Sunday, December 20, 2009

Rev. Wight and Wayland's Public Library

Reverend John Burt Wight played a major role in the passage of the 1851 Massachusetts Public Library Law and the legal establishment of the Wayland Free Public Library. The story of how this came about is well told by Jesse H. Shera in Foundations of the Public Library: The origins of the Public Library Movement in new England 1629-1855 (Shoe String Press, 1965). The seeds of a free public library in Wayland, Massachusetts began with an offer of a gift for this purpose from Francis Wayland, the President of Brown University in 1847. The Wayland Town Board took action to accept the gift and to initiate the establishment of a public library in 1848. The free public library began operation in August, 1850, almost four years before the Boston Public Library started lending books. A question arose, however, as to whether the Town of Wayland had the legal authority to take this action. As a result, Rev. Wight who was the representative from the Wayland district to the State Legislature was asked to seek a state law enabling the establishment of free public libraries. He carried out this task in an exemplary fashion and the state law was unanimously enacted by the legislature and approved by the governor on May 24, 1851. This was the second statewide law enabling the establishment of free public libraries. It was preceded by the New Hampshire law. Continuing his role as an advocate for free public libraries, Rev. Wight printed 4,000 copies of a circular in support of these libraries and distributed them postage collect. That circular read in part, "Nor is the establishment of public libraries premature. The people are prepared for their introduction by the proprietary and common-school libraries which have preceded them, and by the increasing desire for information which is spreading through all classes; and will approve them, and provide for them, and welcome them everywhere, as soon as they shall be led to consider and understand their nature and importance. The universal establishment of such libraries in this Commonwealth - and may I not say in the New England states, in the United States, and throughout the civilized world -is a question of time." The Wayland Free Public Library makes a good case that it is the first free public library in Massachusetts, not the Boston Public Library.

No comments: