every dwelling house in town. The Sunderland Farmer’s Club won and donated its prize to the library trustees. The new library contained 3,000 volumes and opened December 20, 1869 on the southwest corner, second floor, of the new Town Hall. The library was open to all, but a rental fee was charged until 1878 when it became a free public library.

The Trustees voted to print a book catalogue of authors and titles with acquisition numbers and a short history of the library. A supplemental catalogue of books survives that was published in 1896. It’s interesting to note the change of taste in reading from the earlier more serious sermons and travel to children’s fiction and recreational reading including Kipling’s Jungle Boy, Mary Wells Smith’s A Jolly Good Summer, Thomas Bulfinch’s The Age of Fable and Charles Coffin’s The Gist of Whist.

The Town Hall Library grew and expanded beyond the original room into the second-floor hallway and by 1896 the need for a larger library was apparent. A committee was appointed to raise funds. A framed list of these 19th-century donors can be found in the Graves Memorial Library building; this generation of Sunderland residents gave several hundred dollars in cash and pledged additional amounts. At the 1898 Town Meeting, $500.00 was appropriated for the new library. The Trustees were directed to proceed with the building when the fund reached $2,000.00

Horatio and Fanny Graves had sold their store lot at Main and Bridge Streets in 1859 to Horace Lyman and his heirs and assigns for $350.00 In August 1898, Edward, Horace’s son, in consideration of only $150.00, conveyed this land to the “Inhabitants of the Town of Sunderland.” The deed further stated a condition” that the grantees shall erect and maintain thereon a building for a public library, and if said land shall be used for any other purpose during the life of myself and or any of my children now living I reserve to myself and my heirs the right to … expel … and possess the same in fee.”

In the interim before the 1899 Town Meeting, John L. Graves made known his generous gift of the money to build and furnish a library for his hometown. It was his wish to honor his parents and “in gratitude to Him who permitted my birth in this most beautiful valley.” As a boy he had grown up around his father’s store, with the library and reading room on the second floor. His parents provided him with a fine education at Williston, Easthampton and Mt. Pleasant Institute, Amherst. He was an exceptional student, graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Amherst College in 1855. He taught at Orford Academy in Orford, N.H. for a year and there met his future wife, Fanny Britton. In the next years he studied theology with the Rev. S. D. Clark of Sunderland and Dr. Kirk of Boston and was ordained in 1860. He served churches in Boston, Hartford and Washington, D.C. Ill health caused him to leave the ministry. For a period of time he worked for New York Life Insurance Company in Springfield, MA. Finally, in 1876, he settled his family in Boston and became a respected importer of goods from Asia and Europe with his business address at 22 Beacon Street. He was Commander-in-Chief of the prestigious Boston Foreign Exhibition in 1883.

Before Town Meeting in 1899, John L. Graves made his very generous gift to his hometown to build and furnish a new public library, provided that funds already raised were placed in a permanent endowment. By March, 1899, the town had agreed at Town Meeting to:

  • make all needed repairs to the Library Building to be erected;
  • add the $500.00 previously appropriated to the endowment fund;
  • raise $50.00 for the annual support of the library;
  • appropriate the “dog money” (so called) to the support of the library and
  • bear the construction costs of the vault to be placed in the library.

The 1900s and the Graves Memorial Library

The Trustees elected a Building Committee, Dr. Cornelius G. Trow, Rev. Edward P. Butler and Baxter N. Fish, “with full power to make contracts, and transact any business pertaining to the erection of a building for the Town Library.” Walter Leslie Walker of New York City was the architect. The Allen Brothers of Amherst were the chosen contractors. On January 17, 1900, the Greenfield paper noted the rafters of the new Sunderland Library were in place. In a January 11, 1902, article the newspaper report described the design and materials of the new library building as unique and classic: Roman pressed brick, moss green tiled roof, grill work patterned after detail at St. Mark’s, Venice. The interior was furnished in oak, and the windows were constructed of plate glass with transoms of leaded diamond panes. A Japanese brass urn decorated the fireplace shelf. A front walk was requested at Town Meeting. The exact time of the move to the new building was not recorded, but the trustees met at Graves Memorial Library for the first time in December, 1901. Dr. Trow submitted a “Statement of Library Fund Account from Oct. 2, 1898 to Date” that was published in the 1901 Town Report. One entry noted John L. Graves’s gift of $8,200.00 Among other entries were payments to the Allen Bros. for $8,400.00 and W.L. Walker for $550.00.

