Thomas Paine’s words reside here. So do the sermons and anti-war sentiment of Rev. Nathaniel Thayer. A view of the world from the vantage point of the 15th century. An amazing look at Civil War tragedy through photographs. These and other intriguing works from history are gathered within the walls of Lancaster, Massachusett’s Thayer Memorial Library, observing its 150th anniversary during 2012 with an opening exhibit starting Jan. 15.
At its founding, in 1868, books were primarily men's affairs, found in private men’s clubs, among agriculturist societies, in the church. Lancaster's began with donations from Lancaster's men's library, the Sabbath school association in Lancaster and from churches, as well as the Lancaster Agricultural Society. Each donated volumes with much of American history, memorabilia and value to them, along with European works and an interesting collection of special-interest topics. Together, they made up the library’s first books collection—now a unique and quite prestigious mix of philosophy, American and natural history among its rare books collection.
It’s seldom on display, or even available to many, but during the first four months of 2012, the public will be able to see these volumes and read some excerpts from them.
The year 2012 is a big one for the library, and volunteers are assembling an entertaining and informative series of events starting Sunday, Jan. 15, when the library launches a full year of celebration featuring books, writers, historical figures, activities and a huge birthday party in late summer.
Lancaster’s public library is a typically busy, modern gathering place; two-thirds of the town's 8,000-plus residents have library cards. People drop by daily and Saturdays to borrow books, movies, magazines and CDs, or use one of several sitting areas—including the spacious reference area, where computer users set up to use a free wi-fi connection, or sit in an easy chair to enjoy the latest magazines. Downstairs meeting rooms are often occupied, day and evenings.
Best of all, it’s free. Everything is.
From 1 to 5 p.m. on Jan. 15, you can see some of this impressive collection for the first time, and hear a 3 p.m. lecture about the collection's value from its original curator, Leslie Perrin Wilson, currently with the Concord, Mass., Public Library.
An active and dedicated anniversary committee, led by Frank MacGrory, longtime Lancaster teacher and library trustee vice-chairman, has been working on the event since 2010. Their series of public events will offer something for everyone—history, mystery, writers and readers.
The Jan. 15 exhibit opening, titled the "A General Diffusion of Knowledge,” will stay up through April 21 in the library’s Lancaster Historical Museum on the top floor under the rotunda. Curators have set up 87 rare books from the Special Collections room, including unusual early-day volumes representing both Lancaster and New England history—some so rare that collectors have offered to buy them. Included are: Thomas Paine’s “Age of Reason” (1794), Webster’s “American Spelling Book” (1807), Rea’s “A Complete Florilage” (1676) and Audubon’s 1839 “Birds of America.” There’s also a world history with engraved prints from 1493, the “Liber Chronicarum,” and Alexander Gardner’s amazing visual history of the Civil War: “Photographic Sketchbook of the War” (1866).
The exhibit fosters an appreciation for the history of ideas—and the importance of education to past generations. Beyond that, however, this fascinating display (with an accompanying catalogue, since the books cannot be touched) conveys the more essential message for all time: the public library serves many sectors of a community, offering a “general diffusion of knowledge” to all who enter through its doors.
Since this library took root during the Civil War, the collection spans many decades. All along, the library has shared space with the idea of peace, honoring Lancaster’s war dead. The stained-glass peace window in the ceiling above the main floor is being fully restored for the celebration. Look up when you are at the checkout area and you’ll see it.
The opening exhibit honoring books and history, starts with remarks by curator Leslie Perrin Wilson at 3 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 15. Her lecture is “Books are the Best of Things, Well Used: The Value of Lancaster’s Rare Book Collection.” Perrin Wilson brings the collection to life, explaining the stories and people behind this historically significant display, open from 1 to 5 p.m. that day.
After Jan. 15, the exhibit remains open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays. Everything is free.
“Books are the best of things, well used,” said the famed American scholar-philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. This year is dedicated to bringing that message home to Lancaster. After all, America’s first best-selling author came from right here in Lancaster. Mary Rowlandson’s journal of her capture by a band of Narragansett, Wampanoag and Nashaway/Nipmuc Indians in 1676, during King Philip’s War, achieved that distinction. Published in 1686, “A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson” is considered a seminal work in American historical journals. She was the wife of Rev. Joseph Rowlandson, minister of the First Church of Christ in Lancaster. The book is also titled, “Sovereignty and Goodness of God: Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson.”
Lectures associated with this display will include Warren Rasmussen’s discussion of Rowlandson on Feb. 19, and Timothy Castner’s “Searching for the Heart of the Community: Religious Books in the Rare Book Collection,” on March 11.
On April 15, local historian Kevin Doyle will deliver another free lecture, on “Lancaster in the Civil War, and Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the War.”
Each of these lectures begins at 3 p.m., with the exhibit open two hours earlier. They are free and open to the public.
Coming up later in the year: a discussion of the Thayer family and its relationship to the library; a May through July exhibit and lecture about the winners of the Chandler Award of Merit, once given to children’s book authors and illustrators; the story of former Library trustee Herbert Hosmer, himself a Chandler Award donor; readings from Lancaster authors, both historical and contemporary, including members of the library’s four writing groups; a birthday party on the Town Green in September; an exhibit and lecture about the history of librarianship in Lancaster, including visits from some former head librarians.
Do something different to start 2012! Take a look through the past!