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History of the Rochester Public Library


"The Rochester Public Library"
Social Library 1792, Public Library 1893

"The History of the Rochester Public Library"
by Bud Scheffer

December, 1993

One hundred and one years before the start of the first Free Public Library, a Social Library was founded on the 12th of March, 1792. A small number of citizens gathered at the house of Col. John Goodwin and subscribed a paper in which they declared that "learning tended to enlarge the views and soften the tempers of humankind." They all agreed to a form a social library. Each member paid eighteen shillings (about $2.50) toward the first purchase of books. Some members, in lieu of money, contributed an equal value in books. There were twenty three paid members by the end of 1792.

Franklin McDuffee, in his book The History of Rochester stated, "Next to churches and schools, libraries are the most important factor in the education of any community." At the time the "Rochester Social Library Company" was formed, libraries were even more of a necessity than they are now. Books were scarce and costly. The great variety of daily, weekly, and monthly periodicals which we take for granted today were unknown in 1792. Family reading usually consisted on the Bible, the almanac, and a school book or two. Almost every family today has more books than could have been collected in the whole town of Rochester at that time. Only a few affluent men had personal libraries,

The first book was presented by the Reverend Joseph Haven entitled The Principles of Natural and Political Law, a highly respected work at that time. During the summer of 1792, more books were ordered and the Rev. Haven was invited to deliver an oration before the society on the first of October. In his introduction he said, "We are now assembled in order to open a Social Library in this town, and though it may be looked upon as a day of small things, our hopes are raised and we expect within reason that from a small beginning happy effects will follow. That our society will increase, our library multiply and literature so prevail that this town will rise in honor and usefulness, have better knowledge of mankind and the important doctrines of Christianity; that religious virtue and morality, and the arts and sciences will flourish."

In the following years membership grew and included the most eminent citizens of the day. It became evident that what was founded was an institution not merely for themselves, but for posterity. In 1794 the association was incorporated by the legislature and continued to maintain some degree of life and interest until 1823. At that time there were about 400 volumes in the library, however for the next eleven years it was sadly neglected. No records were kept and the books were scattered throughout the town. Interest in the library was renewed in 1834. Through the efforts of Charles Dennett and others, an act was passed giving the society a new charter.

With a new charter, new by-laws, and an active librarian the society prospered with an increasing membership and respectable yearly additions to its library. In 1892, the one hundredth year of operation, the fee for membership was $5.00 with an annual tax of $1.00. Non members could use the library for a fee of $1.50 per year. The number of volumes in 1892 was about 2200 and approximately 60 regularly used the library.

In January of 1893, a movement to establish a Free Public Library for Rochester was started by the Grange. With determination the members passed a petition throughout the city and presented it to the City Council. The Rochester Courier was also an earnest advocate for this much needed public institution.

The plan outlined was for the existing Social Library to be converted into a free public library using its 2000 or so books as a nucleus, and the city to appropriate annually a sum of money for maintenance and improvements. There would be no problem convincing the stockholders of the Social Library to surrender their shares to the city. With the acquisition of the books of the 101 year old Social Library, the city could boast of having a library as old and with as interesting a history as any in New Hampshire. Rochester had been behind the times in not having a free public library. Many neighboring towns, such as Dover, Exeter, Newmarket, and others, had already established libraries.

Within six months after presenting the petition, the city council, on June 23, 1893, adopted an ordinance providing for the establishment of a Free Public Library for the city of Rochester. They appropriated the sum of $2,000 from an unexpended balance in the city treasury. This was used to rent space and purchase books and supplies for the operation of the library.

The Hon. Orrin A. Hoyt, the new city of Rochester’s second mayor, became chairman ex-officio of the library’s newly elected Board of Trustees. These six men would manage the library’s affairs and make all decisions necessary. They would come from each of Rochester’s six wards:

Ward 1 – Josiah H. Whittier of East Rochester
Ward 2 – William W. Allen
Ward 3 – Hon. Charles S. Whitehouse of Gonic
Ward 4 – John Young
Ward 5 – Dr. James Farrington
Ward 6 – J. Edgar McDuffee

Mr. McDuffee was the first secretary of the board and chairman of the book committee. His interest and devoted labor played a large part in the success of the new project.

Dr. Farrington was a successful physician and ex-member of the Governor’s Council.

John Young succeeded McDuffee as secretary and held that position as long as he lived.

Hon. Charles S. Whitehouse, who was the city’s first mayor in 1891, never qualified as a library trustee due to his previous position as mayor. For some time Ward 3 was not represented.

William W. Allen was the principal of the high school and a respected educator.

