In the early eighteen hundreds, Manchester residents were eager to share literary resources. A “social library” was formed with some 150 volumes. This effort was short lived and a second effort was tried and failed as well. In 1830, the Lyceum Association, a group of men who met for regular lectures and debates on topics of interest, was founded. The Lyceum Library was an outgrowth of this association.
When the Lyceum Association disbanded in 1871, the collection was bequeathed to the town. It was moved to School Street and became the Manchester Free Public Library. Delucena L. Bingham Jr. was put in charge as librarian. When the collection outgrew this location, Mr. Bingham spoke of the need for a new library building and memorial hall. Summer resident, Thomas Jefferson Coolidge, gave the building as an outright gift to the town.
The building was designed by Charles F. McKim and built of New England ashlar stone. The building was dedicated in October of 1887, in three parts: the east room as the library, the west room as the headquarters for the Grand Army of the Republic, and the central hall as a war memorial to those Manchester residents who lost their lives in the Civil War. In 1927, when the last GAR veteran died, the west room was transferred to the library. As the collection and services grew, the central hall became used for the library. The only addition to the building has been the children’s room that was added in 1965.
In 1988 the Library joined the Merrimack Valley Library Consortium, which began the new era of on-line services. In 1996 three public terminals to the internet were added. The building was updated with new lighting and new carpeting also in 1996. In 2003 the library was air conditioned for the first time. The front doors were refinished by Crocker Boat Yard and the grounds were landscaped in 2004.
A two-part restoration of the building’s masonry was accomplished in 2005-2006. The first major renovation to the Circulation Hall since 1965, was done in 2006, thanks to the Friends of the Library.
2007 marked the 120th Anniversary. The Trustees announced a capital campaign to continue interior renovations. The Reference Room and the Reading Room were renovated as a result of that fundraiser.
In 2012 the Trustees celebrated the Library’s 125th anniversary with a capital campaign to renovate the Children’s Room and add a handicap entrance and bookdrop on Church Street. The Children’s Room was added to the original building in 1967 through the efforts of the newly formed Friends of the Library. Led by Frances Ervin, the Friends raised $25,000 to build and furnish the Children’s Room. After 45 years of heavy use, the room was in dire need of updating. The Children’s Room was officially reopened in 2013, coinciding with the 25th anniversary of Sara Collins as Children’s Librarian and Head of Youth Services for the Library.
The Community Preservation Committee funded the repointing of the Library’s exterior stone wall in 2013. The wall’s original mortar was crumbling and the stones were shifting.
From the Manchester Public Library Bulletin, Jan 1931 History of the Library
The Library was given to the town of Manchester by Mr. T. Jefferson Coolidge and dedicated on October 13, 1887.
The exterior of the Library was designed by Mr. C. F. McKim, architect, and is of a characier (sic) frequently noticed on the French side of the Channel. The memorial window was designed by him also, the glass executed by Mr. Maitland Armstrong and Messrs. Louis C. Tiffany & Co.; the central panel, bearing the inscription is of Mexican Onyx. The screen in the Library is in the style of French Renaissance, and built out of fragments of Oak Carving brought from Morlaix, Brittany, by Mr. McKim, in 1878, and valuable both as a carving and as an example of the best Renaissance wood work of Brittany Churches of the sixteenth century. Other parts of the screen and surrounding paneling are of American Quartered Oak, antique finish, and executed from designs of the architect by Mr. Joseph Cabus of New York. The principal inscription over the arch is taken from Carlyle’s version of Goethe’s “Choose well; your choice is brief and yet endless.”
The Roof of the Library Room was suggested by the old Library of Merton College, Oxford, twelfth century. The slabs in Memorial Hall are of yellow Numidian (African) Marble.
A new reading room was opened on January 3, 1928, and has been very well patronized and much favorable comment has been expressed as to its utility and attractions.
Central Hall is a memorial to the soldiers and sailors of the town who sacrificed their lives for their country.
A large painting of the Town of Manchester, as seen from Powder-House Hill and done about the year 1888 by Col. Joshua Sheldon, hangs in the reading room. Col. Sheldon painted this picture at the age of 80 years, although having the sight of only one eye.
This remarkable painting was offered first as a gift to the town and on being refused, Commander Edwin P. Stanley of Post 67, G.A.R., became interested and asked Col. Sheldon to give it to the Grand Army Post 67. They accepted it with great appreciation and had it hung in their hall. It was bequeathed to the Women’s Relief Corps who have loaned it to the Library.