Abbie T. Montague, Librarian, wrote in her 1902 library report to the town that 4,624 books had been borrowed by 352 patrons. The Dewey Decimal classification and Cutter author table for fiction and biography were being used to improve systematic access to the growing collection, in lieu of the previous system of acquisition numbers. She wrote that the custom of closed shelves would be continued as hand lamps were used for lighting the stacks in the evening hours. The beautiful grill work in the arches on either side of the circulation desk blocked entry to the public. In other notes Miss Montague declared a strong mission to create a “repository of information” and her satisfaction in “the increased cooperation with the public schools.” She noted that patrons represented nine different nationalities. Her philosophy of library services was very service-oriented, professional, and idealistic.

In the next decade, three prominent people died who had served Graves Memorial Library with wisdom and devotion. A loving and grateful testimony to Dr. Trow appears in the minutes of 1912. He had served the Library as trustee for 40 years and had taken major responsibility for the building years as treasurer and fund-raiser. Three years later John Long Graves passed away in Boston. His interest in the library had continued over the years. As late as 1914, Baxter N. Fish was asked to “interview J. L. Graves in regard to adding the names of … Civil War veterans on the tablet.” And in 1917 the beloved librarian, Abbie T. Montague, died. The resolution to honor her at her passing reads, “This institution … so reverenced by Miss Montague that her thirty years of devotion has made it stand in the life of Sunderland a power for social services. A power serving those coming from foreign shores as faithfully as those whose ancestors first came to this town. Her kindness to the children was particularly marked ….” This thoughtful, intelligent woman was much loved in her time and gave life to a philosophy of service at Sunderland’s library.

The continuing business of the trustees at their annual meeting was the election of officers, the renewal of the librarian’s contract, and the quarterly selection of books and magazines. An investment committee comprising the Treasurer and two other trustees dealt with the endowment investment. They invested in railroads, bonds and even held a farm mortgage. The state auditor recommended in 1921 that responsibility for these investments be delegated to the Town treasurer. State law now required that such funds be handled by a bonded officer of the town.

The crowded conditions at the school were evident by 1914, but the intervening war years had postponed any school building program. The trustees were asked for permission to use part of the library as a school room. The trustees voted against such action stating, “That with respect to the donor’s wishes and their own best judgment the building should not be used for such purposes. 6 No – 2 Yes.” The town then moved to acquire land and build the Sunderland School on the former Bridge Street.

Two resolutions in the minutes honor two more faithful trustees in death. Mrs. Eloise Fairchild served the board for thirty years, 1891 to 1921, twenty years as clerk. The 1921 minutes noted Mrs. Fairchild’s “potent active interest in everything that pertained to education. Her unselfish and intelligent service for the library … will not be forgotten.” A resolution to Mr. Baxter N. Fish appears soon after in 1929. He had served the library since 1888 in virtually every capacity and was a leader in the community as well. The trustees voted to purchase his extensive personal library for the library’s collection.

As the decade ended, the chill of Depression began to be felt. The librarian was asked to explore the advantages of changing the free public library to a circulating library to supplement the budget. It was voted to charge “ten cents a week or any fraction there of for a book.” The 1929 Librarian’s Report to the town lists an income of $5.00 from the circulating library. No further income from book rental appears in the minutes or the Town Report of succeeding years. More congenial methods of support were a gift of $75.00 from “anonymous friends in Amherst” and a Pillsbury Pancake Supper in the spring of 1930. The $30.00 proceeds of the pancake supper were used to buy juvenile books; nevertheless, many magazine subscriptions had to be discontinued.