Josiah H. Whittier was a bookkeeper in the Cocheco Mills in East Rochester, secretary of the state library commission, and an enthusiast of free public libraries. Mr. Whittier had made a study of library methods and endeavored to have a uniform system of classification and circulation for the libraries of New Hampshire. He was actively involved in promoting the use of the Dewey Decimal system in our library. This system was later adopted in many of the public libraries as well as colleges throughout the country.

After some early deliberations, the board decided to rent to second store from the north end of the Barker Block at 42 South Main St. The annual rent was $400. It would be heated by steam and lit by electricity.

The next decision of the trustees was the selection of a librarian. Twenty three applicants has applied from which they could choose, but they did a rather amazing thing. They sought out one who was not on the list of twenty three, one whose business training had fitted her for a position of responsibility, and asked her if she would accept the position. While she was considering the offer, the trustees met and elected her to the office. Again, their wisdom and vision was proven, in that this first librarian, Miss Lillian E. Parshley, continued in that capacity for the next 52 years.

On Saturday, October 21, 1893, Rochester witnessed the end of the Social Library. All volumes were returned and no more would be issued. As the new public library, the institution had entered upon a much wider and more useful career. The books were brought into the Public Library’s new quarters. These books were anywhere from one to one hundred years old. Many contributions of books, magazines and other periodicals began coming in from individuals. These all had to be sorted, cataloged and shelved. This long and tedious task was completed in January 1894. On Monday, January 22, 1894, the first free public library in Rochester opened its door to the public. It was open Monday, Wednesday and Saturday afternoons and evenings. Forty cards were issued on the first day. The rush of patronage on the part of the people exceeded the anticipation of all concerned with this new enterprise. Two things were at once apparent, namely that there had been a crying need for such an institution and there was a need of sufficient funding to keep it growing and improving.

At the end of 1894, there were 3,240 volumes in the library and it remained and grew at that location for the next three years. On August 4, 1896, the city passed a resolution to purchase the John McDuffee lot on Wakefield Street for $12,000, which included a residence and other buildings. It was purchased on the condition that no city hall building would be built on the lot for a period of ten years. Sixteen hundred dollars was then appropriated to make the old McDuffee house suitable for city offices and a library. In January of 1897, the library moved into its new quarters on the second floor of the city buildings. The library continued to grow at this location for a little over eight and a half years until it closed on September 9, 1905.

Mr. O. B. Warren, Rochester’s postmaster, in 1902 or 1903, started a correspondence with Andrew Carnegie of New York, in an effort to interest him in building a library building for Rochester. Mr. Warren mentioned that our town was settled in part by Scottish immigrants. On December 25, 1903, an announcement was made on the front page of the Rochester Courier that a check for $17,500 (later changed to $20,000) would be sent to Rochester from Mr. Carnegie. The city was required was required to provide a lot and at least $2,000 for maintenance annually. The efforts of Postmaster Warren were responsible for the splendid Christmas present received by the city. The lot provided was already city owned. It was on South Main Street and formally the location of the first Rochester High School built in 1857, which had become obsolete. After completion of the new library in the spring of 1905, money was appropriated for the furnishings and the grading of the surrounding grounds as well as new sidewalks. The building was a beautiful Georgian Revival style structure that became an asset to the city and still remains a landmark in Rochester. It was built of red brick with a granite base and white brick trimming, copper cornices, copper finials and a slate roof. The first floor contained a general as well as a children’s reading room, the librarian’s room, a stack room, a reference room and a delivery room. On the second floor were a lecture room (Carnegie Hall) with a seating capacity of one hundred, a historical room, a trustee’s room and an art gallery. In the basement, there was a newspaper room, a janitor’s room, an unpacking room, a stack room and two bathrooms. The first floor was finished in oak and the second floor and basement in cypress. Birch floors were installed throughout. The building was equipped with electric lights and steam heat. There were fireplaces in both reading rooms.

The building was completed within the specified sum of $20,000, leaving an unexpected balance of $22.92 to its credit. The architects were Randlett and Griffin of Concord, N.H. and the contractor was Kelly Brothers of Haverhill, Massachusetts. It was turned over to the Library Board of Trustees on October 2, 1905by Mayor C. W. Bickford and opened to the public.

Main Desk – 1905

Lillian Parshley, principal executive officer, then spent forty more years at this library. She was an exceptionally able and dedicated librarian who operated and improved the services and facilities throughout the years. Under her direction, the library grew from a mere dispenser of books into a diverse, living institution, adequately meeting the needs of the community. Miss Parshley was instrumental in proving that the existing building had to be expanded. In 1941, an addition was added to the rear of the building. This included a second floor museum, a first floor stack room and a basement room for additional newspapers and periodicals. This room was named the "Courier Room" as the Rochester Courier played an important part in the founding and development of the library.

