Library service in Athol dates back to 1830, when the Athol Social Library offered books to local readers. Between 1850 and 1860, the Athol Agricultural and Mechanical Library served various groups. Area churches also maintained their own small libraries to serve the members of their congregations.
On November 13, 1878, an organization calling itself the Athol Library Association was formed. To this early group the Athol Public Library is directly related, for in 1882, the association offered its book collection to the town on the condition that municipal funds be appropriated to provide housing for the collection and to purchase additional books. In April 1882, the town voted to accept these resources (1063 books) and appropriated $300 to support the new Athol Free Public Library. A library committee of five to seven elected members oversaw the institution until 1886, when the number of committee members was established at six.
This first public library was located on the second story of the home of Joel M. Doane, 268 School Street, and Mrs. Doane served as the librarian. Under town management, the library soon outgrew “the front parlor up one flight.” In 1887, the committee leased Mr. Doane’s vacant barn and hired as the librarian his daughter-in-law, Mercie S. Doane. The library was moved to the barn, the Dewey Decimal system was adopted, and a card file was developed. By the turn of the century, the committee considered those quarters inadequate and vowed that no additional materials would be purchased for that location. Library patronage declined accordingly.
At that time, Wilson H. Lee of New Haven opened negotiations with Andrew Carnegie to fund a new library building. Mr. Lee had grown up in Athol and still had an affection for the community. Though Carnegie offered the town a $15,000 grant, and Lee had gotten a $1500 private pledge to buy a parcel of land, the townspeople refused the deal.
The library still needed a new home, preferably one that was closer to the business district of Athol. Space opened up in the Academy of Music building on Exchange Street;
the collection was moved into it, and the library opened for service on December 5, 1903. Mantie R. Hinman became the librarian. This new site offered shelves open to the patrons, a separate children’s section, and a new charging system. Local appropriations remained low in comparison to library funding in surrounding towns, but circulation of library materials increased. Book deposit stations in South Athol and at Miss Grace Pitts’ store uptown were established for a short time in an effort to reach more of the public.
In 1914, local businessman Laroy S. Starrett generously leased land on which to build a new library. Wilson H. Lee again opened negotiations with the Carnegie Corporation. Two years later, the town of Athol accepted a $22,000 Carnegie grant in order to erect a free public library building. The new library was turned over to the town on August 16, 1918. Designed by W.H. & Henry McLean of Boston, the library was built in a simplified Classical Revival style by Fellows & Ducworth Co., Inc., of Brookline, and follows one of the floor plans suggested by the Carnegie Corporation. One large room on the main floor contained the collection and accommodated all the patrons. A hardwood floor was laid in the downstairs hallway at the expense of L.S. Starrett. The main floor featured an historic fireplace mantle from the old Humphrey residence in Dorchester, the site of the birth of the first ordained minister in Athol. A large grandfather clock was donated by Wilson H. Lee.
Several librarians served in the new library until Gladys Greene was appointed head librarian in 1927. Miss Greene served tirelessly for the next thirty years, promoting service to children by offering summer reading programs and school book deposits, and initiating plans for a separate children’s room at the library. In 1953, Miss Greene saw her plan become reality, for in that year the ground-floor children’s room was dedicated in her honor. That space, originally designed as an assembly hall with stage, had been occupied by the local Red Cross chapter since the library opened in 1918. Miss Greene resigned as head librarian in 1957.
As library needs have increased, a number of physical improvements have been made to the original 1918 structure. To provide increased space, a two-story addition was built onto the rear of the library in 1965. It included rest rooms, a staff lounge, and enlarged reading and stack areas. The library was the first Athol town building to have air-conditioning, which was added in 1969, using library trust funds. In 1978, the ground-level storage room was renovated and turned into a multi-purpose room, which today continues to serve as an activity room for events for all ages. The library became handicapped accessible in the late 1980s; a designated parking space and a rear-entrance ramp were created in 1985, and an elevator, handicapped rest room, and children’s entrance ramp were added in 1988. Those amenities pre-dated the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, demonstrating the commitment of a forward-thinking library board.
Library staff members have always responded to community demand for services. To meet the growing need for children’s services, Myrtle Scribner was appointed the first full-time children’s librarian in 1965, and that position remains full-time today. During the 1970s, a copy machine was first installed for the use of the public. At that time, a microfilm reader was purchased, and the back issues of the Athol Daily News were transferred to microfilm. A Friends of the Library group was chartered in 1980, and this group is still active today. In the early 1990s, circulation and cataloging of library materials became computerized. Internet access for patrons began in 1995. Teaching public computer classes using a wireless lab began in 2001. A mystery book discussion group was started in 1994. In 2004, the “One Book, One Community” reading initiative began. The library continues to offer a wide variety of children’s, young adult and adult programs. Most are funded with grants received through the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners.
Eight head librarians / library directors have served the Athol Public Library since Miss Greene’s time: Elsie White (1957-1960), Alice Newton (1960-1976), Elise Dennis (1976-1978), Ronald Latham (1978-1981), Mary King Cross (1981-1985), Christine P. Rose (1985-1988), Arlene Jacobs (1989-1990), and Debra Blanchard (1990-present). These individuals have helped the library become one of the busiest small-town libraries in Massachusetts.