Public library is a measure of a strong community
It was 1882 when the Brattleboro Public Library opened on Main Street. The library was located in a room in the Town Hall. There had been a privately operated and funded library in town since 1821. This was actually a reading club that was only open to those who could afford membership. The idea of a public library was a clear shift in the thinking of town leaders.
In this case, the phrase "knowledge is power" sure rings true. The vote for a tax-supported free public library made all Brattleboro men and women eligible for library membership and children 14 years or older could borrow books if their parents signed them up for the privilege. The library was first open three days a week for 8 hours a day. A large selection of books, and the knowledge found in their pages, was now available to just about everyone.
With this Town Meeting decision to fund, support and raise taxes to provide a free public library service, Brattleboro demonstrated a progressive approach to information access.
In 1886 the library got a great opportunity to expand when local benefactor George Brooks funded the construction of a new library building. The Brooks Library was built across the street from the Town Hall in the space that is now occupied by the Post Office parking lot.
George Brooks was born in Chesterfield, N.H., but began working in Brattleboro when he was 8 or 9 years old. He worked in Brattleboro through his early years and when he entered early adulthood he headed west in hopes of finding his fortune. He traveled as far west as Illinois but eventually returned to the East Coast without a fortune and accepted a job from his brother in New York City.
This is where his luck changed. Brooks was sent to San Francisco by his brother's paper making company and he earned his fortune during the California Gold Rush. The Gold Rush began with the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in 1848 and exploded in 1849. The influx of gold seekers were tagged '49ers.' Ever wondered why the professional football team near San Francisco is called the 49ers? By maintaining a virtual monopoly on legal documents and benefiting from prudent land speculation, George Brooks was able to retire after 13 years.
Upon his return to Brattleboro, Brooks helped the town recover from the fire that devastated the west side of Main Street, by building the Brooks House and, shortly before his death, he helped design and fund the Brooks Library. In 1886, when the library was first built, it more than doubled the amount of space available for books and library services. The Brattleboro Public Library had been in one room of the Town Hall so the creation of a 5,000-volume public library on Main Street was a big deal for the community.
By 1912 it was time for an addition to the library. Brattleboro was booming and construction was taking place throughout the town. The Fort Dummer Cotton Mill and Island Park had just been built and the town was growing more rapidly than ever.
Mrs. Henrietta Loud offered a $3,000 donation towards an addition to the Brooks Library. The town kicked in $2,500 and the trustees donated another $2,500 for the creation of an addition to the back end of the building.
At the same time, Mrs. Loud also donated a valuable collection of fine art to the library. Through the years the library has been a showcase for artwork, as well
as an intellectual hub for the region.
In the 1960s the library was again at a crossroads. The building was crunched for space and the post office next door wanted to expand. The federal government offered to buy the library site and the town of Brattleboro voted to spend $243,000 to build a new, larger library near the Municipal Center. Other funds were raised privately and the present library was constructed in the early 1970s.
On the Brattleboro Historical Society Facebook page quite a few followers have commented on the loss of the original Brooks Library. The building's interior was finished with fine woodwork from around the country. The craftsmanship found in the original Brooks Library was from a different age and is not duplicated in public buildings these days.
The Post Office knocked down the original Brooks Library and replaced it with an expanded parking lot. The new Brooks Memorial Library has undergone a facelift of its own as it settles firmly into the 21st century.
The Brooks Memorial Library continues to evolve and change as technology redefines the tools and devices of communication. A measure of a strong community is the effort and access the community puts into offering information and technology to all of its residents. Our Brooks Memorial Library is a fine example of that effort.
In 1887, a booklet published to explain Brattleboro to others wrote that the community support and extensive use of the library was "another proof of the remarkable intelligence of our people." We find that is still true today.
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