Entrance Hall – 1905

Lillian Parshley served as Librarian from its founding until her death on January 15, 1945. She was deservedly honored by the city for guiding the library from one of 2400 books to one of over 40,000 books, making it one of the finest in the state.

Lillian E. Parshley

Under the capable leadership of the following librarians, Rochester’s public library has continued to improve and grow:

1893-1945 - Lillian E. Parshley 1945-1954 - E. Velma Foss 1954-1970 - M. Felice Baril 1970-1973 - Barbara R. King 1973-1975 - Sheldon Kaye 1975-1989 - Roberta H. Ryan 1989-1992 - Tedine J. Roos 1992-xxxx - Cynthia L. Scott*

(at the time this document was published in 1993)

Many residents visit the library daily to read a large variety if newspapers and magazines. Children are introduced to library facilities through their own attractively decorated reading room and children’s story hours. Video tapes, records, and audio cassettes, etc. are also available as a library privilege to those who wish to borrow them. The New Hampshire Room, McDuffee Room, and the reference and reading rooms are widely used by students, historians and genealogists.

Today, in its 100th year, the Rochester Public Library can boast more than 55,000 books, over 11,000 members, and it is still growing. In 1905, there were 10,000 books and 876 members. That’s a 450% increase in books and a whopping 1150% increase in membership since this library building opened.

Congratulations to Rochester on the one hundredth birthday of its public library, and may it grow and prosper for the next hundred.

Taken from Bud Scheffer’s History of the Rochester Public Library as celebrated on the one hundredth anniversary of its opening on January 22, 1994.


(Click on image to view report.)

Rochester Public Library List of Directors:

1893-1945 - Lillian E. Parshley 1945-1954 - E. Velma Foss 1954-1970 - M. Felice Baril 1970-1973 - Barbara R. King 1973-1975 - Sheldon Kaye 1975-1989 - Roberta H. Ryan 1989-1992 - Tedine J. Roos 1992-1999 - Cynthia L. Scott 1999-2000 - Ruth Hooten 2000-2002 - Cynthia L. Scott 2002-2012 - John Fuchs
2012-Present - Brian Sylvester





            All libraries are in the midst of a historic transition.  The accelerating popularity of books in electronic format, downloaded through library web sites, whether to a portable e-reader device or to a portable audio device, continues unabated.  In FY 2011, the total number of these downloads increased 38%, from 3,389 to 4,676.  Increases of even greater amounts will no doubt be experienced in the upcoming fiscal years.   


            Despite this impressive growth of e-book circulation, downloads still account for a tiny portion of total circulation: 2%.  The other 98% of total circulation remains in print books and magazines, DVDs and music CDs, and books on CD, even videotapes.  The historic trend to electronic downloads as the preferred format is clear, but print books will be with us throughout our lifetimes.  The long term future of DVDs and other disc formats, however popular they remain today, is unknown but appears a little murkier.


            Rochester Public Library continues as a success story with overall annual circulation again reaching another record setting level.  In FY 2011, a year that found many libraries struggling to increase circulation, RPL circulation rose 2% to a new high of 276,781 items.  In addition, the Library’s non-circulating resources and services were used to an even greater extent.  For instance, the Library’s web site, a portal to thousands of magazine and journal articles, many being full text, was accessed by our residents at high use levels throughout the year.  There were 78,636 RPL web site visits and our subscription databases were searched 21,623 times through our web site in FY 2011.


            Our public Internet PCs, located in the library, were again heavily used during this fiscal year, with 12,985 users.  Laptop users with the Library taking advantage of our Wi-Fi connection totaled 9,335, a 14% increase from last year.  During the year, Library Systems Technician Kern Mann expanded Wi-Fi coverage to nearly all of the building.  


            While the transition to an online world is an ongoing and irrefutable trend,  the Library, despite these challenges, showed increases from last year in the number of print books circulated in all three major categories of books: for adults, for children, and for teens.  This continued growth in annual book circulation is heartening and noteworthy.


            Circulation Services Supervisor Peggy Trout and her “main desk” staff utilized good selection decisions and effective display and marketing techniques to help make the circulation increases possible within the adult area, for print fiction and for DVDs.  One of those staff members, Katherine Parker-Wright, was named the City’s Employee of the Month in December for her admirable skills and high level of accomplishment.  


