The story of the Medford Public Library — first housed in the mansion of a prominent shipbuilder and soon in a building made possible by a wealthy entrepreneur and former mayor of New York City — is just as fascinating as the local history stored in its archives.
Construction for the new and improved Charlotte and William Bloomberg Medford Public Library is set to end in May at its historic location on 111 High St., which has housed every iteration of the library since 1875.
Library 0.0: The historical archives
The Medford Public Library is home to an impressive collection of paper-based historical archives. These have been difficult for the public to access but will be on full display in the new building, according to Barbara Kerr, director of the library. Kerr has been with the library for over 36 years and knows its inner workings exceptionally well.
The archives boast a vast collection of city reports dating back to 1850, providing a detailed account of Medford history. They are home to their fair share of historical mysteries as well.
“There was a photo album that we had that had no identifying [information] except the names of the horses [pictured], but nothing to say what house it was or where it was,” Kerr said.
As a local history buff herself, Kerr theorized it may have been the home of George Luther Stearns, a prominent abolitionist born in Medford who lived on what is now part of the Tufts campus. Kerr’s hypothesis was eventually confirmed by a Stearns biographer who happened to be lecturing in the area.
Kerr did not start out at the library as a knowledgeable source on local history.
“I didn’t even know where [Medford] was, actually, when I had my job interview. It was a long time before I realized quite how much stuff had happened here,” she said.
Since then, Kerr has become heavily involved in the Medford Historical Society, sitting on its board for 10 years. She has also written two local histories of the town: “Medford in the Victorian Era” (2004) and “Glimpses of Medford: Selection from the Historical Register” (2007).
The library collaborates often with the Medford Historical Society, as the combined archives of the two tell a compelling and vivid story of Medford history. The society’s collection of historical objects complements the library’s document-based archives.
“We [the Medford Library] have the history of the city, and they [the Medford Historical Society] have the history of the people,” Kerr said.
Some of the Historical Society’s most bizarre artifacts include a lock of hair from abolitionist John Brown. Brown led the infamous failed raid on Harpers Ferry, Va. in 1859 to procure arms for a slave liberation movement. While imprisoned, Brown occasionally sent locks of his hair to admirers and fellow abolitionists. One such recipient may have been the wife of George Luther Stearns, Kerr said.
The Medford Historical Society archives also contain the chamber pot of Medford’s first mayor, Samuel C. Lawrence, according to Kerr. Lawrence served as a colonel in the Civil War and was at one point the highest-ranking freemason in Massachusetts. It is unclear how exactly, or why, his chamber pot ended up in the possession of the Historical Society.
Tufts’ Digital Collections and Archives (DCA) is another frequent collaborator of the Medford Historical Society, according to Daniel Santamaria, university archivist and director of DCA. Tufts currently houses a collection of the Historical Society’s Civil War photographs, many of which were taken by Samuel C. Lawrence himself.
In addition, DCA provides digital preservation services for a collection of letters from the Historical Society documenting the slave trade in Medford.
“We’ve also talked to [the Medford Historical Society] about other projects and future collaborations because we’re interested in supporting their work, and doing what we can to support community archiving efforts,” Santamaria said.
Library 1.0: The Thatcher Magoun House
Medford first resolved to provide a free public library in 1855, Kerr wrote in an email to the Daily, replacing the old subscription-based system. For the first 20 years, this library occupied various spaces in the Medford town square.
In 1875, the son of prominent Medford resident Thatcher Magoun opted to give the town Magoun’s land, including his mansion, mandating that the space be used for a library or it would revert to Magoun’s heirs. Magoun was born in 1775 and grew up in a young United States, and carried on Medford’s shipbuilding legacy. According to the Mystic Seaport Museum, his ships were “noted for their speed and dependability,” and mainly traversed the triangular slave trading route ubiquitous to that time, from Boston to New Orleans to the Caribbean, then off to sell their wares in Europe.
The Magoun House was a landmark of Medford, “unique in design, substantial in construction, on an eligible and commanding location … in some respects superior to any in town,” as described by the Medford Historical Society Papers. The walls were 16 inches of solid wood (six or seven is usually enough), forming a circular shape rarely seen in houses but often in ships. A colonnade of six pillars created a dignified entrance, reaching up to a roof of imported Welsh slate.
