In many ways the Portsmouth Free Public Library is the heart of the town. It provides the traditional library services but also provides meeting space, special programing and computer access. Many Portsmouth residents would be surprised to know that the library is not a function of town government. It originated and still functions under the Portsmouth Free Public Library Association.

It all began with the Thursday Evening Club that started through St. Paul’s Church. The group would meet to discuss literary and cultural matters. They soon outgrew holding meetings at members’ homes. In 1897 there was a public meeting attended by 55 people. Rev. Pearce of St. Paul’s proposed the establishment of a public library called the Portsmouth Free Public Library Association. The idea was quickly adopted and within a week they were applying for a charter. Petitioners for the charter were Rev. Sturgis Pearce, Edward F. Dyer, John L. Borden, Edward Ayler and Leroy Tallman. The charter stated the objective of the association: “For the purpose of the free distribution of books and other literary purposes in accordance with Law.” The Charter petition came only eight days after the organizational meeting. The petition was dated March 26, 1897.

The building site committee was extremely gratified when John L. Borden, donated a parcel of land at the corner of Freeborn Street and East Main Road for the Library building. The Library was built at cost of $2,363. It was designed by Russell Warren who also designed the St. Paul’s Church, the Arcade in Providence, and the Jane Pickens Theatre in Newport. The initial collection of books came from donations and the library was only open on Wednesday evenings and Saturdays.

Through the years donors financed additions to the little building and to its collections. Artist Sarah Eddy contributed a West addition to house an Art Room in the 1920s. August Miller set up a family fund to buy children’s books in honor of his wife and daughter who had drowned. Edith Taylor Nicholson of Glen Farm donated generously and the North Wing is dedicated in her honor.

Through the years the Portsmouth Free Public Library Association has owned and operated the library to the benefit of Portsmouth residents. Trustees and officers have been active in the running of the library. Longtime board member Ernest Denomme put together a history of the library for the opening of a new wing in 1975. Mr. Denomme humorously relates stories of the work of board members. One chairman read every fiction book that came into the library and marked those she approved of with her stamp. Author and playwright Lillian Hellman came to town. She remarked that none of her works were in the library. The board chairman responded that if Miss Hellman would donate her books, she would read them and only put on the shelves those books she considered patriotic. Mr. Denomme recounted that once people joined the board they continued on until their eighties. Some would fall asleep during meetings and others were assigned “assistants” so the work would get done despite the confusion of the board members.

For over a hundred and twenty years the Portsmouth Free Public Library has been the cultural center of our town. The original association founders would be proud. All Portsmouth residents are welcome to join the association if they are eighteen and pay their dues. You can be part of an association that has made a difference in the life of Portsmouth.