            Our Children’s Department continued to reach out to thousands of local children.  The RPL Summer Reading Program attracted 381 children, who read 5,736 books while participating.  At the end of the program, 165 children converged on the grassy area behind the library building for a fun experience at the annual “end of program” party.

            Last October, children’s librarians from throughout the state gathered again in the Rochester area for the annual fall conference of the children’s librarian section of the New Hampshire Library Association.  This was the third time in recent years Rochester Public Library and our Children’s Services Supervisor Marie Lejeune and her staff have organized and hosted this popular and successful event for New Hampshire librarians.  


            For adults, our film programs throughout the year continued to attract a devoted following.  Our summer movie matinee series began in July with such classics as Pride and Prejudice and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.  In May, our always popular 29th annual library photography show, organized by References Services Supervisor Beth Nerbonne and judged by professional photographers Barry Nation, Thom Hindle, and Warren Merrill, attracted 135 entries.  An audience of 75 photographers and family members attended the annual reception which begins the month long exhibit each year.


            Reference Services programs presented during the year also included ones to assist residents in developing effective resume writing and job interview skills, another to foster “supermarket savvy”, made possible through a partnership with the University of New Hampshire’s Cooperative Extension, and a Rochester Poet Laureate workshop.


            Works of local artists were again on display in the library’s main floor exhibit area during each month of the year, including, in February, an exhibit of the mixed media works of library staff member Kathy Mallat, an artist and author of children’s books.


            In December, 49 children participated in the Children’s Department’s Make It and Take It craft program, creating holiday ornaments, and, in March, 40 children did button flowers.  Other children’s programs, such as the popular story times, were held all year.        


            As the fiscal year came to an end, our annual summer reading program for teens was again in progress, as Young Adult Services Supervisor Donna Hynes developed and coordinated the reading logs, activities, and prizes.


Throughout the year, the Library conducts a daily book sale.  In addition, our annual book sale in October is also successful in generating additional funds for book purchases.  Members of the Library Trustees and Friends of the Rochester Public Library and other volunteers assisted library staff members in the annual sale setup and operation.


The library’s success in increasing circulation this fiscal year is made possible by the tireless and effective efforts of our dedicated and skilled staff members, including the professional expertise of Technical Services Supervisor Rindy Howard and her able staff, and the work of Library Secretary Patty Hardie.  Without the work of our valued staff, supported by Library Trustees, Friends of the Library, City Council, other government officials, and our library patrons and residents, none of this would have been possible.      


Respectfully submitted,

John Fuchs

Library Director



Book Collection 89,013
eBook Collection 5,159
Movie Collection 9,000
Audio Collection 13,343
Magazine and Newspaper Subscriptions 201


Public Service Hours 2,971
Borrowers Registered 30,368
Total Circulation 276,781
Reference Questions 15,522
     Programs 241
     Attendance 6,677
Library Visitors 149,554
Library Virtual Visits 78,636



As of July 1st, 2011 the library has 29,512 active library cardholders.  From July 1st, 2010 through June 30th, 2011, the library issued 1,936 new library cards.  This is after a 6% increase in the number of library cardholders the previous year.

Library Patrons Borrowed 276,781 Items in fiscal year 2011:

This is an increase of 2% over last year!  This also means, considering these items were also checked back in, library staff scanned over a half million barcodes last year.  This is the highest circulation in the history of the Rochester Public Library!

Visits to Library Web Site:

The library’s web site saw 78,636 visitors in fiscal year 2011, and over a quarter of a million page views.  People use the web site to look for items in the library catalog, to place holds, to check their record to see what they have borrowed, to get information about the library, and to access the library's online databases.

From July 1st, 2010 through June 30th, 2011:
  • Patrons signed in to use the library's Internet terminals 12,985 times.
  • The library's Internet terminals were in use 70% of the time they were available.
  • The library’s wireless hotspot logged 9,335 sessions.
    • This is an increase of 13% over last year!
  • Subscription databases provided to library patrons were searched 21,623 times.
    • This is an increase than 14%, AND after last year’s increase of 60%!
  • Visitors to the library numbered 149,554.
    • This is about 554 patrons per day.
  • Public Service Hours for the period: 2,971
    • Library visitors per hour: 55
    • Items circulated per hour: 92
    • Library staff checked out, on average, 1.5 items per minute!

A Digital History of the Rochester Public Library

Researched and compiled by:
Darcy Coffta

April 2006
Also see a virtual tour of the Rochester Public Library
The Rochester Public Library is located at 65 S. Main St. Hours are Monday through Thursday 9:00 A.M. to 8:30 P.M., Friday 9:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. For additional information, call 603.332.1428. For directions to RPL, click here.