It was after W.W. II, in 1948, that Archibald MacLeish, resident of Conway and former Librarian of Congress, proposed a regional federation of small town libraries in the area. He was active in forming the cooperative group in which Sunderland took part; the group shared resources, popular literature and bought material cooperatively. The cooperative group was an example of the linking together of state libraries that had its earliest beginnings in 1890 when the General Court established the Massachusetts Free Public Library Commission, the nation’s first state library development agency, that authorized the country’s first state aid to local libraries program.

The library has long maintained a priority of service to Sunderland’s young people. In the late 1950s use of the downstairs room was discussed at length. The PTO’s suggestion that it be developed as a children’s reading room was popular; a successful cooperative program was created with school classes meeting weekly at the library. For many years the library and school worked together, enhancing their different functions and mutual needs. A policy committee was formed composed of three trustees (one a teacher), a representative of the School Committee and the principal in response to the principal’s request for specific curriculum based titles. Librarian Marjorie Scheiding introduced a summer reading program for the children about this time which has grown increasingly popular over the years.

National Library Week, first celebrated in Sunderland in 1959, became an annual event. A committee of energetic and creative Trustees brought exhibits to the library, held art shows, engaged lecturers, showed movies and welcomed many visitors with refreshments and tours. Local groups and individuals also displayed their personal collections at these events; the Swampfield Historical Society, Scouts, Grange, Sunderland Woman’s Club and individual residents all helped make these special occasions.

The 1950s minutes indicate that after a half century the building was in need of roof and exterior wall repairs; some repair was done. Facilities for a toilet were added and the stack lighting was improved. In 1964 the board began to work with the Town planning board and the finance committee to resolve the repair problems. A Greenfield architect, Bernard Dirks, studied the building and recommended rebuilding the gables, refacing the brick, waterproofing the foundation, replacing the copper work on the roof, rebuilding the corner by the entrance arch and adding exits and fire escapes from the children’s room and the second-floor meeting room. By 1966 these substantial repairs were made and in the next year work was done to improve the lighting and to paint the interior. The Sunderland Woman’s Club sewed and donated new draperies for the children’s room.

The trustees first suggested the formation of a Friends of the Library group in 1970. Volunteers would assist with storytelling hours, displays, bring books to shut-ins and organize book sales of weeded books. In 1976 the Friends became active in the actual library operation when their help was needed to staff the desk in order to extend library hours in the evenings. By 1984 the Friends reported having donated 450 volunteer hours. They had raised $1,000.00 by holding book sales, plant sales and the raffling of a handmade quilt.

In 1975, Lillian Dill, a devoted member of the Trustees, resigned. She had served the board for 50 years, the longest continuous service of any member. In 1966, the board had wished her a happy 86th birthday, and at 95, she had decided it was time to retire. A marvelous tribute to her loyal service is included in the Trustees’ records. At her passing a few years later, her bequest to the library was added to the trust funds for the purchase of books.

The Town Treasurer, in 1980, requested that trust funds now be kept separately in four accounts at the Franklin Savings Institute, and three accounts at the Amherst Savings Bank be placed as one in the Massachusetts Municipal Depository Trust. The terms of each original trust would be kept with one account but the change would ease the record keeping as well as increase the growth of interest.

State aid has contributed to the library’s funding for more than a century. In 1890 the newly formed Massachusetts Free Public Library Commission gave each eligible town in the Commonwealth $100.00 “worth of books.” Because Sunderland had long valued the services of its library, it readily met the conditions. The town already had a free public library, a board of trustees, facilities and municipal funding. Annual state aid became available to town libraries in the 1960s. For over twenty years, Graves Memorial Library met the requirements in respect to open hours and librarian training and the municipal funding appropriation requirement (MAR) needed to receive state aid. In 1983 state aid was denied because the municipal funding level was not met. The following year Marjorie Scheiding resigned after 30 years of service. A librarian with professional credentials was needed and Anne Williamson became the first professional librarian in Sunderland. The close connection between school and library was apparent when the school was asked to provide a representative on the search committee.

The musty odor of mold was first noticed in the furnace room and then in the children’s room in the fall of 1984. Efforts were made to “sanitize” those rooms; however, mold continued to spread to the children’s room walls, ceiling, floor, shelves, and books due to excessive moisture and warmth. The existing children’s collection of books had to be discarded so that mold would not spread to newly purchased books and to the book collection on the main floor. The loss of a collection coupled with the cost of building another children’s book collection, in addition to the cost of renovating the downstairs room, presented a major dilemma for all those involved with the library’s operation. Extensive and generous solutions were found: professional archivists were consulted, repairs were made to the downstairs room, the children’s room was relocated to the second floor, the Friends purchased boxes of books, patrons donated books and children’s book publishers donated books to restock the shelves. The generosity of the community within and outside of the town helped to re-establish our children’s library.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) affected public buildings everywhere in the 1990s. The historic nature of the Graves Memorial Library modified some of the requirements, but the town’s ADA consultant recommended that the library undertake an automated catalog of books that might be accessed from a home computer in order to facilitate home delivery. The librarian received a grant to explore the feasibility of linking the small libraries electronically (LSLE) from the towns and schools of School Union 38. The expense was prohibitive but led to the opening of mini-memberships for small libraries in Central and Western Massachusetts Automated Regional System(C/W MARS). This excellent system has made it possible for any citizen to request and borrow any book that is available either in or out-of-state.

Another grant funded the Homework Center that was held in the downstairs room for several years during after-school hours. Volunteer homework coaches helped children in grades 1-12 who were researching papers by computer or with reference books, talked with them about organizing their papers, tutored students in math, encouraged them in rehearsing skits; they even assisted with a video project. The popularity of computer use in the main room and the assistance required by users of all ages made it necessary to bring these Homework Center computers upstairs to the main reading room where the librarian could be available to assist patrons.

As in the previous century, space needs became evident during the latter half of the 20th century. Graves Memorial Library, a beautiful and much loved building, had been the center of devoted service and educational and recreational activity for more than a century. Its 2,000 square feet had been efficiently used, but Sunderland’s population had grown to more than 3,400 residents. The popularity of books and magazines had expanded to include tapes and videos, as well as access to copy and fax machines and the universe of electronic information on computers. By the 1980s , it was clear that more space for library materials and technology was needed as well as a library building that was handicapped accessible. Abbie Montague wrote in the 1902 Town Report that 352 patrons had borrowed 4,624 books that year. In July 1995, the librarian reported that 1,549 patrons had borrowed 3,358 books that month. The need for more space was clearly evident.

A New Millennium, A New Sunderland Public Library

Space needs planning for the Sunderland Public Library began in the 1990s and a Library Building Committee was formed; the Trustees elected Lorin Starr, Chair (Trustee), Christy Anderson, Gary Briere, Peter Gagarin, Dan McKenna, Rich Morse (Trustee), Marilyn Munn (Trustee), Sharon Sharry, Library Director (non-voting) and Liz Sillin to serve on the committee. A space assessment was done in 1997 followed by schematic design that provided an initial library design based on projected space needs. In 2000, a letter of intent was filed with the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) to seek a construction grant. A MBLC first round construction grant for $1,079,272.00 was received and the Town’s share of the matching cost of the new building was approved by a vote of 268-79 at a special Town meeting in October, 2001. A groundbreaking ceremony took place on March 1, 2003. J. Stewart Roberts Associates, Inc. of Somerville were the architects; Fontaine Bros. Inc. of Springfield were the general contractors. The current Library Board of Trustees held their first meeting in the Sunderland Public Library on April 12, 2004.

Faithful trustees, friends, librarians and professional directors provided the necessary oversight of library services during the 20th century; the Graves Memorial library operation grew and flourished under their leadership and devotion. Library minutes and other documents are filled with the names of those who made the Graves Memorial Library the success it was.

Sunderland Public Library opened its doors to the Town with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and an open house hosted by the friends and Trustees on April 25, 2004. The newly-built facility was officially ready to serve our growing community for the next 100 years.

Celebrating 20 Years in Sunderland Public Library