History of the Burlington Public Library

Compiled by Janet G. Hutchins
February 2005
Updated in 2010

Burlington’s First Library

Burlington’s first library was a “social library” that was founded in 1816. There were twenty-two proprietors who sold shares at $2 each. Additional funding for the library was raised through an annual assessment of 25 cents per person. The library began with 90 volumes, with a total of 250 volumes in the collection by the time the library closed in 1842.

Early Days of the Burlington Public Library

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Building at 2 Mill Street
In 1857 the town  began funding a public library that was housed in the store of Silas Cutler. Mr. Cutler was provided the sum of $30 per year for books, rent, and heat. By 1868 the library had 774 volumes, which were listed in a printed catalog of alphabetized titles. The store – and library – were taken over by a Mr. William Carter in 1874. The annual budget by that time had increased to $75 per year.

Shortly thereafter, the library moved to one room of a building known as the Bennett or Gleason Block, most likely located at the southwest corner of Center and Cambridge Streets. That building soon was split into two smaller houses, one of which was moved to 13 Sears Street and the other to 2 Mill Street.

Between 1879 and 1896 the library was housed in a room in the former Town Hall, located on what is now Simonds Park.
In 1892, David Simonds bequeathed $1,000 to the town, the income from which was to be used for the purchase of books for the town library. That bequest led to the formation of a Board of Trustees to administer the funds. The first trustees – Augustus Prouty, Matthew Stevenson, Jr. and Marshall Wood -- were elected at Town Meeting in April of 1894. The trustees immediately recommended that a larger space be found for the library, noting in their first annual report that books were sitting in piles on the floor and being stored at trustees’ homes due to insufficient shelf space.

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Former Town Hall building

Former Center School Building

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The consolidation of the town’s schools into a single new building (the Union School) provided an opportunity to move to a larger building. When a former summer resident, Edward Barker, donated a sum of money to the town for library purposes in 1896, there were sufficient funds to convert the old Center School (now the Burlington Town Museum) at the corner of Cambridge and Bedford Streets into a library. The Library and Reading Room, as it then was known, opened on June 29, 1897 and remained there for over seventy years.

Records show that library circulation in 1889-90 was 2,068, with about 1,000 volumes in the collection.

Early Twentieth Century

From the late nineteenth century through the early 1950s the town’s population grew at a relatively slow rate. The library also saw only minor changes. There was great stability in staffing – Mrs. Nettie Foster served as librarian from 1923 to 1940, succeeded by Lotta Cavanagh Rice Dunham between 1940 and 1957. Mrs. Dunham was a local historian as well as Town Librarian.  clip image
Mrs. Nettie Foster at the Burlington Fair

1968 Building at 22 Sears Street

It became apparent by the early 1960s that the 2,000 square foot facility at the Center School was inadequate for a population that had grown from 3,250 residents in 1950 to nearly 13,000 in 1960. A librclip imageary building committee was established in 1962. The committee’s report recommended a new building of at least 15,000 square feet, and the firm of John Carr Associates was hired to design the facility. At Town Meeting in 1964 a sum of $369,000 was approved for the purchase of a 1.5 acre site on Sears Street and the construction of a new library. Unfortunately, bids came in higher than expected, and the size of the building was reduced to 12,000 square feet.

Construction of the building began in June of 1967, and the new library opened for business on September 18, 1968. For the first time, the town employed a professional librarian with a Master of Library Science degree when it hired Lisa Dagdigian to supervise operations of the new facility. Former librarian Alphonsine Harvey, who had served in that role since 1957, became Assistant Librarian until her retirement in 1972. Also in 1972, Geraldine Guentner became Library Director, continuing in that position until 1991.

The late 1980’s saw the introduction of computers at the library. The INFOTRAC database on CD-ROM was made available to patrons in 1990. And, after several years of transition planning, online terminals tied to the Merrimack Valley Library Consortium replaced card catalogs in 1991.

1995 Renovation and Expansion

After nearly 30 years of heavy use, the 1968 building was showing its age by the early 1990s. In addition, it did not comply with current building and accessibility standards or size recommendations. Town Meeting approved funds for architectural work in 1992 and The Preservation Partnership of New Bedford was hired to prepare plans.

On June 23, 1993 – on the second try – Town Meeting voted to approve $2,993,203 for additions and renovations to the 22 Sears Street building. No funds were allotted for new furnishings, in an attempt to keep the budget below $3 million. A $200,000 state grant obtained by Library Director Marcia Rich (who directed the library between 1991 and 2000) also was used to help defray costs associated with the new building.

The library moved to temporary space at 23 Center Street during construction. Despite some controversy during construction concerning the amount of demolition at the old building, the removal of trees, and the respective roles of the Library Trustees and Selectmen in supervising the project, the new 29,000 square foot facility was completed early in 1995. At the dedication on July 6, 1995 the keynote speaker was then-Lt. Governor Paul Cellucci.

Burlington Public Library Today

Under current Library Director Michael Wick, the Burlington Public Library continues to strive to meet the information needs of over 25,000 residents. In 2017 it had total circulation of over 276,372 items, with 85,176 print holdings and 32,574 non-print items. There were 373 programs for children and 212 programs for teens and adults.


Annual Reports of the Town of Burlington

The History of Burlington 1640-1950/Lotta Cavanagh Rice Dunham and Robert W. Zahora (ed.)       

Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, Annual Report Information Survey,  2010



Burlington Municipal Archives, Image Collection