Library 2.0: The 1959 renovation & the Tufts Parallel
The Medford Public Library lived in the Magoun mansion until 1959, with a major renovation in 1927. By this point, the building had fallen into disrepair, and Medford deserved a new one fit for the modern, post-World War II city. The mansion was torn down and replaced with a modern design, complete with technicolor pink shelving, a spacious smoking lounge and a second floor wholly inaccessible to the general public.
This building served the library’s purposes well for a number of years, but eventually things had to change.
“By the 2000s, we’d run out of space; it was not ADA accessible, except one entrance. It had about five electrical outlets,” Kerr said, referring to the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. “The roof was bad, so it rained inside … [from] 2014 on there were just buckets all the time.”
These problems eventually prompted the library renovation currently in process that will result in the brand new Charlotte and William Bloomberg Medford Public Library.
The library for the Tufts’ School of Arts and Sciences, now housed in the Tisch Library, experienced a very similar trajectory. First housed in Ballou Hall, the library originally consisted of President Ballou’s personal collection as well as universalist book donations from the community, according to Pamela Hopkins, public services and outreach archivist at DCA.
The library then moved to Packard Hall until 1908, at which point industrialist Andrew Carnegie provided the funds to construct Eaton Hall, similar to the Thatcher Magoun family’s gift to Medford. Eaton, however, was very much constructed as a library first, rather than a house transitioned into a library.
“[In Eaton] there was this great grand old reading room, which is mostly the computer lab now, with high ceilings and chandeliers and things like that. There was the circulation desk with the staircase behind it,” Santamaria said. “It was definitely designed for that purpose, as one of those temples of learning [along] with a lot of the libraries of the period.”
Just as the Medford Public Library grew out of the Magoun mansion, however, Tufts’ library needs eventually surpassed the space limitations of Eaton Hall. In 1965, the modern Wessell Library was constructed on the current location by President’s Lawn, named after then-President Nils Y. Wessell. Finally, in 1996, the Tisch family provided the funds to renovate Wessell, and the building was renamed Tisch in their honor.
Library 3.0: The Charlotte and William Bloomberg Medford Public Library
Kerr says the announcement of a new library was a pleasant surprise to undertake, to say the least.
“It was very sudden … we had not actually considered building a new one because we had just come out of a very bad economic period,” Kerr said, referring to the 2008 recession.
By 2016, though, when Kerr took over as director, the town government was prepared to give the library its much needed facelift. The library had only seven months to complete a grant proposal that would normally have taken two years in order to meet the deadline. The grant was completed and approved, and Medford residents showed an incredible amount of support in getting the library the remaining funding needed.
“[Medford residents] sent letters and they emailed and they called the councilors. And they said they had never had that much of an outpouring about anything until this happened,” Kerr said.
The City Council unanimously voted to provide funding in addition to the state grant, leaving the remaining cost to be fundraised. Through concerted efforts, Medford residents raised $1.5 million of the library’s $5 million goal. This goal was then made significantly more achievable when Michael Bloomberg, entrepreneur and 2020 presidential candidate, contributed $3 million to the cause. Bloomberg is a Medford native, and his parents lived in the town for 65 years. The new building will officially be titled the Charlotte and William Bloomberg Medford Public Library in their honor.
At the start of the renovation process, Kerr emailed Bloomberg Philanthropies to make them aware of the project and ask if they would like to aid in it. Bloomberg’s mother was a frequent patron of the Medford library, so the project was the perfect way to give back to the community that meant so much to the Bloomberg family.
Construction for the new library is projected to finish in May of 2021, and is slated to include a host of features and amenities the previous building did not have.
“One of the best changes will be the youth services spaces – in the old building all ages shared one floor. In the new one half of the second floor will belong to the kids, with separate children’s and teen spaces,” Kerr wrote.
The building will also be a net-zero library in Massachusetts, offsetting energy used with energy created by a number of solar panels on site.
“Being able to start from the beginning was really good, because we could take advantage of a lot of things,” adding facilities Medford Library patrons have wanted for years, Kerr said. The building also has space for continual improvements based on the future needs of the town.
One hundred sixty-five years after the Medford Public Library was first established, the newest version at 111 High St. is sure to be the most impressive, sustainable and user friendly yet, proudly displaying its remarkable history.