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Cohasset's Early Libraries

Robert Fraser

Reproduced, with permission, from Treasury of Cohasset History, ed. J. M. Dormitzer (Town of Cohasset, Mass., 2005), pp. 155-158.

The first known library in this town was the Social Library, founded in 1792 by a group of the more affluent of Cohasset’s businessmen, who maintained it by the purchase of shares of stock. However, its use was limited only to the proprietors and their heirs. A second, similar organization, the Washington Library, was established in 1832, which started out with seventeen dollars worth of books. This grew and prospered, but by a vote of these members on January 15, 1844, the Washington Library merged with the Social Library. The Social Library continued on, now alone, but gradually it fell into disuse.

In 1878 Rev. Joseph Osgood, pastor of the First Parish Church and superintendent of the town’s schools, feeling, as [did] many others, that the town and not a private club should furnish books on loan to the townspeople, proposed that a town library be established. Since the General Court of Massachusetts had already passed acts authorizing towns to make such moves, this matter was taken up at the next town meeting [and] approved, and a committee of five—Rev. Osgood included—was chosen to look into the matter.

They found that only 10 percent of the town’s population would use such a library, and in all fairness it would have to be supported, in part, by private donations. The next year, the town voted $300 for this library, providing that a similar amount be raised by private subscriptions. It was, and the same year, 1879, the Cohasset Free Public Library came into existence. Nine trustees . . . were appointed to administer its affairs . . .

The Cohasset Free Public Library was first placed on the lower floor of the Town Hall, which it shared with Cohasset High School. By 1882 the library had 3,000 books, with 772 persons registered to borrow them, and conditions were getting very cramped. This situation was somewhat alleviated when the Osgood School was built on Elm Street in 1891, allowing the library to expand into the old schoolrooms in the Town Hall. From the very first, however, it was hoped that the library could have its own building, and a legacy of $300, given the library in January 1898 by the will of Miss Marion Cheever, was earmarked for this purpose.

Then, on May 18, 1898, four months later, a separate library building was realized when the will of Miss Harriot Eustis Pratt was probated. Miss Pratt’s will called for the establishment and maintaining of a public library as a memorial to her father, Paul Pratt. . . Paul Pratt, himself, was born in Cohasset in 1788 . . . He lived on South Main Street and was apparently a businessman in Boston. He was also the town’s treasurer from 1837 to 1840 . . .

The trustees of the Paul Pratt Memorial Library first met on February 3, 1900 . . . [Samuel T.] Snow was elected president of this board, [James] Longley was made treasurer, and Rev. [William R.] Cole [of the First Parish Church] became the clerk. The next month this association organized as a corporation, and the trustees became directors. Taken up next was the library structure itself. Mr. and Mrs. Samuel T. Snow gave a section of their land on South Main Street for the site, this being located on the east side of a hill at the northwest corner of Jacob’s Meadow. Edward Nichols was chosen the architect, and construction began in April 1902.

Completed in December 1902, the library building [was] of yellow brick trimmed with Indiana limestone on a base and foundation of native granite. The structure, of the Colonial period [in style], [was] cruciform in plan, with the short arms being formed by the front portico with its Ionic columns and the stack room in the rear. An octagonal cupola [topped] the building, and on this [was] a weathervane with its gold mackerel reminding the townspeople that Cohasset’s fame and fortune was made by her fishing fleets, particularly the ones which went after mackerel. A clock, given by James Longley, [was] in the pediment above the front portico . . .

As the building was nearing completion, the question arose as to whether or not the Cohasset Free Public Library could be moved from the Town Hall to the new library building. Both were forbidden by their laws to surrender to the other, but when the two boards met, they simply agreed that each library group was to remain separate and administer its own, yet work together for the common good of the town. Brought forth at the town meeting in March of 1903, this was met with great approval by the townspeople . . .

The Paul Pratt Memorial Library was dedicated and opened to the public on July 13, 1903. At this time Charles Welch gave this library $3,000 for the purchase of additional books. Various bequests, grants of money, and gifts of books to one or the other library association have continued down to this day, assuring its future . . .

[By 1965] there [were] 29,343 books on file in the Paul Pratt Memorial Library building, with approximately 4,200 persons registered to borrow them. This [was] certainly a far cry from the old Social Library . . . with its sixty-four members and a handful of books, and Cohasset [could] point with pride to a public library which [was] better than many.


 From Robert Fraser, articles in the South Shore News, April 22 and 29, 1965. Reprinted by permission of the author. For more information on Cohasset’s libraries, see Bigelow, Narrative History, pp. 518-522; Pratt, Narrative History, Vol. II, pp. 35-36, 43-44; Dormitzer, Narrative History, Vol. III, pp. 94-95, 225-226, 326.

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